To Hell and Back: The Josh Hamilton Story

Matthew IrbySenior Analyst IMay 30, 2008

We're almost two months into the season, and the American League has a legit Triple Crown candidate. The last Triple Crown winner was Carl Yastrzemski for the Boston Red Sox in 1967; Yaz batted .326, with 44 home runs and 127 RBI.

This season, Josh Hamilton is attempting to do what no other player has done in over 40 years. Currently, Hamilton is batting .324, with 13 home runs and a major-league-leading 58 RBI. The current batting-average leader is Hideki Matsui, who is hitting .330. Carlos Quentin leads the home run race with 14 long balls.

Hamilton is having a Herculean season for the Texas Rangers, with a chance to make his first All-Star game, and is on pace to challenge the all-time single-season RBI total, set by Hack Wilson in 1930 with 191 RBI. Only one Major League player has hit more than 161 RBI in a season since 1940. Manny Ramirez hit 165 RBI in 1999. Hamilton is currently on pace for 174 RBI this season. 

But to truly understand how amazing of a season, and two-year career, that Josh Hamilton is having, you have to understand where he came from. Hamilton was the first-overall draft pick by Tampa Bay in 1999, but he didn’t make his major-league debut until 2007.

Why did it take so long? What happened to delay the major-league debut of 1999's USA Baseball’s Amateur Player of the Year and Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year? 

In his first two professional seasons, Josh received accolade after accolade; he seemed to be everyone’s top prospect. But an injury in August 2000 ended his season early, which was followed by a motorcycle injury six months later that lead to an eventual DL stint that lasted until late June. 

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Shortly after returning from that injury, Josh suffered a season-ending injury.  Then in 2002, his season seemed over before it even got started, with more injuries, and again in 2003, bringing his total of missed games in a three-year span to about 236.

With all of this free time on his hands, not being able to play the game that he loves, Josh found himself hanging out with the wrong crowd. He would spend his time and money at local tattoo parlors, decorating his body with 32 images of whatever seemed intriguing at the time. This led directly to Josh’s drinking problems and addiction to drugs. 

Josh tested positive for substance abuse, and was suspended from baseball and put into a treatment program. But he received his worst news to date in February 2004, when he was banned indefinitely from baseball for violating the league’s joint drug treatment and prevention program. This only led to Josh falling deeper and deeper into what he described later as the hellhole he lived in.

The lowest point for him was during a crack binge in October 2005, which would end up being his last. Josh found himself, in the early morning hours, lying on his grandmother’s doorstep, his body nearly completely wasted away. He had exiled himself from the support of his wife, stepdaughter, and his family. 

It was at this point that he began the journey back.

With constant support while living with his grandmother, his wife never wavering in her love for him, and constant prayers from his family, Josh was able to find the Lord, and use that strength to pull himself out of the hell he had dug himself into. 

Josh talks of a horrible nightmare during the first week of sobriety in October 2005. He was fighting the devil, a creature that was heart-wrenching to look at.  He would use some type of blunt object to hit the devil, however the devil kept getting back up and he was never able to defeat him. He would wake up in a terror, sweating profusely, and exhausted, as if he was really fighting the devil.

In June 2006, Josh Hamilton received the news that Major League Baseball had reinstated his eligibility. A few weeks later, his nightmare returned. But this time, as Hamilton tells the story, when fighting the devil, there was another fighting beside him, Jesus Christ. Hamilton says that he was filled with the strength of the Lord, and together they defeated the devil. 

Josh says that the devil still appears in his mind, he talks to him and tells himself that these are just thoughts, and the devil goes away. Almost three years have past since that early morning on his grandmother’s doorstep, and Josh Hamilton has been sober that entire time.

In December 2006, due to a Rule Five acquisition, Hamilton became a member of the Cincinnati Reds. Long-time friend, and mentor, Johnny Narron was the Reds' video coordinator at the time ,and his brother, Jerry Narron, was the manager.   The two of them acted as mentors for Hamilton in his days with the Reds.

Hamilton made the Opening Day roster for the Reds, and went on to have a solid season; in 90 games he batted .292, with 19 home runs and 47 RBI. He still had to deal with his past, whether it was questions from the media or road fans heckling him.

One story he enjoys telling was when a St. Louis fan yelled out, “My name is Josh Hamilton, and I’m a drug addict!” Hamilton turned around, raised his palms to the sky and said, “Tell me something I don’t know, dude!” The entire section began to laugh and cheered for him the rest of the game.

On Dec. 21, 2007, Josh Hamilton was traded from Cincinnati to the Texas Rangers in exchange for highly-touted Ranger pitcher Edinson Volquez. 

Ever since, Josh has felt welcomed and at home in Texas. At his first news conference, the Texas media asked for him to tell his story and talk about his drug addiction. Hamilton said he was most impressed to see his new teammates Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, and Hank Blalock come into the room to listen to him as well.

During this season’s Spring Training and early in the season, Josh has had to answer tons of repetitive questions about his drug addiction. However, he says that it doesn’t bother him, because he feels that this is his mission to talk about his life and show people that there is always hope. 

Three times a week Hamilton is tested for drug abuse. Instead of being negative about the frequency of testing, Hamilton says he looks forward to it, because he knows it will come up negative. Knowing that just one positive test would render him a life-long suspension from baseball, Josh delights in the weekly victories over his cravings. 

Hamilton and the Rangers are returning from a road series in Tampa Bay. It was Josh’s first trip back to where he was originally drafted. When he was first introduced, the fans gave him a standing ovation, with some boos mixed in. On the second game of the series, Hamilton guaranteed a Ranger victory with an eighth inning grand slam. 

Josh Hamilton has some big shoes to fill in Texas. He was acquired in a trade with a young pitcher, and the Rangers traded away Mark Teixeira last season.  However, the impact that Hamilton has brought to this team has far exceeded what the Texas Rangers, and their fans, could have imagined.

If Josh continues to hit on his current pace, then his numbers at the end of the season would be a .329 batting average, with 216 hits, 39 home runs, 9 triples, 45 doubles, 93 extra-base hits, 396 total bases, and 174 RBI. 

There is even some early talk of the Rangers front office wrapping-up Hamilton to a long-term contract with the club. Something that three years ago seemed impossible for him, but his story has only proved that failure is not measured in the number of times that you are defeated, failure is when you decide to quit.

Josh Hamilton never quit on his own life, and now he is a Triple Crown candidate, the AL April Player of the Month, a potential MVP, and on his way to possibly one of the most inspirational stories and seasons in baseball history.

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