Tattoos cover Josh Hamilton's arms and legs, reminders of another time in his life, a dark time when drugs and alcohol sent him into a frightening free fall from one of baseball's best young prospects to the precipice of suicide.
07/03/2008 12:00 PM ET
Hamilton now reaching for the stars
Texas outfielder has come out on the other side of drug abuse
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
It was a long and winding road from the depths of despair to where the Texas outfielder is today, preparing to play in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.
"For it to be the last year of Yankee Stadium and for it to be my first All-Star Game, that means a lot to me," said Hamilton, who was running second among American League outfielders with more than two million votes.
Hamilton earned that support, leading the AL with 80 runs batted in and tied for the lead in home runs with 19 entering July. He is also 2 ½ into recovery from a desperate battle with drugs and alcohol, a tug of war when nothing more vital was at stake than his own survival.
He was the last guy you'd expect to get into this kind of trouble. Not Josh Hamilton. He was the All-American boy and had baseball salivating at his potential when he played high school ball in Raleigh, N.C. He was a multi-talented outfielder-pitcher, selected as USA Baseball's Amateur Player of the Year and Baseball America's High School Player of the Year after he hit .529 with a school record 13 homers and 35 RBIs and went 7-1 with a 2.50 ERA for Athens Drive High School.
Tampa Bay made him the No. 1 pick in the June 1999 draft and he was making decent progress through its Minor League system until 2001, when he was injured in an automobile accident. For the first time in his life, he was robbed of his baseball support system and so he found a different one -- in drugs and alcohol.
"I made some bad choices," he said quietly.
It didn't take long for baseball to find out and he was banned from the game -- placed on the restricted list for violating the sport's drug treatment and prevention program. It kept Hamilton out of the game from 2003-05, a time when his life all but fell apart.
Each day was nothing more than a search for a fix to feed his addiction. He was homeless, sleeping in the cab of his truck, maybe in a friend's house, anyplace he could find -- sometimes wishing he didn't wake up, unable to find a way out of the horror show his life had become.
He remembers walking down the center of a country road in North Carolina, in a sort of drug-induced trance, cars whizzing by on either side of him, missing him only by some miracle. The end of this nightmare came in October 2005 when, in the middle of a crack binge, Hamilton showed up at his grandmother's house, his once strapping frame down to a gaunt 180 pounds.
Tears welled up in his grandmother's eyes and it was then that the U-turn in his life began. "To see her face, to see how she looked at me, to see tears in her eyes," Hamilton said. `"I realized how much I was hurting my family, how much wrong I was doing. I had made so many poor choices. I had to hold myself accountable."
He has been clean since Oct. 5, 2005. The following June, baseball restored him from the restricted list. That winter, Tampa Bay left him off its 40-man roster and he was chosen by the Chicago Cubs in the Rule 5 draft and then traded to Cincinnati. After hitting 19 homers with the Reds, Hamilton was traded to Texas for pitcher Edinson Volquez, and both players have quickly assembled All-Star credentials in 2008. It's likely they'll both be at Yankee Stadium on July 15.
Hamilton has been there before -- at least in his dreams. Three weeks before he was reinstated by baseball, he dreamt of swinging in the Home Run Derby during All-Star Game festivities in Yankee Stadium.
Now, he will play in that game, and not in his dreams.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York