The Rose and Thorns of Josh Hamilton’s Baseball Life

The whispers must be the worst part.

Of course, an addict experiences far more troubling and damaging things than the nasty buzz of disapproving tongues. Lives are often jeopardized, essential relationships ruined, and prison a possibility. However, no matter what an addict does to move past the addiction, to finally understand that the only choice left is to fight to separate from the drugs or follow the addiction to the grave; no matter how much an addict repairs the damage the addiction has caused or how much time has passed since the worst of it, the whispers remain – an unshakeable legacy of past sins.

More difficult still is to be a public figure carrying such a legacy.

Just ask Josh Hamiltion.

Hamilton, a five-time All Star and 2010 American League MVP, is one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars. He is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. And the whispers have followed him every step of the way throughout his big league career.

Of course, the hard truth is that it is impossible to separate Hamilton’s tumultuous battle with addiction from his similarly dizzying baseball career. The two have become intertwined over the years like a great big rose atop a gnarled stem studded with thorns jagged enough to rip most anything to pieces.

But before that bittersweet dichotomy controlled his universe, he was an unwrinkled sheet of athletic potential – crisp, clean, and awaiting definition.

In 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Hamilton, an 18-year-old high school outfielder from North Carolina, the first overall selection in that year’s Major League amateur draft. Nicknamed “Hammer,” he could throw a ball nearly 100 miles per hour but swung the bat with such natural fury that his future as a hitter easily trumped his considerable pitching promise.

A year later, he confirmed the choice by displaying such enviable power and speed at Tampa’s minor league affiliate in Charleston that USA Today named him The Minor League Player of the Year for 2000.

In 2001, Hamilton was primed to become the game’s next big thing, a 20-year-old phenom who hit prodigious home runs with as much ease as he tore around the bases. However, fate and Hamilton’s own demons intervened, sweeping his considerable promise wildly off-course.

On the way to their Spring Training home in Sarasota, Hamilton and his parents were blindsided by a dump truck that sped through a red light and roared into the their SUV. Although Hamilton escaped major injury, he hurt his back seriously enough to limit his playing time that season to just 43 games.

As it turned out, being away from the baseball diamond was the one of the worst things that could have happened to him that year. Still flush with the bonus money he received from his lofty draft status and untethered from the discipline of the game while he nursed his injured back, Hamilton was seduced – slowly, at first – by the thin, dark fingers of illicit indulgence.

He chased the very first drink of alcohol he’d ever had in his life with a line of cocaine. The ensuing dalliance led to guilt, which in turn, led to a stint in rehab – the first of eight such attempts he would eventually try. But the more playing time he missed the easier it was for him to retreat into the haze of cocaine and booze.

By 2003, he had surrendered his baseball future for the bottle and the baggy. His drinking and coke binging had grown to such opulence that there was little room for much else, let alone the painstaking training regimen of a professional athlete. So, after failing a drug test given by Major League Baseball, he simply refused to take any more of them and was suspended from the league indefinitely.

By most measures, his story – at least his story as a public figure – should have ended there, a failed phenom who allowed the visceral temptation of the shadows to hasten his self-destruction.

But it didn’t.

Instead, he fell even further – disintegrating into rampant crack cocaine abuse – before he was saved, by his grandmother and his faith. Late in 2005, Hamilton showed up at his grandmother Mary’s house, financially broke and spiritually broken. And she took him in, demanding only that he not break her heart anymore.

With a newfound respect for religion and the tough love of family, Hamilton slowly made his way back from the edge of the abyss. Although baseball was hardly on his immediate radar, his natural ability for the game had survived his recklessness. While he tried to repair the more important and personal things he’d managed to disassemble, he still dreamt of a return to the sport one day because he knew he still had the instincts and reflexes of a ballplayer. The drugs hadn’t taken that.

After more than a year of sobriety, endless hours of retraining his body to play again, and a successful trial in the low minors, he was reinstated by Major League Baseball in 2007. Tampa understandably no longer had the stomach to take any more chances on him and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds.

At the age of 26, eight years after he was chosen as the first pick in all of baseball, Josh Hamilton finally made his big league debut and quickly showed why so many had such buoyant hopes for him years before. In 90 games with the Reds, he hit .292 with 19 home runs and played defensive with the easy, loping strides that had impressed all of those scouts before his life went haywire.

Hamilton was finally back on the baseball map, but the whispers of his drug-addicted past lingered. Perhaps wanting to take advantage of his newfound value and not wanting to risk losing him to a relapse, Cincinnati traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for a pair of promising young pitchers – without any baggage from their pasts.

With the Rangers, Hamilton was spectacular. In 2008, his first year with the club, he made the All-Star team. And as part of the All-Star Game festivities at New York’s Yankee Stadium – one of the great cathedrals of the game – Hamilton launched 35 home runs in the Home Run Derby contest, a record for the event. For the year, he hit .304 and led the American League in RBI’s with 139.

However, he missed 62 games in 2009 with an assortment of injuries. Worse still, it was revealed that he had briefly relapsed with alcohol earlier in the year, publicly binging at an Arizona bar one night. There were anonymous rumblings that another descent could be waiting to happen. After all, addicts are forever just a bad moment or two away from giving away all of the progress they have made.

Instead, Hamilton thrived in 2010. He led the league in batting with a .359 average, hit 32 homers, won the American League MVP, and carried the Rangers to their first World Series appearance in franchise history. The rumors of his demise, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.

The following season, he again played a key role in leading Texas back into the World Series but missed another 41 games during the regular season due to injury. This time, the whispers hinted at his fragility. Perhaps, the past drug and alcohol abuse had taken such a physical toll that he would always be vulnerable to his body breaking down during the long season.

However, he seemed to answer his murmuring critics again by playing in 148 games in 2012 and swatting 43 home runs for the Rangers, who made the post season for the third year in a row. Yet, Hamilton’s thorny past haunted him when news of another alcohol-related evening of relapse during the season went public.

So, despite, a batting crown, a league MVP award, five straight All-Star appearances, and key roles on three playoff teams, Hamilton became a free agent after the 2012 season and is not expected to receive an offer from the Rangers.

Ordinarily, a player of Hamilton’s ability, accomplishments, and age – he turned 31 in May – would be welcomed back by his current team, in the form of a long-term, big money contract. However, Hamilton and his baseball journey are not in the least bit ordinary.

So, as speculation swirls as to where Josh Hamilton will wind up for the upcoming season, discrete mention of his “off the field” issues invariably play a significant part in the discussion.

Those whispers do, indeed, remain – no matter how long or how far an addict has come from a troubled past.




The Iron Horse and Lesser Men

He knew he was dying.

And all of the eyes that followed him on that still, sweltering summer afternoon in the South Bronx were wide-eyed with anxiety and sadness. It was one of the only times that Yankee Stadium fell absolutely silent on a day the home team was in town.

However, few – if any – of the nervous people in the ballpark had any idea of the horrible secret Lou Gehrig held inside. All they knew was that the beloved first baseman, one of the greatest and most powerful players to ever take the field, had a big announcement to make and it wasn’t good news.

Only Gehrig knew the full extent of the awful contents of the physician’s report from the Mayo Clinic – the grim diagnosis of an untreatable disease he could barely pronounce, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and the hard reality of the outcome. He had two-to-five years to live, and most of those would be progressively hellish. He was 36 years old and had little reason to believe that he would ever turn 40.

Still, when it came time for him to publicly ponder the situation, he said something remarkable. He said he felt lucky. In fact, in that moment – the moment his heart was shattering into a million pieces – he said he felt like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And Gehrig made this extraordinary confession in front of 60,000 people – a dying man giving hope and inspiration to the healthy.

Indeed, he acknowledged them all – those who had cheered him so avidly, his comrades on the field, and mostly his beloved wife, Eleanor.

“I…have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men [alluding to his teammates]. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky… When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.”

He acknowledged everything except his own amazing achievements in the game and the overwhelming burden he now carried with his body on the brink of failing him.

On that day – July 4, 1939 – Gehrig said goodbye to baseball, his heartbroken fans, and the only professional life he had ever known. Yet, he withheld the very worst of it, because he knew that the loss of his career was enough bad news for the day. No reason to turn a retirement speech into a wake. And it had been quite a career.

For 14 seasons, he had powered the seemingly invincible New York Yankees, playing with a brilliant fury that produced Hall of Fame numbers and six World Series titles. But he did so mostly from the shadows.

Up until 1934, Babe Ruth had dominated New York’s headlines and the Yankee clubhouse. In fact, Ruth’s personality – his sheer bravado – steamrolled everything in its way.

Of course, all of that bluster suited the introspective Gehrig just fine. The Babe could have as much of the spotlight as he wanted – and he wanted plenty – because it allowed Ruth’s shy but equally brilliant teammate to play the game in relative peace.

Together, Ruth and Gehrig demolished American League pitching as no tandem ever had or likely ever will. Their dual percussion was relentless, reaching a crescendo in 1927 when they led New York to 110 wins and a World Series sweep. Between them, the pair combined to hit .365 with 107 home runs and 339 RBI’s.

However, aside from the complementary nature of their extraordinary talent at the plate, they were polar opposites in virtually every other respect. There was, of course, the aforementioned disparity in their personalities. But there was much more.

Physically, they were nearly cartoonish in their differences. Ruth was plumpish – almost dirigible-shaped – with only the slightest hint of athleticism, as if he’d had plenty of it once but that it had dulled and rounded into a distant memory. Gehrig, on the other hand, was chiseled – as if from a block of granite – handsomely muscled with a physique that guided his every move with power and grace.

Gehrig even had the rugged good looks of a leading man, while Ruth displayed the weathered features of a celluloid heavy.

However, it was Ruth who lived like a movie star, big and loud and publicly loved. Meanwhile, Gehrig sought quieter spaces, reveling in the arts and education.

In fact, had it not been for the Yankees’ deep pockets, the quick swoon of a veteran talent scout, and Gehrig’s own undeniable love of the game, he would have finished his coursework at Columbia and likely disappeared into academia with his Ivy League diploma as his beacon.

But baseball – and fate – won out. Yankee scout Paul Krichell saw Gehrig play two games on campus, hit three home runs, and pitch a complete game victory.

A weighty contract offer followed, and the Renaissance man exchanged his ivory tower for a rogue’s gallery, accepting the inevitable incongruity of a college man placed in the midst of largely unsophisticated athletic savants.

And there was no bigger rogue than his antithesis, Ruth. While his portly teammate embraced vice with the vigor and tenacity of, well, a vise, the public couldn’t help itself and was drawn to Ruth’s boisterous charisma with Newtonian pull. It was the Roaring 20’s, and the Babe bellowed louder than anyone. His appetite for Prohibition-defying liquor, non-matrimonial dalliance, and culinary excess appeared insatiable.

To his credit, Ruth also walked the walk on the diamond. His game was as massive as his personal life. He hit home runs with such frequency and impressive longitude that the game’s record book became more like a diary than an open tome.

While Gehrig’s drives lacked some of the rapidity and booming arc of Ruth’s, he outdid his more celebrated teammate in two noteworthy areas of the game.

In the ten seasons they played together, Gehrig bested Ruth in runs batted in six times. In fact, Gehrig led all of baseball in the category on four of those occasions. His staggering total of 184 in 1931 remains an American League record. That reliability and dependable success organically led to his enduring legacy in the sport.

For 13 years, he played every single game of each season, eventually setting a Major League record by appearing in 2,130 consecutive contests.

His relentless consistency earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse,” an endearing tribute to his unmovable presence on the field. More than that, he became the rock at the center of the game’s most famous franchise.

By the time an aging Ruth left New York for a final gasping season with the Boston Braves in 1935, Gehrig had come to embody the highest aspirations of athletic character. It wasn’t enough to merely excel on the field.  Success only had value if it was accompanied by selfless effort and humility. And in his own quiet way, he eventually garnered public adoration and the affection of his teammates through admiration of character rather than infatuation with caricature.

And there was no greater test of that character than in the months leading up to the day he said goodbye in the summer of 1939.

The prior season had been atypically difficult for him. His renowned power hadn’t merely ebbed.  At times, it disappeared altogether. He also had disconcerting episodes of clumsiness and confusion. The slow fade of athletic aging – he turned 35 that June – was one thing; sporadic physical failure quite another. For the first time since his rookie year, he failed to hit .300 and finished with one of the lowest RBI totals of his brilliant career. Still, by most ordinary standards, he had a largely successful year – just not one on par with Gehrig’s remarkable vintage.

Something was wrong, but no one quite knew what.

At the start of the 1939 season, it all came to a stunning halt. His physical deterioration accelerated to the point where he could barely perform the most menial baseball duties. The one thing indispensable to a player – his hand/eye coordination – was almost entirely bereft. Although Gehrig’s considerable athletic gifts had evaporated seemingly without reason, he accepted the loss with characteristic grace.

After a string of 2,130 interlocking Major League games on the field, he removed himself from the lineup voluntarily largely because he felt responsible for letting his teammates down with his substandard play.

Two months later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic discovered the devastating reason for his physical erosion. He had contracted a rare, degenerative – and fatal – nerve disease that came with the unusually cruel caveat of utterly destroying nerve and muscle function but leaving mental capacity fully intact. His brain would stay fit while his body died all around it.

Yet, Gehrig was still able to stand in front of tens of thousands and talk about his good fortune amidst being on the edge of a horrific fall into pain and helplessness.

Through it all, Eleanor was there for him. True to their vows, she had shared the glorious days of the better and bravely supported him through the very worst. Sometimes, even an Iron Horse cannot shoulder it all alone. For Gehirg, the renowned rock of the New York Yankees, Eleanor was his rock.

Although it was Gehrig who had to endure the awful physical toll of his disease, Eleanor had to withstand the emotional cost, bearing witness to his agonizing slide without being able to do anything to stop it. She could only comfort him as it continued to worsen, all the while having to swallow her own grief as she displayed her strength for him.

Less than two years after he stepped off of the baseball field for good, Lou Gehrig died – just days before his 38th birthday.

As an extraordinary postscript to this awful ending, ALS typically has a three-to-five year cycle from symptom onset to fatality. In Gehrig’s case, his eventual timetable likely meant that he played at least a full season or two while he was dying of a disease that attacked the primary skills he needed to compete. Not only did he play, he excelled nearly to the very end. And he played every game without let up, earning every bit of his unyielding metallic nickname.

Fittingly, he was buried in Valhalla, New York – named after the mythological Norse hall to honor fallen warriors. Unquestionably, the exemplary manner in which he handled the twists and turns of his life made such a final resting place all the more appropriate.