"He just never knew what work ethic was. He never knew how to work. It was all talent."
Temperament, too. Hamilton had never been a grinder, a baseball wonk. He loved the game's glory moments, its movie version—big hits, crowd screaming—and his gifts were so deep that even mistakes could make him a hero. "He didn't love baseball. He loved to hit," says Roy Silver, who runs the Winning Inning baseball academy. "He loved to dive for balls. The third fungo I hit him, he dove for it and got up and pumped his fist and cheered for himself. But he wouldn't go upstairs and watch baseball. He would go upstairs and watch cartoons or play a video game."
During spring training in 2009, Pettis made Hamilton his main project. Because he'd spent relatively little time in the minors, Hamilton learned on the job, in real time, all that he had missed: how to study tendencies, how to stay in the game defensively even when his bat goes quiet—in essence, how to be a professional. "It's been a process," Pettis says. "Josh is 100 percent better today than he was when we acquired him. Especially mentally, he understands how this game is played."
Such words will no doubt make Hamilton happy. He likes pleasing people. This endears him to fans and media, but it can be toxic: The same impulse to give an autograph-seeking boy a bonus pat on the head made him need approval from the dregs who offered up his first line of coke—not to mention the new pals he met during the relapses in Tempe and Dallas. It's why Hamilton has always tried to put on a show in batting practice. He needs a crowd's Whoa!s like a puppy needs petting.
Those displays ease some of the pressure he feels to live up to his billing, to be larger than life, to justify that whole Josh Hamilton thing. Problem is, a hitter's stroke breaks down when he tries to do too much, to get what coaches call "big"—opening up the hips too soon, collapsing the backside, picking up the head. And more than most, Hamilton can get seduced by how far a useless BP shot will fly.
"If I can just figure out ways to get a handle on that by taking the big picture—seeing where the ball goes, where it lands—out of it, then I'm going to be better during the game," Hamilton says. "We don't get paid to be good in practice. We get paid to be good in the game."
This is why the route to his four-homer game is just as significant as the result. Because the day before, May 7, Hamilton took batting practice at Camden Yards, lost his swing and then went hitless through his first five plate appearances. "And I was huge!" Hamilton says, bringing his hands, slow-motion, through an imaginary zone and finishing up with the sloppiest swing you ever saw. "I was, Agggggghh!"
For his last at bat that night, Hamilton focused, tightened his swing—and cracked a home run. A light bulb went on. When Hamilton arrived at the ballpark on May 8, he told hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh that he wanted to hit under the stands, in the batting cage: No crowd, no Ooh!s, just the barrel and a ball pelted, over and over, dully into a net. Coolbaugh blinked. Hamilton had skipped BP before because of fatigue, but never technique. For the first time, he wanted to get small.
"Then he took it into the game and hit a first-pitch curveball out of the ballpark to centerfield," Coolbaugh says. "And you knew something special was going to happen."
Hamilton hit his next one to left, then two more to centerfield, and tacked on a double to set an American League record with 18 total bases. Yet Camden Yards was nearly empty that night, only 11,263 Orioles fans there, and the blasts were met with near silence. When Hamilton trotted out to play the field, though, it was different.