Josh Hamilton on coming home
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The News & Observer on April 28, 2017. Josh Hamilton, who’s now 38, is scheduled to be inducted into the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Josh Hamilton, who mesmerized the baseball world by battling his demons to become one of the best players in Major League Baseball, will make about $28 million this season.
But he may never again swing a bat in a big-league game.
Hamilton, 35, who last played for the Texas Rangers in 2015 and is still being paid as part of a $125 million contract he signed four years ago with the Los Angeles Angels, was released by the Texas Rangers on April 21. He had hoped for a comeback with the Rangers this spring but knee injuries derailed him.
If this is the end of the Raleigh native’s baseball career, it will be one worth remembering.
That he ever played in the Major Leagues was improbable. Despite talent that made him the first player taken in the 1999 MLB draft, alcohol and drug problems derailed him, keeping Hamilton out of baseball for years.
He would find his way to the big leagues, becoming an All-Star, but would always battle the seeds of addiction that nearly ended his career before it could begin.
Hamilton had been blessed genetically and had put in the work. He was 6-4, weighed about 240 pounds, and he could move his size 19 shoes with the speed of a much smaller man. He could throw a baseball faster than 95 miles per hour and he routinely hit baseballs more than 400 feet.
Hamilton was a phenom coming out of high school. He hit .636 as a junior with 12 home runs and 56 RBIs. He also was 11-2 as a pitcher with 159 strikeouts in 87 innings as Athens Drive advanced to the state finals. He saw fewer pitches as a senior, but still hit .529.
I was at his house on the day of the MLB draft in 1999. His parents had erected a tent in the yard to provide a little shade for the media members waiting to see if Hamilton would be the first player taken. His father, Tony, paced around the yard, his head down, deep in thought. This was the day he and his wife Linda had dreamed about.
A red clay dirt ribbon ran from Hamilton’s back door to a batting tee at the bottom of the hill. The ratty netting, the bare ground and the cleared space among the 100-year-old trees testified to the hours he had spent swinging a baseball bat like few people in the world could, or ever would.
He could have become a millionaire as a left-handed pitcher, but the professional scouts said he was a better prospect as an outfielder. Hamilton was taken first in the draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and within a few days signed a $3.9 million contract.
Two years before, Hamilton had traveled to Durham Athletic Park and donned a throwback uniform for a News & Observer special section that was tagged, “The Natural.” The parallels between the fictional Roy Hobbs character in the “The Natural” and Hamilton were not apparent on draft day, but the similarities would become haunting later.
The fictional Hobbs, whose career was short-circuited by tragedy before making a dramatic comeback, did not have as much to overcome as Hamilton.
Hamilton could be disarmingly frank and his confessions for misdeeds were tear-inducing and earnest. He once told me that he thought I was out to get him, but quickly added that was because his mind was so muddled.
He was in many ways a Shakespearean hero, so much good overwhelmed by a serious flaw. I have written stories about him since his sophomore year in high school, stories of inspiring feats and heart-breaking frailties. Attempts to talk to Hamilton for this story were unsuccessful.
‘I go home and hit’
Joshua Holt Hamilton, his middle name taken from his grandmother who lived next door, had been groomed for greatness.
He was too good for his peers from an early age. Hamilton would go to the ball field every day since he was a wee one, hoping some team wouldn’t have enough players, which would give him a chance to play.
He was The N&O baseball player of the year as a junior when he led Athens Drive High to the state 4A baseball championship series. He was profiled in a series of stories about what some of the area’s top athletes were going to do during the summer.
His answer was simple: he was going to play baseball.
In May 1998, Hamilton planned to go to the baseball complex at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla. He had made the journey nine or 10 times. Asked to name his favorite ride at the nearby Magic Kingdom, Hamilton said he had never set foot in the park. His baseball trips to Florida were business and his business was baseball.
What did he do when he finished playing a baseball game? “I go home and hit,” he said.
Hambone and Big Ash
Hamilton could be wonderfully personable and refreshing. He was as likely to tell you about striking out with the bases loaded – “That’s baseball. It happens. Don’t be surprised” – as he was to talk about any of his exploits.
His heart was huge.
Hamilton befriended another student at Athens Drive, Ashley Pittman, who had special needs.
Pittman, a manager on the Athens team, was upset after the Jaguars lost in the state finals. He went to the bus alone.
Hamilton left his other friends to find Pittman and sit with him. Hamilton let him know everything was going to be all right. It was just a baseball game. You don’t always win.
To be around the two of them was to see two hearts linked. Pittman’s face lit up when he saw Hamilton, and Hamilton always had a huge grin when Pittman would yell, “Hambone.” Hamilton would shout, “Big Ash.”
What did you call him? Hamilton was asked one day. “Big Ash,” Hamilton said before a giggle turned into a guffaw. “What did you think I said?” A pointed finger and more laughter.
Perhaps the moment that changed Hamilton’s life was a car wreck in February 2001 in Bradenton, Fla., close to the Tampa Bay headquarters where he lived. A truck ran a red light and crashed into the truck in which Hamilton and his parents were riding.
His parents, who had followed him every step of his baseball career, returned home to recover. Hamilton stayed in Florida, unable to play baseball as he waited for his injured back to heal.
Without baseball and without his parents, he was a sheep without a shepherd. He eventually found companionship in a tattoo shop. His body was soon covered with 26 tattoos.
We met at a Bojangles’ in the offseason, and I couldn’t believe the size and number of tattoos he had gotten. “Do they wash off?” I naively asked.
“I wouldn’t have them if they did,” he said.
The tattoos were an external sign of an internal change. A crippling dependency had entered his life. He had become an addict.
Hamilton would never be the same person no matter how hard he tried.
Years later, he told me he took his first drink of alcohol and used cocaine for the first time within a couple of hours of each other.
He did not understand the gravity of his cocaine use. A Tampa sports psychologist had him in for a routine interview and asked him how he was handling the back injury mentally. Hamilton casually mentioned that he had started using cocaine, never suspecting what was ahead. The team had him in a rehab center within days. He left the facility before the treatment was complete.
He later explained his addiction to me.
“There is a little guy that lives right here,” he said, pointing to his forehead. “That’s the guy that tells you to not use drugs. When I take my first drink, that little guy leaves. I’ve never used drugs without having a drink first.”
Hamilton would never fully escape his battle with alcoholism and drug addictions.
‘I still want a beer’
Hamilton repeatedly failed baseball drug tests, was in and out of drug rehabilitation centers. He was suspended from baseball from February 2004 through June 2006 for issues related to cocaine and alcohol addiction. Much of the money from his original contract was gone.
He was at the bottom when his life changed again. He believed Jesus saved him.
Hamilton married Katie Chadwick during a period of sobriety in 2004 and was living in Holly Springs. He was happy. But his demons still lurked.
Hamilton said he had a wonderful wife, two marvelous children, a great family and there was a chance that he might be able to get back into baseball.
“But there is a little store up at the turn,” he said in his backyard, where he had been tossing a baseball with his daughter. “I know that if I go in there and get a beer, I could lose everything. Lose everything. It would all be gone. My family. My girls. My health. Possibly a chance to play baseball again.
“But I still want a beer.”
He gave in to the temptations and descended into a hellish nightmare of drug abuse. He came close to dying several times.
But in 2005, his grandmother, Mary Holt, was able to do something that no rehab center had achieved. Her unwavering support helped Hamilton turn his life around. The restoration that was an inspiration to many was the subject of his book, “Beyond Belief, Finding the Strength to Come Back.”
Josh’s grandmother took him in, prayed with him and talked to him. She somehow reached him when no one else could. She also told him that it was time for him to be accountable for his decisions and not blame them on anyone or anything else.
In 2006 he finally made his Major League debut, with the Cincinnati Reds. Jerry Narron was the Reds’ manager, and he asked his brother, Johnny Narron, to be Hamilton’s “accountability partner.” Hamilton carried no cash, no credit card. Johnny Narron was his shadow. Somehow, the years of drug abuse had not robbed Hamilton of his abilities.
Hamilton was at last a successful big league player.
‘I had asked Clay’
Hamilton never played on a team coached by Clay Council, but was coached by Cary’s Council, nevertheless. Council’s love of baseball was matched by Hamilton. Council, a former minor league catcher who had coached teams in Cary and Raleigh for decades, had a desire to help young baseball players that was matched by Hamilton’s unending desire to get better.
Throughout Hamilton’s odyssey, Council was a constant. He was always available to throw a few rounds of batting practice.
Hamilton once told Council, “When I’m in the All-Star Game and I’m in the home run contest, I want you to throw to me.”
“Yeah, right,” Council said.
Council may have forgotten the chatter, Hamilton did not.
At the age of 77, Council took the mound in the 2008 All-Star Game home run derby at Yankee Stadium to throw pitches in Hamilton’s sweet spot just like he had hundreds of times before. Hamilton hit a record 28 home runs in the first round.
Hamilton’s reason for inviting Council instead of using any of his usual Ranger batting practice pitchers was simple.
“I had asked Clay long ago.”
Money won’t make you happy
Hamilton was an all-star in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. In 2010, he hit .359, pounded 32 home runs and drove in 100 runs. He was the American League most valuable player.
He led the Rangers to the World Series in 2010 and 2011. They lost both times.
In Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Hamilton hit a towering 10th inning home run that could have given the Rangers the title. The homer gave Texas a 9-7 lead, and the Rangers were twice one strike away from victory. But the St. Louis Cardinals tied the score in the bottom half of the inning and won in the 11th. St. Louis won the series in seven games.
Hamilton’s salary had risen steadily, going from $380,000 to $396,830 to $555,000 before leaping to $3,250,000 in 2010 and $8,750,000 in 2011. He made $13,750,000 in 2012 in his last year as a Ranger.
Katie Hamilton, Josh’s wife, said her husband seldom talked about or thought about money. Josh wanted the family to be financially secure and he wanted to make an impact with charitable giving.
“But Josh knows that money can’t make him happy,” Katie Hamilton said. “Josh was a millionaire and had more money than he knew what to do with coming right out of high school. But he was completely miserable. He wanted to die. He was at the bottom.
“If there is anybody in the world who knows that money can’t buy you happiness, it is Josh.”
‘I abused my body’
Hamilton has had 11 knee surgeries and other injuries to shoulders, elbows and assorted body parts. He’ll soon have another surgery, on his injured right knee.
He played with a fearlessness that betrayed the frailties of his body. He believed that he also was more susceptible to illness and injury because of his years abusing his body.
“The things I put into my body, the things I did to my body. They had to be bad for my body,” he said one time. “I abused my body. I abused it badly. I think I’ll pay for that the rest of my life.”
I am disappointed, but not discouraged
Hamilton’s quest to return to the Rangers this spring ended with the latest of his injuries. He was taking some practice swings in Houston when his right knee failed him.
Hamilton, still 6-4 and 240 pounds, the phenom who seemed to defy the laws of physics by running so fast, jumping so high and hitting baseballs so far, is only human.
“I am disappointed but not discouraged that my knee problems have not allowed me to play this season,” Hamilton said in a statement. “I plan to have surgery on my right knee and then evaluate the situation. I want to thank the Rangers and all of the great fans for the support and encouragement. I really appreciate it.”
Hamilton has had several relapses, the most recent in 2015. He filed for divorce from Katie Hamilton around the time of his most recent return to substance abuse.
If he never plays again, Hamilton, frailties and all, will leave the game after an admirable career.
He played nine years and had a .290 career batting average. He hit 200 home runs and drove in 701 runs. He was a five-time all-star and was among the top 10 in the MVP balloting three times. .
The end seems to have come for Hamilton. Another comeback seems an insurmountable task.
But after writing about him for almost 20 years, I’ve learned to never underestimate him. Maybe Hamilton’s time as a player has come to an end. Or perhaps there is one more comeback. After all he has overcome and all the obstacles he still faces, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Josh Hamilton in the Major Leagues
Tim Stevens covered high school sports for almost 50 years, first for the Raleigh Times, then for The News & Observer.