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Hamilton's journey

Former No. 1 pick makes most of belated opportunity

Posted: Thursday June 21, 2007 1:46PM; Updated: Thursday June 21, 2007 3:19PM
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It's been a long road to the Cincinnati lineup for 26-year-old rookie Josh Hamilton.
It's been a long road to the Cincinnati lineup for 26-year-old rookie Josh Hamilton.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
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CINCINNATI -- The cap comes off, the hand runs through a thick head of curls, the face turns upward to take in everything -- the faces in the crowd, the sounds of the ballpark, the smells, the thick summer air. This is what it looks like when Josh Hamilton is conducting a life check, something he's doing a lot of these days.

The man with the most unlikely comeback story in baseball has just finished another round of early batting practice on the field at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. It's still hours before the Reds will host the Angels in a June interleague game. Most of his teammates won't hit the field to practice for another hour or more.

But here's Hamilton, in a T-shirt and shorts and sneakers, tattooed flames running up his forearms, the tattooed face of Jesus Christ over a huge cross on the back of his calf. It's been almost 10 weeks since Hamilton took his first, belated steps into a Major League game. It's been years since he should have been here.

Still, Hamilton is smiling, his blue eyes bright. More than most, he appreciates where he is because of where he's been. And he reminds himself of it every chance he gets.

"All the time. If you ever see me on TV, when I tip my hat up and do this number here," Hamilton says, rubbing a big hand through his hair, "and kind of look around ... especially in a new park, somewhere I haven't been before. Or I'll be in certain situations in the game where I'm kind of focused in. Almost overfocused, you know, when you get a little tunnel vision. I'll step back and take a deep breath and just look around."

Just to remember. Just to take stock. Just to feel it all.

"Just thinking how blessed I am. Absolutely," he says. "I thank God every day, bro."

'It didn't go away'

By now, Josh Hamilton's backstory has been laid out for everyone to examine. He's told it himself, of course, a few times a week for years. Still, people want so much to know about Hamilton and what he's been through that when he first arrived in Sarasota, Fla., in February for spring training, the Reds held a news conference so that he could share his past -- and, maybe, cut down on the re-telling of it a bit. The team held another one on Opening Day in April in Cincinnati.

Telling his story is cathartic for Hamilton, and he hopes that, in doing it, he can help others, too.

The quick version goes like this:

Drafted by the Devil Rays with the first overall pick of the June draft in 1999, Hamilton was a can't-miss kid, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder with speed, power, an arm that could throw a ball 96 mph and a bat that rifled line drives all over the field. He was raised by two hyper-protective parents to be a player. Every team coveted him.

Hamilton hurt his back in a traffic accident in Florida in February 2001, which sidelined him for awhile. His parents, who had quit their jobs to be with Josh in his trip through the minor leagues, decided to return to their North Carolina home. Alone for the first time in his life and with a pocketful of cash thanks to his nearly $4 million signing bonus, Hamilton started drinking and using drugs. Cocaine. Other stuff. Just about anything he could get his hands on. He became an addict.

He ran into trouble with the law. In March 2003, then-Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella kicked him out of camp. Hamilton kept using. Suspensions followed. He didn't pick up a bat or a ball for months at a time. He considered suicide.

Faced with the disintegration of everything he worked for, he entered rehab and got clean. He married an old girlfriend. He had a daughter. And then he fell into drugs again. He separated from his wife and newborn child. He hit bottom. He stayed there for awhile. He went in and out of more rehab centers.

Then, through the help of friends and family, the proverbial light bulb came on. Under advice from doctors that playing would help his recovery, baseball lifted its suspension, allowing him to work out with the Rays again. He started swinging a bat. He started playing. He says he has been drug-free since October 6, 2005.

The Devil Rays, burned for years by their one-time savior-to-be, left him available in last winter's Rule 5 Draft and the Reds, after paying the Cubs to select him, took their chances and traded for him. Some people liked the gamble. Everybody wondered, though. How could they not?

And then Hamilton hit .403 in 21 games for the Reds in the spring. He made the team.

"There's no reason that I can explain why I was able to do it, other than it was a 'God thing,'" Hamilton says. "For some reason, while I was doing what I was doing those four years, it didn't go away."

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