A Tortured Soul, Josh Hamilton's Battle Was Never Over

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistFebruary 26, 2015

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What I remember is a sunny afternoon in Cincinnati, a spectacular Opening Day with blue skies, warm sun and an absolutely chill-inducing standing ovation for Josh Hamilton.

This was in the eighth inning of a 5-1 game. No drama, no big moment and long before he would win a Most Valuable Player award in Texas, become a five-time All-Star or step into two World Series.

No, these were the first major league steps in the "and back" part of Hamilton's "to hell and back" journey.

And when this little-known rookie stepped in to pinch hit to lead off the bottom of the eighth on this optimism-filled day in 2007 for his very first major league at-bat, the 42,720 people in attendance responded with one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

Everyone knows Cincinnati has terrific, smart baseball fans. But to stand and wrap this mostly unknown kid in a such warm embrace, to welcome him into their city and send notice that they had his back, was beyond heartwarming.

Many of us in the press box that day were there for Lou Piniella's debut as Chicago Cubs manager.

But we walked out of the ballpark that night still stirred from that standing ovation, still touched by one of those totally spontaneous moments that is unmarketed and priceless.

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Eight years and 4,168 plate appearances later, absolutely nothing has changed for Josh Hamilton.

He is still a tortured soul in need of a warm hug.

This comes as absolutely no surprise because anyone who has been touched by any type of addiction whatsoever—close relative, beloved friend, distant acquaintance—knows this is a battle that is never over.

LM OTERO/Associated Press/Associated Press

No number of standing ovations, home runs or All-Star appearances can ever guarantee that what Hamilton has gone through—and, apparently, is going through again—will never occur in the future. Just ask Doc Gooden. Or Darryl Strawberry. Or Steve Howe. Or Bob Welch.

Five o'clock comes early—earlier for some of us than for others.

One day, the past is pushed away, the demons are safely locked in a room and the deep breaths come relatively easy.

The next day...who the hell really can tell what happens?

That Hamilton spent Wednesday in New York meeting with Major League Baseball officials about a disciplinary issue is no secret.

That things had gotten really weird with him and the Angels over the past week or so clearly was evident.

It wasn't that he suddenly needed surgery on his right shoulder, which he had been rehabbing all winter, and that the surgery would sideline him another month. That wasn't good news for the Angels, but stuff happens.

No, the strange part is that he was home rehabbing in Texas and the club didn't even have a locker for him this spring. Rehabs come in all different shapes and sizes, but almost always, those shapes and sizes are with the team, in the clubhouse, surrounded by teammates.

Now come sketchy details and grave fears.

Tampa Bay's No. 1 pick in 1999, Hamilton endured a four-year addiction to cocaine and alcohol and was on baseball's suspended list from 2003 to 2005. One condition of his reinstatement was that he be tested for drugs three times a week.

For most of the past eight seasons, Hamilton traveled with an "accountability partner," essentially a companion whose job was to help fend off the temptations that can be more prevalent to someone with an addictive personality than for others.

Nevertheless, there are no guarantees, and Hamilton had well-publicized alcohol relapses in 2009 and 2012.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

On the field, the past two seasons since signing a five-year, $125 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels have been incredibly frustrating for him. Especially last summer, when he hit .263/.331/.414 with just 10 homers and 44 RBI in 89 games and looked, in the playoffs, like a man trying to catch a fly with a spatula.

As things were unraveling on the field last September, he and I spoke of those voices that sometimes find their way inside of a hitter's head.

"I think players who are coachable, who respect guys who have been around the game, coaches and players, are going to listen to guys like that," he told me. "And then you've got guys who don't care what anybody says, and they go out and do what they need to do.

"I can fall into the first category. Sometimes, you've got to put that aside and say, 'All right,' so you listen, but then you know what you've got to do."

Hamilton is an incredibly friendly and gentle soul who wants to please, so it did not surprise me when he admitted that maybe he was listening to too many people and getting confused by too many of those voices.

"You know, you go through these things, and you think mechanical this, my hands there, I've got to start here," Hamilton told me during our talk. "And you get to a point where it's like, OK, obviously searching and working on things mechanical didn't really get it done. So what's really worked in the past? And that's just get up there, see it and hit it."

This was the same guy who, in one of the most productive weeks in baseball history, crushed nine home runs and produced 15 RBI over six games while with the Rangers in May 2012, becoming only the third player ever to reach those minimum levels in a six-game span, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But seasons change, and one week is different than the next, and for guys battling the demons that Hamilton has fought during his 33 years on this earth, you don't take things day by day, but hour by hour.

Given his declining numbers and damaged shoulder, there was no telling what one of their most important players was going to be able to give the Angels this season.

Now suddenly, as has happened to so many of his predecessors, this is no longer about what Hamilton can do on the field, but whether he can regain control of his life.

He's been an inspiration to so many. Here's hoping that whenever he comes out on the other side of this, he becomes an even stronger inspiration.

Here's to at least one more standing ovation, and warm hug, for a guy who really can use one.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.