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Posted: Tuesday May 27, 2008 8:39AM; Updated: Tuesday May 27, 2008 8:39AM
Albert Chen Albert Chen >
INSIDE BASEBALL

The Super Natural (cont.)

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Narron (left) keeps close tabs on Hamilton, whose 26 tattoos now only signify the bad times.
Narron (left) keeps close tabs on Hamilton, whose 26 tattoos now only signify the bad times.
Chuck Solomon/SI

No one foresaw the sudden downward spiral -- certainly not the Devil Rays, who had drafted him No. 1 out of Raleigh's Athens Drive High in 1999 and enriched him with a then record $3.96 million signing bonus. Josh Hamilton was a once-in-a-generation talent with a golden left arm (as a schoolboy pitcher he consistently hit 96 mph) and a vicious home run swing (his bat speed was once clocked at a ridiculous 110 mph). He was a true five-tool wonder, but what ultimately compelled Tampa Bay to choose Hamilton over another high school phenom, righthander Josh Beckett, was, ironically, Hamilton's sixth tool -- what scouts call his "makeup." Said a Devil Rays scout on the day Hamilton was drafted, "I think character may have been the final determining factor. You read so many bad things about professional athletes, but I don't think you ever will about Josh."

The churchgoing teenager who kissed his grandmother before every one of his high school games says he had never dabbled in drugs or even had a sip of alcohol until the spring of 2001, soon after a car that his mother, Linda, was driving, and in which he was a passenger, was rammed by a dump truck that had run a red light. Then 19, he suffered a lower-back injury that would sideline him for a month and suddenly leave him with an abundance of free time.

After their son had begun his professional career, Tony and Linda Hamilton quit their jobs to follow Josh around the minors. However, after the car accident, his parents returned to Raleigh so that Linda could rehab her injuries. For the first time in his life, Hamilton was alone. He fell in with the crowd at a tattoo parlor in Bradenton, Fla., which was near the Rays' spring training site. There, he met the people who introduced him to cocaine. "When I first got into drinking and using drugs," he says, "it was because of where I was hanging out, it was who I was hanging out with. You might not do it at first, but eventually, if you keep hanging around long enough, you're going to start doing what they're doing."

A rash of injuries and repeated trips to the disabled list meant more time off the field than on it, and more time with the wrong crowd. He failed at least four drug tests, made eight trips to rehab. He was suspended by Major League Baseball for a year in March 2004, and after he reportedly failed to appear for a drug test in August '04, he was slapped with another suspension. In June '06, only after Hamilton had been sober for eight months did MLB allow him to return to the Tampa Bay organization; that summer he played 15 games for Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League. That December he was the third player chosen in the Rule 5 draft, by the Cubs, who in a prearranged deal sold him to the Reds the same day. Picks in the Rule 5 draft -- in which prospects who are not protected on teams' 40-man rosters can be had for $50,000 (with the condition that the player has to be kept on the new team's 25-man roster for that entire season) -- rarely make much of a ripple. But when Cincinnati went after Hamilton, executives throughout baseball were, as Texas assistant general manager Thad Levine says, "taken aback. It was a significant blip on the radar screen."

The Reds' roll of the dice paid off: Hamilton hit .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBIs in 90 games. All season the Rangers kept an eye on Hamilton. "[After Cincinnati picked him up,] we kicked ourselves that we didn't do the same thing," says Daniels. "Tampa Bay ran him through waivers during the [2006] season, and anyone could have had him for $20,000. We considered it then. We needed a centerfielder."

Six Texas scouts filed a total of 15 reports on Hamilton during the '07 season. All raved about him. In late October the Rangers put in a call to Cincinnati to gauge Hamilton's availability. "They acknowledged a glut of outfielders on their part, but Hamilton wasn't their top candidate to move," says Levine. "From Day One they wanted Edinson Volquez in return." Volquez was the top pitching prospect in the organization, and Texas had no intention of giving him up; instead, they offered 15 different player combinations that didn't include the 24-year-old righthander.

In the meantime the Rangers were checking out Hamilton from all angles. They talked to his high school and minor league coaches and to family acquaintances. They spoke to doctors about addiction and recovering addicts. They asked MLB how it would discipline Hamilton if he relapsed. (It is up to the commissioner's discretion.) They even dispatched scouts -- without Hamilton's knowledge -- to listen to him speak twice about addiction to community groups in North Carolina last November. "When someone sort of mentioned it to me [later]," says Hamilton, "I was like, Really? Wow, they're really doing their homework."

The deal was finally struck in late December: Hamilton for Volquez and lefthanded pitching prospect Danny Ray Herrera. After welcoming Hamilton to the Rangers, one of the first things Daniels asked Hamilton was, "What if we brought Johnny Narron here?"

"From that moment," recalls Hamilton, "I knew I'd be home here."

The 56-year-old Narron, solemn-faced and deeply religious, is a former first baseman whose older brother Jerry was the Cincinnati manager last year. In the spring of 2007, when the Reds first discussed how they could offer support for Hamilton, Jerry suggested bringing in Johnny, who at the time was a Rookie League hitting coach in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization. The Narrons are from Goldsburg, N.C., just outside Raleigh, and Johnny had coached Hamilton in his son's basketball league when Hamilton was eight. Reunited in Cincinnati, the two quickly bonded over their faith and soon were inseparable, with Narron becoming Hamilton's baseball mentor, personal confidant and chaperone. Last July, when Hamilton landed on the DL with a wrist injury, and many people, as Hamilton says, "were waiting to see if I'd relapse," Narron moved in with Hamilton, and they spent their days watching hunting DVDs, playing video games, killing time at the movie theater. "We watched Transformers five times in three days," says Hamilton.

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