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It keeps getting bigger, doesn't it? This whole Josh Hamilton ... what? Situation? Dynamic? Phenomenon? Since he finally arrived in the big leagues five years ago he has been a package of such outsized talent and heartbreak, such staggering risk and reward, that the usual terms hardly did it justice. So what to call it now? This latest iteration—the Triple Crown numbers, the new cycle of relapse and redemption, the looming high-stakes contract when his current deal expires after this season—has expanded the whole Josh Hamilton thing to near-mythic proportions. Even the most hard-bitten baseball man, one who made his name striking out thousands and never, ever, backing off from a challenge, can't help but perform a purse-lipped version of genuflection.
"Would I pitch to him? I would not pitch to him in the strike zone," says Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan, who blew it past Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds. "He would have to beat me on a ball out of the zone—and I'm not talking about an inch or two out."
Ryan's standard is Willie Mays, who went 0 for 3 against him but put the ball in play each time. Mays also happens to be one of the 13 men, aside from Hamilton, to homer four times in a game in the modern era. "Have I seen somebody that can take a ball club night in and night out and carry 'em like Josh can?" he says. "Nobody comes to mind, no."
Adrian Beltre knows hot. In 2004 he had one of the best seasons ever by a third baseman, hitting .334 with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs. Last year he hit 12 home runs in September. Last October he hit three homers in a playoff game. But well after Hamilton's epic seven days in May, when he hit .467 with nine homers, 43 total bases and 18 RBIs, Beltre was still stunned at what his teammate can do. He has never felt anything like Hamilton's hot.
"What he's doing is incredible," Beltre says. "Hot, man, is when you hit .350 for a month, .350 for a week—not .450 with, like, 10 home runs in a week. I can't do that. I have abilities—but not like that."
Hear that tone? Players still speak of Bonds with respect and fear, but this is different. This is a child's awe. "Siri," A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy tweeted in May, "how do you get Josh Hamilton out?" You have to go back to the 1980s, when Bo Jackson was crashing howitzer home runs and snapping bats over his knee, to recall a chorus quite so breathless. You couldn't be blamed for thinking you'd never hear it again.
Baseball, after all, was supposed to be beyond wonder by now. Pinched for two decades between the Steroid Era and Moneyball's reduction of passion and craft to holy math, the game's romance could barely breathe. Narrative ("My newfound power? I hit the gym hard in the off-season....") lost all credibility, and Hall of Famers were downsized to fantasy-league pawns. Roy Hobbs was all but dead.
Of course, the big irony of the Hamilton thing is that, just this past January, the same aw-shucks star now ringing up fan votes for what seems sure to be a fifth straight All-Star Game start again broke sobriety with drinks at a Dallas bar. The Rangers decided to delay free-agent negotiations. Hamilton apologized to family and team, and asked the public to pray for him. Then he embarked on the most explosive start—.402 with 18 home runs and 41 RBIs in his first 31 games—by a hitter since the Athletics' Jimmie Foxx in 1932.
He has slowed a bit since: Through Sunday, Hamilton was hitting .354 and leading the majors in homers (21), RBIs (57), OPS (1.138), total bases (142) and slugging percentage (.728). At this rate he'll just end up hitting 63 homers and driving in 171 runs, while leading all athletes—ever—in embarrassments survived.
It's all out there to read or see: Hamilton's oft-repeated accounts of a coke habit so gripping that he once eagerly blew eight-inch gobs of sinus tissue out his nose in order to do more; photos of an alcohol relapse from 2009, featuring his shirtless torso, whipped cream and a stranger's breasts. At his mea culpa press conference after this year's relapse, Hamilton described himself, when he drinks, as being "very deceptive, very sneaky." He will tell anyone who asks how bad he is, and how much he wants to be better.