At the center of the latest controversy for Major League Baseball is an aging, embattled, injury-prone, high-priced former MVP. And for once, it isn't Alex Rodriguez.
While Rodriguez is busy getting in at-bats and fielding as many questions as grounders in New York Yankees camp after being suspended for all of 2014 as part of the league's investigation into Biogenesis, Josh Hamilton is embroiled in his own scandal. But it's more than that.
For Hamilton, a 33-year-old with a well-known history of abusing alcohol and drugs, it's a battle for his life and well-being even more than it is a battle for his baseball career.
The Los Angeles Angels outfielder has had an extremely difficult, trying offseason, first undergoing surgery to repair a shoulder that had been bothering him since the end of last year, and then—here's where that controversy comes in—dealing with the aftereffects of the surprising (but not altogether shocking) news that he had suffered a relapse.
Mike DiGiovanna and Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times initially reported the incident, aspects of which were confirmed by others:
The latest details on Hamilton's relapse comes from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, who writes:
Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation told Yahoo Sports that Hamilton has told people his latest spiral began around Super Bowl weekend after a fight with his wife. Because he cannot carry cash or credit cards, Hamilton wrote himself a check to cash. He wound up at a strip club and used cocaine. Before his next test, Hamilton admitted to using drugs, which prompted the meeting with MLB in New York that the Los Angeles Times first reported, sending Hamilton's case into the public view.
Those in and around baseball now await word on how the league will handle this and what sort of punishment Hamilton will face. A decision is expected before Opening Day and could come as soon as this week (i.e., mid-March), according to Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports.
But this decision is anything but simple, and the process has been anything but confidential, as it is supposed to be.
For one, there's the fact that an arbitrator will need to evaluate the evidence and make a determination about whether Hamilton needs to enter a rehabilitation center or should be suspended for his reported relapse after the four-person treatment panel failed to come to a consensus or even a three-to-one majority.
The panel that was supposed to make the call—and which consists of a pair of representatives each from MLB and the MLB Players Association—deadlocked at two votes apiece, as the Los Angeles Times reports.
For another, if the findings call for a suspension, there's the question of how long Hamilton should be held out and whether he should be treated as a first-time offender or a multiple offender.
As to the fact that all this has been made public, here is the statement the MLBPA released, via Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com:
It is regrettable that people who want to see Josh Hamilton hurt personally and professionally have started leaking information about the status of his treatment program and the confidential processes under our Joint Drug Agreement. These anonymous leaks are cowardly, undermine the integrity of our collectively bargained agreements and in some instances have been wholly inaccurate.
The Major League Baseball Players Association will use every right we have under the collective bargaining agreement to make sure Josh gets the help he needs, and the fair and confidential process to which he is entitled.
Clearly, this has become an unfortunate situation for everyone, including new commissioner Rob Manfred, who will have to weigh all matters and angles in handling this.
The thought is that Hamilton likely will be forced to miss at least 25 games, per Rosenthal and Morosi of Fox Sports. But if he's treated as a multiple offender, then the punishment would be more severe, perhaps up to the entire 2015 season.
As a player with a long and disturbing history of addiction problems and drug use, Hamilton's case is rare in baseball. After being selected No. 1 overall out of high school in 1999 by the Tampa Bay Rays, he was suspended from the sport altogether from February of 2004 to June of 2006 because of his problems.
That Hamilton was able to overcome everything and contribute anything at all on the major league level—let alone be one of the game's biggest stars for a half-decade from 2008 to 2012—makes his career even more remarkable and this situation even more atypical.
An argument could be made that keeping Hamilton away from the game too long may be detrimental to his well-being, considering that baseball provides him with all kinds of day-to-day activities to keep him busy and in line, from hours of work in the gym or batting cages to busy travel itineraries to the games themselves.
Buster Olney pointed this out on his Baseball Tonight podcast, citing Darryl Strawberry, another longtime big league star who battled addiction but who found some solace in the clubhouse and on the field while playing with the New York Yankees in the mid to late 1990s.
Perhaps the best—or at least, the most mindful—option, then, would be to suspend Hamilton for, say, 25 games without pay. In a way, that almost would amount to a time-served sentence, since he already is expected to be out until May or June while recovering and rehabbing from surgery on his shoulder, per DiGiovanna.
All that said, the financial factor is one that makes this even stickier. Hamilton's $25 million salary, as part of the five-year, $125 million deal he inked with the Angels in December of 2012, is among the highest in baseball, and especially steep for a player who—let's not ignore the facts—wasn't very healthy (89 games) or even all that good in 2014 (.263/.331/.414).
Were Hamilton to be suspended, he would lose his salary for as long as he's forced to sit out, according to DiGiovanna and Shaikin. Given the circumstances, that wouldn't be such a bad thing for the Angels, who could use the saved funds elsewhere. It's not something that should be a major consideration here, but to pretend it isn't one is naive.
"If [Hamilton is] in rehab," Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPNDallas.com writes, "he would be paid his full salary for 30 days and half his salary for the next 30 days. If he's suspended, he would not be paid."
Whenever he's allowed to come back to baseball, Hamilton should be, as a result of his latest mistake, subject to even more frequent drug testing than he already has been. Not for punitive reasons—merely to make sure he's not hurting himself or his family or friends.
"[Hamilton] served a 28-month suspension that ended in June 2006 for violating the league's substance-abuse program," Taylor reminds. "One of the conditions of Hamilton's reinstatement in 2006 was that he undergo drug testing three times a week."
Addiction, after all, is a disease, a battle that isn't "won" or "lost" but fought daily, constantly even.
As Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated writes:
This is a pivotal moment, not so much for the Angels' season or Hamilton's career, but for Hamilton's future as a human being, a husband and a father. It is also a pivotal moment for MLB to lead by example by considering drug addiction as an illness that needs to be treated as such, and by viewing drug addicts not as criminals who need to be punished, but as victims of their own bad choices who need to be shown compassion and helped back to health.
Obviously, this is a controversy and a very sensitive one at that. There is no "right" way, no precedent to handle something that will impact Hamilton and those around him. But there very well could be a wrong way.
Ultimately, whatever Manfred and MLB decide to do with regards to punishing Hamilton for his most recent transgression, the most important thing is that Hamilton's life and future—not his past—are the priorities.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11