By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
As first impressions go, this one sucked.
On a dreary Saturday in late January, a couple hundred baseball fans packed a theater at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to listen to the team's latest and potentially greatest center fielder. But the last thing Josh Hamilton wanted to talk was baseball.
First there was his hand (bandaged after misjudging a ball off his finger). His off-season conditioning (Pilates). His priorities (God, God and God). His story (involving drug addiction, betrayal and, ultimately, redemption). And, oh yeah, the driving misadventures of his wife, who was calling repeatedly to ask for directions in her new environment.
Covering his cell phone, Hamilton playfully whispered to the audience, "She's lost."
Funny, for the past four years Katie said the same about him.
After some awkwardly meandering moments, Hamilton eventually captivated his Fan Fest congregation. With his charm. With his outlandish predictions. Most of all, with his testimony. Fast-forward five months, 17 homers, 69 RBI and one riveting push toward American League Most Valuable Player and baseball's first Triple Crown in 41 years, and the nervous newcomer who admitted to almost killing himself with crack and Crown Royal is now preaching from a pulpit of hard knocks and harder hits.
I remember listening that day to Hamilton crow about being born-again and cynically chuckling, "If this dude hits the ball as hard as he beats the Bible, he'll win MVP."
Well, I'll be damned.
"The rest of my life I'll be telling this story," Hamilton concluded. "I promise you, it will never get old."
Drafted No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999, the North Carolina native was cruising toward stardom two years later when a truck side-swiped his car and injured his back. Cursed with a lethal combo of disposable income and free time, Hamilton was soon hanging out in a tattoo parlor. Satan's face here and blue flames there opened the gateway to strip clubs, cocaine—disaster.
From '02-'06, his life spiraled into failed drug tests, suspensions from baseball, trips to jail and countless "Where the hell did I sleep?" morning mysteries. Enlightenment arrived October 5, 2005, when, kicked out by Katie, he stumbled into grandma's house in the middle of the night. "All the things I had heard before, she said again," Hamilton said last week—Katie by his side— to a post-game crowd of about 500 in Arlington. "For some reason, I let my heart open. I could see her face, and she was crying. That was it. That was God allowing me to hear her."
I don't want to go all John 3:16 on you, but everyone gets goose bumps talking to Hamilton. His walloping and his witnessing seem bigger than baseball, transcendent beyond sports.
Not that his war is won. Hamilton's body, ravaged by hard drugs and sleepless nights, is 27 going on 37. He gets drug-tested three times a week, carries no more than $20 in his wallet, has a personal guardian on call full-time and doesn't yet trust himself to go out with teammates after a game.
He does, however, have his career. And Katie.
"I'd get really tired of praying for him," Katie told the post-game audience. "I'd go to bed, and I'd swear that was the last time I was going to pray for him. I'd say I was moving on. But the next day I'd wake up with a new desire and strength to pray for him."
Admits Josh, "I put her through hell."
Hamilton, acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in December for pitcher Edinson Volquez, isn't merely the Rangers' most sympathetic figure since former manager Johnny Oates succumbed to cancer in '04. He's their best player since...forever?
Back in the theater last January, Hamilton, who must have missed the part about the meek inheriting the Earth, trumpeted his seemingly preposterous goals for '08: "Batting average between .290 and .310, between 30 and 40 homers, 90 to 100 RBI and about 25 stolen bases."
Who knew he was selling himself short?
One-third through the season he was flirting with the pace of Juan Gonzalez's franchise record 157 RBI. At a couple points he's simultaneously led the AL in batting average, homers, RBI, runs, total bases, extra-base hits, hits and slugging. Despite his superlatives, the Rangers will incur another trade deficit if Volquez continues his mastery because, after all, Cy Young trumps MVP.
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Hamilton is all fullback and no finesse. His thighs are thicker than my waist and his forearms the biggest since Steve Garvey's. His superior speed allows him to play a ridiculously shallow center field, and his nuclear arm has already vaporized three runners.
Josh Hamilton: five tools, 26 tattoos.
He's the first AL player in the 35-year history of the award to win consecutive Player of the Month honors to start the season. He's titillating seamheads with hopes of the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in '67. He'll be an All-Star starter next month at Yankee Stadium, and the Rangers are talking long-term contract.
And—holiest of cow—he's already locked up Comeback Player of the Year.
"He's doing everything," says Rangers' manager Ron Washington. "If we need him to get a clutch hit, he gets it. If an RBI's out there, he gets it. He gets two-out base hits, he plays outfield, runs the bases. Everything. Awesome."
Hamilton's tale—redolent with righteous retribution—is gaining traction nationally, evidenced by last week's cover of Sports Illustrated. Locally, he's resurrecting a most endangered intangible:
First, he helped save Washington's job with a personal hitting streak that halted the team's hideous seven-game losing skid in April, idling management's contingency plans that included putting the manager's likely successors on speed dial. Now, inspired by his miracle, mojo and muscles, Rangers' fans are wet-dreaming about winning a playoff game for the first time since '96.
Though it's an awkward president/player face-of-the-franchise pairing—impeccable Nolan Ryan and an inked-up drug addict—somehow it's sprouting optimism.
But with the team's ERA escalating faster than gas prices, Hamilton can't possibly carry the Rangers into a September pennant race. Hamilton, Roy Hobbs and Mickey Mantle couldn't negate this horrible pitching.
Then again, who envisioned a New Kids On The Block reunion tour?
If they can keep their burgeoning superstar physically healthy and mentally content, the Rangers believe. In fact, from the moment they witnessed Hamilton's unique combination of power and passion last February in Arizona, they believed.
"The kid has more raw power than anyone I've coached and that includes Juan and Sammy [Sosa]," longtime hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo said the first week of spring training. "He can do it all."
Even alter opinions.
After one particularly jaw-dropping display during a spring batting practice, the imposing Hamilton tossed his bat, dropped his guard and sauntered over to the chain-link fence separating field from first-base stands.
"Hi, Daddy!" shrieked his 3-year-old daughter, Sierra.
Replied Hamilton, holding her hand through the fence while making eyes at Katie a few rows behind, "I love you!"
So much for first impressions.