Remembering Josh Hamilton's Wild Ride as a Texas Rangers Star

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Remembering Josh Hamilton's Wild Ride as a Texas Rangers Star
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When Josh Hamilton takes the field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday afternoon, he's probably going to do so to the not-so-sweet song of the boo birds.

Hamilton's an enemy of the state now that he's a member of the Los Angeles Angels. On top of that, he was letting the fans down the last time he was wearing Rangers colors in the American League Wild Card Game against the Baltimore Orioles. For whatever reason, he also thought it wise to take a shot at Rangers fans for being "spoiled."

Even if the majority of the fans in attendance have the entirety of Hamilton's Rangers legacy in their minds, it's hard to anticipate what their reaction is going to be. After all, the entirety of Hamilton's Rangers legacy is...

Well, it's a complicated thing, really. Hamilton only played in Texas for five years, but those five years made for one of the wildest rides in recent baseball history.

If you'll follow me this way, we can go back and relive it.

 

2008-2009: A Superstar Explodes...And Then Fades For a While

Hamilton was already the subject of a remarkable baseball story by the time the 2007-2008 offseason came around, as he had gone from being a No. 1 overall pick to an addict to a star with the Cincinnati Reds all within a span of eight years.

Those eight years contain enough fodder for Part One of a biography series about Hamilton. Part Two would pick up in December of 2007 when the Rangers sent a pair of young pitchers to the Reds to get him in a trade.

The deal was something of a roll of the dice for the Rangers. Hamilton had posted a .922 OPS and hit 19 homers with the Reds in '07, but he dealt with health issues for the majority of the year. To get him, the Rangers were parting with right-hander Edinson Volquez, who had very recently been a top prospect.

Texas general manager Jon Daniels, however, proclaimed (via the AP) that the Rangers were getting an "impact bat." Hamilton himself wasn't ready to go too far beyond the borders of modesty.

"The second season after being out for 3½ years is an important season," he said. "This is maybe where I start becoming an established big leaguer."

Either that, or, you know, a star.

Hamilton wasted no time showing off. Per MLB.com, he raked to the tune of a 1.228 OPS in the spring and found himself starting in center field and batting third in the Rangers order on Opening Day.

He then proceeded to rake some more.

Hamilton finished his first month in a Rangers uniform with a .970 OPS and six homers, numbers that earned him American League Player of the Month honors. He then posted a .977 OPS and hit eight more home runs in May, and took home the Player of the Month award again.

By the All-Star break, Hamilton was sitting on 21 homers and a .310/.367/.552 batting line. He was elected by the fans to start for the American League team, and he was also chosen to participate in the Home Run Derby, which he lost to Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau.

Technically, that is...

Hamilton may not have won the Home Run Derby in 2008, but my guess is that most fans won't remember who else was even participating in the contest. It was the Josh Hamilton show all the way.

He hit 28 homers in the first round alone, including one that traveled 518 feet into the far reaches of the upper deck beyond right field. He hit 35 home runs in all, 13 more than Morneau.

Nobody saw Hamilton's explosion coming. Except for maybe Hamilton himself, that is. He told reporters that he had dreamed two years before about being interviewed at Yankee Stadium following the Home Run Derby and, well, there he was.

"I can say it was a coincidence, but I don't believe in those," he said, via the AP.

It looked pretty clear then that Hamilton was the most gifted slugger in baseball, but something funny happened after the All-Star break: His power dried up.

Hamilton hit only 11 home runs in the second half of the 2008 season, 24 fewer than he had hit in the Home Run Derby. Along the way, he was beset by nagging injuries once again (and not for the last time).

Still, it ended up being a 32-homer, .901-OPS season for Hamilton. And despite the fact that Rangers finished under .500, he still finished seventh in the AL MVP voting. Though it didn't end on a sky-high note, Hamilton's first season in Texas had served to cement him as a superstar.

Some had that in mind heading into 2009. A handful of Sports Illustrated experts picked Hamilton to win the AL MVP award, and ESPN's Chris Singleton went out on that limb as well.

As it turned out, Hamilton never had a shot at winning the AL MVP in 2009. He got off to a slow start in April, and he was on the disabled list by the end of the month with a rib-cage injury. He found himself back on the DL in June with a sports hernia that required surgery and also missed some time with back issues.

It wasn't just Hamilton's body that took a beating in 2009. His reputation took a hit as well.

In August, Deadspin published a series of (slightly NSFW) photos of Hamilton partying in a bar with several young women. It was abundantly clear then that baseball's most beloved recovering addict was, in fact, still recovering. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Hamilton said he believed he was only drinking during his 2009 relapse.

Johnny Narron, Hamilton's accountability partner since his days with the Reds, told Deadspin that he was going to be "shocked" if the pictures had "any validity." It didn't take long for Hamilton to admit that they did, revealing that the photos were from January and that the Rangers had been aware of the situation the whole time.

Via D Magazine:

I’m embarrassed about it, personally, for the Rangers, for my wife, my children and my family. It reinforces one of the things that I can’t have is alcohol. It’s unfortunate that it happened. I was out there getting ready for the season and took my focus off the number one factor in my recovery – my relationship with Christ. I hate that this happened. I am human.

Hamilton ended the 2009 season with only 89 games played, 10 homers and a .741 OPS. When he came back in 2010, he was going to be looking for a season of redemption.

That's exactly what he got. And then some.

 

2010-2011: The Centerpiece of a Rising Power

Elsa/Getty Images

As was customary for him at the time, Hamilton raked during the spring season leading up to the 2010 regular season, posting a 1.016 OPS and hitting three homers. 

But it took a little while for Hamilton to get going once the 2010 season actually began. He struck out in six of his first seven at-bats, and was only hitting .205 with a .703 OPS and no homers by the middle of the month.

Once Hamilton got his first homer on the board on April 21 in Boston, however, he started piling them up like he had in the first half of 2008. By the time the All-Star break came, he was sitting on a 1.061 OPS and 22 homers. The Rangers, meanwhile, were in first place in the AL West.

Unlike in 2008, Hamilton didn't stop hitting after the All-Star break. He came out and hit .396 with a 1.130 OPS and nine homers in 44 games after the break, helping the Rangers establish a commanding lead in the AL West heading into September.

Then he hit a wall. Literally.

Hamilton hurt himself crashing into the outfield fence at Target Field in early September. Per USA Today, he was diagnosed with broken ribs and was kept sidelined until the final few days of the regular season. He got three games under his belt before the beginning of the postseason, which would feature the Rangers for the first time since 1999.

Hamilton didn't do much in the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays, notching just two hits in 18 at-bats. The Rangers managed to win the series in five anyway, setting up a matchup with the defending World Series champion New York Yankees in the ALCS.

Go ahead and ask any Yankee fan about their memories of Hamilton from that series, and they'll probably tell you that they still have nightmares now and again.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Hamilton hit two homers in Game 4 of the series.

Hamilton took the Yankees and put them in his back pocket, racking up a 1.536 OPS and sending four of his seven hits over the fence. The Rangers won in six to earn their first-ever trip to the World Series.

"It's all happening pretty fast," Hamilton said, via MLB.com. "You know what, I'm so excited for this team, for this city. This is something that's never happened here before. So to be part of something like that means the world. It's something that nobody can take away from you. I'm very excited."

Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News opined ahead of the World Series that the Rangers deserved to be heavily favored over the San Francisco Giants, a team that had "zero offense" and whose pitching would count for nothing against Texas' superior lineup.

He was wrong.

Very wrong.

The Giants won the series in five games, limiting Hamilton to only two hits in 20 at-bats in the process. It wasn't fair to single him out, however, as the Rangers' entire offense hit under .200 with a .546 OPS in the series. Contrary to what Fraley believed, San Francisco's arms were more than a match for Texas' bats.

"We just got cold at the wrong time with the bats," said Hamilton, via the AP.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Hamilton did get some good news after the World Series was in the books. For a regular season that saw him win the AL batting title with a .359 average while compiling a league-best 1.044 OPS and hitting 32 homers, Hamilton was named the AL MVP. 

Not bad for a guy who missed the final month of the season, much less a guy whose career was once on ice for a period of several years due to drug and alcohol addiction. He acknowledged as much.

"I would say a 99 percent chance that this would never happen," said Hamilton, via ESPNDallas.com. "I mean, honestly, I think a lot of people would agree with that."

Hamilton and the Rangers then took care of some business on the eve of spring training, agreeing to a two-year deal worth $24 million that kept the two sides from going to arbitration.

"We want to be a part of this organization, not only for the next couple of years, but for a long time to come," Hamilton said at the time, via the Morning News.

He'd be singing something of a different tune a year later...but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

The 2011 season did not have a promising start. Hamilton didn't put up his usual numbers during the spring, and he wasn't hitting for a whole lot of power in the early portion of April.

Then, thanks to a single play in a game against the Detroit Tigers on April 12, Hamilton found himself on the disabled list and in the middle of a controversy.

Hamilton broke his right arm trying to score from third on a pop-up that left home plate unguarded. He went for home at the behest of third-base coach Dave Anderson, who clearly saw an opportunity for a bit of aggressive base-running. 

Hamilton saw something else.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
To be fair to Hamilton, he DID have a point.

"It was just a stupid play," he said, via the Morning News. "I definitely shouldn't have done it. They had a good angle to cut me off where I was going. It was a little too aggressive. The whole time I was watching the play and I was listening. I was like, 'Dude, I don't want to go. Something is going to happen.' But I listened to my coach and I went."

Hamilton missed 35 games recovering from that injury, but he looked like his usual self upon his return. He homered in his first game back and he went on to post an .880 OPS and hit 10 homers in 42 games leading up to the All-Star break.

A few days before the break, however, Hamilton was involved in a tragic accident.

In a July 7 game against the Oakland A's at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Hamilton fielded a foul ball and tossed it to a fan in the first row beyond the left field wall.

The fan, a 39-year-old firefighter named Shannon Stone, caught the ball and then fell about 20 feet onto the concrete surface in between the outfield wall and the stands. According to ESPNDallas.com, Stone was pronounced dead after being taken to a local hospital.

Nobody blamed Hamilton for the incident. I don't recall anybody blaming him, anyway, nor should anybody have blamed him. Something like that could have happened to any outfielder at any other ballpark, and it would have been equally accidental.

Nonetheless, Hamilton admitted to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that it was on his mind during the next game. In the process of that game, he happened to hit a foul ball that struck a fan in the head.

Just in case anybody was thinking the string of regrettable incidents was going to drive him to do things he shouldn't, Hamilton said, "It's not something that's going to make me go back to where I was."

Hamilton was able to avoid any further bad news after the All-Star break. Indeed, he enjoyed a fine second half, hitting .295 with an .868 OPS and 14 homers. The Rangers finished with 96 wins, second only to the Yankees in the American League.

The Rangers faced the Rays again in the ALDS and took care of them in four games despite getting only four hits from Hamilton. He played a more central role in the Rangers' defeat of the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, collecting eight hits in 26 at-bats over the six games to help send the Rangers back to the World Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals kept Hamilton largely quiet in the first five games of the Fall Classic, holding him to three hits in 19 at-bats, the loudest of which was a double. All the same, the Rangers won three of the first five games, and it looked like they were going to make it four of six, thanks to none other than their biggest star.

Hamilton, who was playing the series with a painful abdominal injury, drove in the Rangers' first run in Game 6 with an RBI single in the first. By the time the ninth inning rolled around and Neftali Feliz was on the mound, that was one of two runs separating the Rangers from the Cardinals.

All they needed was three more outs. Eventually, all they needed was one more strike.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Hamilton's homer would have been one of the greatest in World Series history if it had stood.

We all know what happened. Down to his last strike, David Freese hit a two-run triple that tied the score and sent the game to extras. Mere minutes after that, Hamilton launched a go-ahead two-run homer to right field in the 10th inning that put the Rangers up by two once again.

After the game, Hamilton told the press the homer was sent from above.

"[God] told me, 'You haven't hit one in a while, and this is the time you're going to,' " said Hamilton, via ESPN.com. "You know what? I probably had the most relaxed, peaceful at-bat I've had of the whole series at that moment. It's pretty cool. You ought to try it sometime."

There was just one problem, and Hamilton made sure to note it.

"There was a period at the end of [the sentence]," he said. "He didn't say, 'You're going to hit it and you're going to win.' "

And win the Rangers did not. The Cardinals tied things up again in the bottom of the 10th, and won it in the bottom of the 11th on Freese's walk-off to straightaway center field. His homer tied the series at three games apiece, and the Cardinals went on to win it in Game 7.

When it was over, Hamilton wasn't exactly in tears.

"I told you it was going to be a great series, and it was," he said, via the AP. Then he added: "I don't care what other people remember. We fell a little bit short. Hats off to the Cards, they did a great job, especially last night. It was actually fun to watch and fun to see. You hate it, but it happened."

The 2011 season in the books, Hamilton turned toward a season that had the potential to be his last in a Rangers uniform.

Of all the ways he could have gone out, I doubt he anticipated going out the way he did.

 

2012: A Sour Spring, a Historic Beginning and a Sour End

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Not long after the 2011 World Series came to an end, the Milwaukee Brewers hired a new hitting coach.

Ordinarily that wouldn't have mattered to the Rangers, but the guy the Brewers hired just so happened to be the guy charged with keeping Hamilton in line: Johnny Narron.

“Josh will be fine,” Narron told the Morning News. “It’s time for Josh to go on his own path and for me to go on my own path.”

The word then was that the Rangers had started discussing how Narron's shoes could be filled while he was interviewing with the Brewers. A couple months later in February, Gerry Fraley of the Morning News reported that Hamilton was still without a new accountability partner.

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images
Hamilton said he suffered a "moment of weakness."

But that was just a part of the larger picture of that report, which was that Hamilton had very recently had a relapse with alcohol.

For the second time in three years, there was Hamilton fessing up. He had this to say, via ESPNDallas.com:

You guys all know how hard I play on the field and I give it everything I absolutely have. When I don't do that off the field, I leave myself open for a weak moment. I had a weak moment on Monday night in Dallas.

It was just wrong. That's all it comes down to. I needed to be at a different place. I needed to be responsible. I was not responsible. Those actions of mine have hurt a lot of people I'm very close to.

It was an inauspicious start to what was going to be something of a "prove it" year for Hamilton with free agency looming at the end of the regular season. It was also yet another reminder that Hamilton is, in fact, still recovering.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Hamilton and the Rangers put contract talks aside after his relapse, according to a report from Richard Durrett of ESPNDallas.com. Included in that report were some eyebrow-raising remarks from Hamilton about what he felt he owed the Rangers.

Read: Nothing.

"The Rangers have done a lot for me, but I've got a question for y'all: Have I done a lot for the Rangers? I think I've given them everything I've had," Hamilton said. "I don't think anybody can say I haven't. When it comes down to it, people don't understand, fans don't understand, this is a business, this is an entertainment business."

Hamilton let the rest of the spring pass without putting his signature on any contract. When Opening Day came, it was more or less official that a trip to the open market was in store.

But first, there would be fun with numbers.

Nobody could get Hamilton out in April, as he ended the month with a .395 average, a 1.182 OPS and nine homers that put him on pace for a 67-homer season.

End-of-April projections like that tend to evaporate in the blink of an eye, but you'll recall that 67 homers actually seemed plausible once the final out was squeezed in the Rangers' 10-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on May 8.

That was the game Hamilton accomplished the rarest of slugging feats: four home runs in a game. All of his were two-run shots, and he made no attempt whatsoever to downplay his giddiness after the game was over.

"I was saying after I hit two that I had never hit three in a game before. What a blessing that was," he said, via ESPNDallas.com. "And then to hit four, it was just an awesome feeling to see how excited my teammates got.

"It reminds you of when you're in Little League and a little kid, and just the excitement and why we play the game. Things like that. You never know what can happen. It was just an absolute blessing."

Hamilton stayed hot. When the action came to a close on May 13, he had a 1.321 OPS and 18 home runs in only 32 games. Over a full 162-game slate, that put him on pace to hit not 60, not 70, not even 80.

The exact number: 92. Barry Bonds' 2001 season plus 19.

Was it ever going to happen? Of course not, but it certainly appeared at the time like Hamilton was in for a historic season. If he could keep swinging the bat like he was, he was going to be a shoo-in for a second MVP, and he was going to make the Rangers nearly impossible to beat.

Instead of continuing to swing it like he was, though, Hamilton proceeded to go "pluh."

From May 14 through the rest of the first half, Hamilton cooled off to the tune of a .792 OPS. By the end of July, his OPS over his last 62 games had fallen to .731 and he had struck out in about 25 percent of his plate appearances.

This was also right around the time when Rangers owner and CEO Nolan Ryan made it clear that he wasn't liking what he was seeing.

Here's what Ryan told 103.3 KESN-FM, via the Morning News:

I think we’re all seeing the same thing. You’re right that some of his at-bats aren’t very impressive from the standpoint that he doesn’t work deep into the count, he’s swinging at a lot of bad pitches, he just doesn’t seem to be locked in at all. So what you’re hoping is that his approach will change and he’ll start giving quality at-bats because there’s a lot of those at-bats that he just gives away. 

A couple days after Ryan released his comments on the world, the boo birds came out at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. For what was presumably the first time in baseball history, a superstar had gone from hitting four home runs in a game to being booed at his own park just a few weeks later.

"Yeah, I noticed but it's all about what have you done for me lately, no matter who you are," Hamilton told the Star Telegram.

In all, Hamilton hit just .177 with a .607 OPS in July, and the Rangers went just 9-13 in the 22 games in which he played.

Then came a series of oddities in August and September, notably a minor fuss over Hamilton's decision to quit chewing tobacco and a bout with ocular keratitis, an eye issue that can only be caused by high consumption of caffeine.

“It’s me we’re talking about here. Guys, it’s me. It’s Josh. It’s going to be something weird," Hamilton told ESPNDallas.com.

On the bright side, at least the Rangers were still in first place in the AL West. The A's and Angels were mounting charges, but the Rangers entered August with a three-game lead. By the middle of August, the lead was up to six games, and it stood at 5.5 games as late as September 6.

Then came the haymaker to Texas' gut. 

The Rangers' lead in the division was down to a single game by the time they arrived in Oakland for a season-ending three-game dance with the A's. They only needed one win to wrap up their third straight AL West title, but the A's were hot and the Rangers were not.

Nothing changed in those three games. Hamilton collected only one hit in eight at-bats as the A's won the first two contests, setting up a winner-take-all game on the final day of the season on Oct. 3.

The A's ended up taking all thanks in large part to an assist from Hamilton.

The Rangers took a four-run lead into the fourth inning, but the A's mounted a six-run rally that culminated in an error by Hamilton. He dropped an easy can of corn to center field that would have ended the inning, allowing two runs to come around to score.

Photo via TotalProSports.com

The Rangers didn't score after that, while the A's proceeded to tack on five more to win the game by the final of 12-5 and the AL West by a single game over the Rangers.

"I just missed it, man," Hamilton said of his gaffe, via the AP. "You guys have a hard time believing we can forget about it and move ahead. But that's what we get paid to do."

Wrapping up the AL West would have sent the Rangers directly to the Division Series round. Instead, they had to settle for a Wild Card berth and a one-game playoff in Arlington against the Orioles.

The Rangers didn't prove capable of putting up much of a fight against the Orioles, and Hamilton was Public Enemy No. 1 by the end of the game. He went hitless in four at-bats, striking out twice and grounding into a double play. He was showered with boos by the home crowd once again, and the Rangers went on to lose 5-1.

After the game was over, Hamilton was not exactly overcome with regret. His attitude was more one of defiance.

"You hate to have it happen possibly the last game ever here, but at the same time, it's one of those things," said Hamilton, via ESPNDallas.com. "I gave it my all every time I went out there. Hopefully, (fans) appreciated it more than they didn't. I think they do. It's one of those things, hey, we didn't get a win, but you can't win them all."

Then came his not-so-subtle message to the fans that they weren't going to have to worry about him letting them down on the field ever again.

"If they don't receive you in a town, shake the dust off your feet and move to the next."

 

And Now...

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

As he hinted he would, Hamilton did indeed move on to the next town over the winter. His new town is a lot closer to the ocean, not to mention close to a much bigger town that it pretends to be a part of.

There were negotiations with the Rangers, sure, but Hamilton ultimately took a five-year, $125 million offer from the Angels that Jeff Wilson of the Star Telegram said the Rangers never got a chance to match.

After all that had happened during the 2012 season, that felt like an all-too-fitting end to the partnership between Hamilton and the Rangers. It was a good one for a while, but down the stretch there was no escaping the sense that the two sides were this close to coming to blows. The vibrations were nasty.

In the end, was it worth it?

Shoot, is there any other answer you can give to that question than a sarcastic "Uh, yeah"?

Hamilton experienced more in his five years with the Rangers than most players do in their entire careers, and the five years he was in town stand out as the most successful chapter in the history of the franchise. 

Ask either side, and my guess is they'd both say they'd do it all over again in a heartbeat, and it's a wild ride that Rangers fans should remember with at least a small measure of fondness.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Injury information courtesy of Baseball Prospectus.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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