He and Katie credit faith with saving Josh's life, saving their marriage, saving his body and talent for the moment when he could be strong enough, in 2006, to return to baseball. The fact that man and family remain intact is considered a miracle by believers and nonbelievers alike. Many times, Katie wanted out.
They became a couple in 2004, when Hamilton was still slogging around Raleigh, his hometown, neck-deep in his addiction. He had burned through much of the $3.96 million signing bonus that the Devil Rays gave him in 1999 and was in the second year of a three-year stint on baseball's restricted list. He relapsed two months after their November '04 wedding, and in August '05 he bartered her wedding ring for cocaine. When, later that month, they had their first daughter together (their oldest, Julia, is hers from a previous relationship), Katie was sure the responsibility would prove transforming. Three days after Katie gave birth, Josh left to pick up a prescription for her and ended up in a bar. Not long after, he began smoking crack.
"I was kind of out of ideas," Katie says. They separated soon after, she took out a restraining order, but "I didn't ever feel freedom to get divorced. I knew that we were supposed to be separated so we were safe, me and the kids, but He had not released me from our marriage. God just kept telling me to wait. So I did."
In October 2005, after he bottomed out at his grandmother's home, Josh gave his life over to Christ. Katie forgave him everything, if only to stop the bitterness, but trusted nothing; they stayed apart for the next six months. Josh moved to a Christian-based baseball academy called the Winning Inning in Clearwater, Fla., slept upstairs on an air mattress at Jack Russell Stadium, cleaned toilets, raked dirt. By June '06 he had been sober for eight months and the family had been back under the same roof for two. Major League Baseball declared him, after eight rehab stints and a three-year absence, eligible to play.
On the field Hamilton's path has been the stuff of born-again lore. In 2007, after fewer than 100 career at bats in Double A, Hamilton made the Reds' Opening Day roster and smacked a homer for his first big league hit. In '08, after being traded to Texas, he headed into the All-Star break with 95 RBIs, then lit up Yankee Stadium with a 28-bomb barrage during the first round of the Home Run Derby. Time and again he made bone-rattling catches, battling near-constant injury; in '10 he hit .359 and was named AL MVP despite missing the season's last month after bruising his ribs in yet another collision with an outfield wall. A few days before the '10 ALCS against the Yankees, he heard God rightly predict that he would hit a home run in the first inning of the first game off CC Sabathia. His autobiography, a New York Times best seller, was called Beyond Belief. That seemed about right.
People haven't been shy about comparing him with the best the game has ever seen. "Josh has more talent, Barry Bonds had more discipline," Washington says. "I don't think Josh would ever get to the discipline that Barry finally got to, but I've never seen a talent like him. He can run, field, throw, hit, hit with power. Barry had all that, but as Barry got older his speed disappeared. The arm disappeared. Hamilton has it all."
Still, discipline isn't just a missing baseball tool. It's the key to Hamilton's survival. He can feel when his faith, his will, begins to fray; the month before that half-naked relapse in a Tempe bar in January 2009, he found himself closing down around family and friends. He stopped praying. "There's this slow fade that leads up to it," he says.
Hamilton confessed, in tears, to Katie the next morning, and soon after to Rangers management and Major League Baseball, but it took seven months for the story and photos to go public. Damage control involved a shoring up of his support system (Johnny Narron, then a Rangers special-assignment coach and Hamilton's full-time minder, or "accountability partner," again took full control of his pocket money), but he and his family treated the relapse less as a disturbing sign than a freak event. "It was like, O.K., it's over, done with," Josh says. "Put it behind me."
Last November, Narron, after five years by Hamilton's side almost day and night, left the Rangers to join his brother, Jerry, on the Brewers' coaching staff. The Rangers offered the minder job to Katie's father, a motivational Christian speaker named Michael Dean (Big Daddy) Chadwick, who had supported Josh during some of his darkest moments in North Carolina. He turned it down in January to stay home with his 17-year-old daughter. Hamilton felt another slow fade coming.
On the night of Jan. 30 he went out to dinner alone at a Buca di Beppo in North Dallas, and he began ordering drinks. Teammate Ian Kinsler soon joined him, but Hamilton didn't reveal he was imbibing. "That's where that con man comes out," Hamilton says. "I didn't drink out of beer bottles or anything like that. I put it in a Styrofoam cup with a lid and a straw. I know that side of me. I don't like that side of me. But it's fact that it's there."