By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Home runs. RBI. Slugging percentage. Batting average. Fielding percentage. The best player on the best team. Seems everyone in baseball has a varying criterion on how to choose the most valuable player.
Texas Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle's standards are simple, yet a tad more subjective.
"The MVP should be the baddest dude in the league," Hurdle says last week in the clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark before a game against the Minnesota Twins. "And this year Josh Hamilton is by far the baddest dude in the league."
Again last weekend Hamilton proved why he is the best player in baseball. In a series that left the Rangers seven games ahead with 32 left, Hamilton abused the Oakland A's with his bat, glove, arm and legs. Heading into this week he led the Major Leagues in batting average and in the American League was fourth in homers and fifth in RBI.
When he steps to the plate in Arlington these days, it sounds as though Kobe Bryant is at the free-throw line late in a Los Angeles Lakers playoff game: "MVP!...MVP!...MVP!"
"You can't help but hear it," Hamilton says after slugging his 30th homer in a 4-3 win over Minnesota last Wednesday. "I appreciate the fans' support. But we've got a whole month of baseball left. It's too early for those types of things."
Hurdle's "baddest dude in the league" has carried the Rangers for most of the season. Since July 1 Vladimir Guerrero has slumped and Ian Kinsler has been injured and Cliff Lee has flirted with mediocrity. It's Hamilton's consistent hitting, Gold Glove fielding and dazzling base-running that have the Rangers sniffing their first division championship and playoff appearance this millennium.
"He's a legitimate five-tool star," manager Ron Washington says. "There are only a handful of players like Josh."
There have been times in his life, of course, when Joshua Holt Hamilton wasn't the baddest—he was just plain bad.
You know the story. Addicted to drugs and alcohol. Almost dead, not to mention out of baseball. Then a triumphant, memorable return to the game during the 2008 All-Star Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium. He soiled that feel-good pinnacle with a fall-off-the-wagon night of binge drinking and infamous whipped-cream frolicking with Arizona coeds in January 2009, and an ensuing injury-riddled season that fueled his critics' toldja sos.
"I think somewhere in the middle," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said back in March at spring training in Surprise, Arizona, when asked which Hamilton we should expect in 2010. "To ask him to perform at the level up to the Home Run Derby is probably unrealistic. But, to be honest, if we're going to get to our goals this season, we need a lot more from him than we got last season."
Through two months and 50 games, it was ho-hum Hamilton. Under the watchful eye, yet unobtrusive hand, of new instructor Hurdle, Josh was inconsistent and wholly unimpressive. He was hitting .281 with nine homers and 27 RBI when the Rangers rolled into Minnesota just after Memorial Day. The Rangers were swept, had lost four in a row overall and Hamilton was a meek 2-of-11 in the series.
More than a clever marketing slogan, "It's Time!" grabbed the Rangers' season by the short 'n' curlies.
"Josh wasn't good in Minnesota," Hurdle says. "After observing for a couple months, it just felt like time to at least bring it up."
"It" was a radical, physical change in Hamilton's swing that has positively rerouted Texas' season. Simply put, Hurdle wanted Josh to lose the toe tap, a short move back with his right foot introduced to get him in sync with the pitcher's motion. Some players such as Atlanta Braves' star Chipper Jones have used it forever—consider it a useful timing mechanism. Others, like Hurdle, think it's an unnecessary move that complicates Josh's simple, powerful left-handed swing.
Giving up the toe-tap was something he'd tried—going back and forth with then-batting coach Rudy Jaramillo—but, like dipping snuff, had never completely kicked the habit.
Instantly losing what had become a second-nature quirk was a challenging change at a trying time, and initially it wasn't pretty. In Chicago against the White Sox on June 1 Hamilton turned off the toe tap. In his first at-bat, with the bases loaded, he struck out swinging against pitcher Mark Buehrle.
"I expected a gnashing of teeth from him and that's what I got after that at-bat," Hurdle says. "Josh was never confrontational, but I'd seen this movie before. Just like we all do, players want instant gratification if they're going to make a drastic change. I told him he needed to stick with it not for four at-bats or four games, but four weeks."
How about forever?
Next time up Hamilton doubled to right-center field. By the end of the game he had three hits, and three more the following day. Entering this week he still hadn't stopped mashing, boasting a .406 average (121 of 298) and amassing 21 homers, 26 doubles and 66 RBI in the 80 games sans toe tap.
"I always wanted to get rid of it and just, boom, keep it simple with no wasted motion," says Hamilton, a big smile on his face and modest silver cross around his neck. "I don't know exactly how but, yeah, I just kind of turned it off for good this time. Gives me less to think about. It's working out."