Back in 1999, Josh Hamilton was selected by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with the No. 1 pick in the draft. He was fresh out of high school, where he dominated at the plate, and on the mound Hamilton had all the tools, including a mid-90s fastball. All I ever read and heard about Hamilton was that he was destined to be a superstar, and being a baseball fanatic, I gobbled up Hamilton autographs and memorabilia. Not since A-Rod was drafted in 1993 had a young player generated so much buzz. Hamilton soon became Baseball America's top prospect.
But his life unraveled, and Hamilton became an afterthought after he spent three and a half years downing a bottle of Crown Royal almost daily; he also burned through his $3.96 million signing bonus, spending the loot on cocaine and crack, as Evan Grant described yesterday in an excellent story about Hamilton's past.
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Hamilton was finally able to get reinstated and was taken in the December 2006 Rule 5 Draft by the Chicago Cubs, but they immediately sold him to the Cincinnati Reds. He had a remarkable season last year, hitting .292 with 19 homers and 47 RBI in just 90 games. But with a surplus of outfielders, the Reds dealt Hamilton to the Rangers in December for pitcher Edinson Volquez and minor-league reliever Danny Herrera. This was the second pitcher of the DVD trio that GM Jon Daniels traded away. (The third, Thomas Diamond, didn't play last year because of Tommy John surgery.) While I didn't agree with the John Danks trade, this one was a no-brainer.
Sure, Volquez has good stuff, but he hasn't been able to put it together at the big-league level. Hamilton proved he still has the talent to become a superstar, and he turns just 27 in May. He has the potential to be the best center fielder in Rangers' history and could even replace Michael Young as the face of the franchise.
Hamilton, who has 26 tattoos, is constantly reminded of his past. And he certainly comes with risk. "Three times a week, Hamilton's past and future intersect when he urinates into a cup and waits for confirmation that tells the baseball world what he has known for 27 months: He is clean, sober and drug-free," Grant writes.
The general consensus is that 2008 will offer just another ho-hum season for the Rangers. They will suck again, so why even bother? I won't suggest they have a shot at the postseason, although Dayn Perry of FoxSports.com is crazy enough to do so with a worst-to-first prediction. Still, there are reasons to head out to the ballpark. And Hamilton will definitely be one of them.