The Super Natural
After drugs and alcohol nearly destroyed his career before it got started, a repentant Josh Hamilton has miraculously restored the skills that now make him a Triple Crown threat
Josh Hamilton is at peace now, at peace even when he sleeps. "I used to have dreams all the time," he says. "They were so real, I'd wake up and take a real deep breath in, like I was hitting the crack pipe."
During his darkest hours -- after he had been banished from baseball in 2004 and was doing coke, downing a bottle of Crown Royal a day and burning through his entire $4 million signing bonus -- Hamilton had recurring dreams that he was "fighting the devil, an awful-looking thing," with a stick or a bat, swinging but always missing. In his dreams he saw a SWAT team outside his window, about to storm his room; he saw demon faces; he saw his father on the other side of the door trying to save him. When Josh's wife, Katie, temporarily kicked him out of their house three years ago, he moved in with his maternal grandmother, Mary Holt, and there were nights he would wake up in a sweat, walk down the hall and crawl under the covers with her.
Even last year, when he played his first major league season, with the Reds, Hamilton says, "I had these dreams where I'm still going to get or use drugs, but then the pee-test guy starts showing up out of nowhere." Hamilton looks down, shakes his head and laughs. "He just stands there, haunting my dreams."
These days, says Hamilton, now the Rangers' centerfielder, if he does have a dream, he isn't aware of it when he awakens. "Every once in a while I'll have a dream about using, but I won't remember it until two or three days later. Now I go to sleep every night and wake up every morning, and everything's clear."
He is sitting in the video room at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, speaking in his soft North Carolina drawl, a plug of tobacco inside his left cheek. He's wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and the 26 tattoos he acquired during his years bingeing on booze and drugs are exposed. Satan's face gazes out from the crook of his left elbow, blue flames shoot down both his forearms; he now regrets getting every one of them.
Hamilton rubs his eyes and half yawns. The previous night's game, a 13-12 win over the Mariners, had lasted more than four hours; in the third inning he bludgeoned a 447-foot home run that landed a few feet from a couple's table in the ballpark's outfield dining area. Later on this mid-May day, in the eighth inning against Seattle, Hamilton will crash into the centerfield wall to make a spectacular running catch, preventing the tying run from scoring in a 5-2 Rangers victory. Three days later, against the Astros, Hamilton will go 5 for 5, including his ninth and 10th homers of the season, and drive in six runs. It's during stretches like this that Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler can say with a straight face, "Josh Hamilton is the best baseball player to ever walk the planet," and you almost believe it.
Though he enjoyed a remarkable comeback in Cincinnati after spending a total of three years out of baseball (2003 through '05), Hamilton is only now fulfilling the promise he revealed as a Raleigh high school star 10 years ago. ("It's amazing how many veteran scouts say he's the best player they've ever seen," says Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.) After his son deposited a home run into the upper deck of Rangers Ballpark in April, Tony Hamilton told a friend, "O.K., now the boy is starting to get the hang of it."
After their eighth win in 10 games, on May 16 -- the one in which Hamilton had five hits -- a group of teammates, as they often do, went to a steak house to celebrate. But the hero of the game didn't join them. Since Oct. 6, 2005, the day his grandmother sat him down in her living room and confronted him about his addiction, Hamilton has been sober and drug-free, he says, and the 27-year-old follows strict self-imposed guidelines to stay that way. He rarely carries more than $10 in his wallet, and never more than $20. His friend Johnny Narron, hired by the Rangers, must always know his whereabouts. He never goes out alone at night, and never goes out with teammates after games. "In San Francisco, I went to Morton's steak house two nights in a row," he says, bringing this up as if it were a major step for him. Some teammates were there, too, but at a table on the other side of the room. Hamilton, who was dining with Narron, says, "I walked over to the guys and said hello."
Every third day Hamilton provides a urine sample to a lab technician at the ballpark. "If I miss a third day, I'm tested two days in a row," says Hamilton. "I'll do it until MLB says I don't have to anymore. It reassures the people who made the decision to let me back in the game that things are good." Hamilton says that he can't remember the last time he consciously thought about using or drinking. Says his father-in-law, Michael Dean Chadwick, with whom Hamilton speaks at least once a week, "I seriously doubt that he wakes up and thinks about it most mornings. But he knows he has to be humble and strong. Trust me: He knows the devil isn't far away."
When did he hit rock bottom? Hamilton thinks about this for a moment. So many low points to choose from. No, it wasn't the time the check he made out to a crack dealer bounced and he had to ask his father-in-law to go and give the dealer $2,000 cash. No, it wasn't the time after a party when he ripped the rearview mirror off a friend's truck, punched out the windshield and was thrown in jail. No, rock bottom, he says, was the night in the late summer of 2005 when he awoke from a crack binge in a trailer with a half-dozen strangers around him; with nowhere else to go, he appeared like a ghost at his grandmother's door -- his sunken face as white as snow, his 6' 4" frame shrunk from 230 pounds to 180. "He'd be at the lowest of lows," says Chadwick, "and he'd sink lower."