Ex-No. 1 Hamilton turning heads after kicking drugs
Posted: Monday March 17, 2008 2:47PM; Updated: Tuesday March 18, 2008 12:53PM
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- On a backfield at Rangers' camp last Saturday, Josh Hamilton was launching baseballs that soared over a tall screen in centerfield, bounced off the concrete between the field and clubhouse and landed on the clubhouse roof about 500 feet away. Yes, Hamilton's great comeback story gets better by the drive.
"Did you see our batting practice?'' gushed longtime Rangers scout Don Welke, who's seen a lot in his decades in the game.
Hamilton still has the ability to make scouts and players -- both old and young -- line up to watch. He can break glass at 500 feet. Or, he can break hearts.
The player they call "The Natural,'' was 9-for-9 in spring games at the time he was wowing 'em with his back-field BP, then stretched it Sunday to 10-for-10 to make it 13 straight times reaching base before a strikeout ended the streak. In his first spring as a Ranger after one season as a Cincinnati Red and several wasted years before that taking drugs and alcohol (or being suspended), he is hitting an even .600 (18 for 30) and slugging an even 1.100.
Hamilton, still only 26, has the ability to do just about anything on a baseball field. He also has the potential to lose what he's regained, and nobody knows that better than him.
Substance abuse problems caused Hamilton to miss three straight seasons (2003-2005) and nearly wipe away his talent that combines power and speed like few who have played since Mickey Mantle. That talent led Tampa Bay to make him the first pick in the 1999 draft, but by 2006 he career appeared over. That December, the Cubs acquired him in the Rule V draft, and the same day, the Reds purchased his contract.
Given a fresh start, Hamilton blossomed in Cincinnati in 2007. He hit 19 home runs in 298 at-bats, battled .292, slugged .554 and regretted not taking greater advantage of hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
Now in Rangers camp, Hamilton looks solid, acts maturely and fits in nicely. But if asked, he also admits to having weak moments. He thinks he can make it, though.
"Drugs and alcohol ... it can go into remission. It doesn't have to be terminal. It doesn't have to kill you,'' Hamilton says, "But drugs and alcohol can come back if you don't watch yourself. If you don't live right. If you don't do the things you need to do to keep it away. If don't keep it in remission, it can come back to haunt you.''
He doesn't deny that these moments can occur whenever, sometimes in the middle of the night. And when they do, he calls his confidant Johnny Narron, the brother Jerry Narron, his ex-manager in Cincinnati, whose most important role as Rangers employee is to keep Hamilton from veering off the straight course he's setting now. "He has an open phone policy,'' says Hamilton.
Hamilton won't guarantee he'll remain clean. But the former addict now has a wife, two children and a third on the way, and more reason than ever to stay away from drugs. He thinks he'll be all right.
"I'd like to think so. But I'm not perfect,'' he says. "I've got it under control as far as my addiction and taking the steps I need to take to make it easier to do what I need to do. I'm never going to say never.''
Not everyone is so understanding of his situation. He didn't deny a story going around that two players once taunted him on a flight. "Where's your beer?'' they allegedly asked. And once, when he was lagging in a morning running drill, someone teased, "Did you have a few belts last night?'' Of course he can't drink even a sip now.
"Not everyone grasps the situation if they haven't been through it or don't know anyone who's been through it. But once they ask about it, I let 'em know what it's about, and they usually respect it. I feel like everyone here knows the situation and respects it,'' Hamilton says.
Hamilton doesn't want to jinx himself. When he was seven years old, he told his mother that he was never going to break a bone. And then, as he recalls it, he broke his leg four days later.
He doesn't want to know how many straight hits he has, either. He asks the questioner not to tell him. If he thinks about it, he thinks that may ruin it.
Hamilton himself is surprised to be here, not just in the majors but in Rangers camp, only one year after the Reds rescued him. It's obvious why the Rangers sought him. They haven't had an outfielder with this sort of talent -- or an 80-RBI season -- since Juan Gonzalez.
The real question is: why did the Reds do it?