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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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As a schoolboy Hamilton had all the tools to be the No. 1 pick in 1999, by Tampa Bay, including a 96-mph fastball.
As a schoolboy Hamilton had all the tools to be the No. 1 pick in 1999, by Tampa Bay, including a 96-mph fastball.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Officially a special-assignment coach on manager Ron Washington's staff, Narron says, "I'd do what I do for Josh for any of the players," and he works with other hitters in the batting cages before games. If Katie; stepdaughter Julia, 7; and daughter Sierra, 2, are away while Texas has a homestand, Narron stays at the Hamiltons' Grand Prairie apartment. When the team's on the road, Hamilton and Narron stay in adjoining hotel rooms and often have Bible study while other players and coaches are out at restaurants and bars. When meal money is distributed before road trips, the Rangers give Hamilton's $80 per diem to Narron. "Look, he's not my babysitter," says Hamilton. "He's a coach. He's a friend. I trust myself, but you just never know. Having Johnny there is a precaution, and it puts my wife at ease. I put her through absolute hell for a long time."

Says Narron, "I'm there for Josh, always. When he gets antsy, he'll come up to me and say, 'Johnny, let's do a devotional.' Last year he would come talk to me about his struggles. This year he hasn't brought it up once."

During the 2007 season Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips grumbled to a reporter that there was more focus on Hamilton than on winning. Hamilton acknowledges that he sensed some resentment in the locker room from three or four players and says, "I didn't care. I went about my business, spending time with the fans, doing stuff that I was supposed to be doing and getting some [media] attention. They blamed what they were pissed off about on [Narron]. I think they were just jealous they weren't getting the attention."

To avoid a similar occurrence in Texas, Daniels asked a few clubhouse leaders, including Kinsler, shortstop Michael Young and third baseman Hank Blalock how they thought players would react to having Narron around. "Basically what we told J.D. was, 'If this guy is going to help us win baseball games,' " says Kinsler, " 'we don't care.' " The day after the trade the Rangers held a press conference to introduce Hamilton to Dallas-area reporters. For an hour he spoke candidly about his journey back to baseball and his renewed commitment to his family and his faith. But it wasn't until Hamilton noticed Kinsler, Young and Blalock sitting in the back row that tears began to well in his eyes. "It's the support group that I have here that makes staying clean easy," he says. "And I always refer back to the media too. If I did something stupid, something I shouldn't be doing, it would be all over the nation. I would be such a hypocrite, I'd let everyone down. That's why I go to the ballpark, and I go home. Park. Home. Park. Home."

Three hours before game time at Rangers Ballpark, fans are already gathering in the stands to watch the home team take batting practice, but the show doesn't really start until it's Hamilton's turn to step to the plate. "I remember seeing him taking BP with the Devil Rays in 2000 during spring training, and I was like, Who's that?" says Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey. "He was 18 years old and hitting balls farther than anyone else. I went up and introduced myself, and I said, 'That's one of the greatest swings I've ever seen.' I don't think I've ever done that [with anyone else] my whole career." On this mid-May afternoon, to the fans' delight, Hamilton hits four consecutive shots into the upper deck in rightfield. "Oh," Kinsler would say later, "today's show was nothing."

Watch Hamilton out on the field, and even though he says he's not a fan of the game ("I think it's boring," he says. "I never check box scores; I never watch ESPN"), it's clear he wouldn't want to be anywhere else. In between his turns during BP, he sprints around the bases, slaps teammates on the head as he passes them, hides Young's bat under the tarp and sings along to Texas Time Travelin' as it blares over the P.A. system. After warmups he walks to the stands and hands a broken bat to one fan, his batting gloves to another.

Already Hamilton is a fan favorite. "He is, by far, the nicest, friendliest player," says Gary Spraggins, a 27-year-old season-ticket holder. "The first week of spring training in Arizona, he's coming out onto the field with the music on the stadium speakers, and he stops in front of the fans in the outfield and leads them in singing."

Most of the faithful know Hamilton's story, and so too do some of the fans in other ballparks -- only they yell, "Crackhead" or "Josh Hamilton is a drug addict." But Hamilton keeps his sense of humor. After one fan yelled, "Don't trip on the white line," Hamilton looked up into the stands and shouted back, "Dude, tell me one I haven't heard."

Opponents root for him as well. Before his first major league at bat, on Opening Day last year in Cincinnati, Hamilton received a rousing standing ovation from the crowd at Great American Ballpark. Hamilton stood back near the on-deck circle, and Cubs catcher Michael Barrett yelled, "Congratulations, Josh. You deserve it. Take it all in."

During another game, against the Astros, Hamilton was on base when Houston second baseman Craig Biggio, whom he'd never met, approached him. "I knew Ken Caminiti," Biggio said, referring to his former teammate who died of a drug overdose in 2004. "I know how hard it is, but you're headed in the right direction. Good going."

"The ball just sounds different coming off his bat, almost like a gunshot," says A's lefthander Greg Smith. "You watch him track down a ball, you watch him throw a guy out at third. Then he hits a ball down the line and gets a triple, and it's like, The guy can run too?"

Even though he was new to the American League this season, even though he had only 298 major league at bats entering this year, Hamilton is slicing up pitchers like no other hitter in the league: At week's end he led the AL in RBIs (53), was second in homers (12) and was tied for second in batting average (.333). He's been just as proficient in the field. "He plays the shallowest centerfield I've ever seen," says Mariners leftfielder Raul Ibaņez, "and he can still go and get the ball like nobody's business."

However, his most surprising stat of the season may be this one: Hamilton played all but three innings of the Rangers' first 32 games. "After four years of putting my body through hell," he says, "I'm amazed how well it's held up. I was amazed last year that I even played 90 games."

After following a rigorous off-season regimen two winters ago -- he worked out six hours a day in the gym and took 300 to 500 swings to, as he puts it, "make up for all that lost time" -- Hamilton scaled back his training last winter to 21/2 hours in the gym, 25 to 30 swings in the cage and Pilates sessions every other day. He also spoke at community centers, churches and high schools throughout North Carolina, some 20 events in all. Josh and Katie are putting together a schedule for next winter with visits to more cities around the country.

Hamilton's speeches last for more than an hour, and he tells the crowds that, yes, he could have died and, yes, he was ready to give up baseball if that's what it took to get back with his wife and kids. He always recites the scripture that got him through last year, James 4:7. Humble yourself before God. Resist the devil and he'll flee from you. He stays as long as it takes to answer every question, to meet everyone who stays afterward, to hug the last straggler. "It's my privilege to tell my story," he says. "I never get tired of telling it. I know just how fortunate I am."

The Josh Hamilton Story never gets old, even for Josh Hamilton.

 
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