"I'm back to my old self," Hamilton said.
He means, of course, something closer to the Hamilton of 2008 than 2009. The 2008 version was the guy who wowed the nation with his story of overcoming adversity to make it to the big leagues and crush ball after ball into the far reaches of Yankee Stadium at the Home Run Derby. He finished with 32 homers and 130 RBIs and looked like a player ready to embark on a solid career, albeit a little later than expected.
But things never went right last year. He ended up in an Arizona bar in January 2009, not the best place for someone who deals daily with drug and alcohol addiction, and the photos surfaced during the season. He altered his swing, the same one that produced such impressive numbers a season earlier. He ended up injured and had several stints on the disabled list. By the time the season ended, Hamilton had played in just 89 games and hit .268 with 10 homers and 54 RBIs.
"It is easy to get caught up in everything around you," Hamilton said. "That's the way the world works. No matter how much you try to set a routine or have things a certain way, you get in the way a lot of times. It's very easy to do."
Manager Ron Washington noticed Friday that Hamilton "had his smile back," something that wasn't as prevalent in 2009 as it had been since his arrival in Texas.
"I'm mentally having fun, realizing that I'm fortunate to be here from where I was to where I am now," Hamilton said. "Just playing for an audience of one, and that's God. He allowed me to get back here for a reason, and that's the way I want to play."
Hamilton said he has his priorities back in order, which for him means God, family and baseball. When it comes to that last part, Hamilton has a renewed sense of confidence because his familiar swing is back and ready to go.
"I haven't messed with anything," said Hamilton, who added that he's put on enough weight to report in at his customary 245 pounds. "I've been hitting the ball well, hitting the ball very hard. I want to do better than I did last year, and I think I will if I stay healthy."
Former Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo recommended that Hamilton alter his swing before the 2009 season. He wanted him to eliminate the toe tap and create a more compact, consistent motion through the hitting zone.
"I listened to my hitting coach, who was very respected in the game and thought of as maybe the best hitting coach in the game," Hamilton said. "I was only two years into the game, so I'm going to respect him and listen to what he has to say, and if he thinks I can get better by doing something a certain way, I'm going to try.
"I got to a point where I had given it a good try and it just wasn't working. I went to him, talked to him, and didn't just go back to what I was doing because I didn't want to disrespect him. We had a good talk and he said, 'You gave it a good try, if you feel comfortable the other way, let's go back to it.' We started working back doing the toe tap."
Hamilton said later in the interview that he still has respect for Jaramillo and that if Jaramillo told him to do something even now, he would do it again.
But the slugger discovered last season that the toe tap was in important trigger for him to get the waggle out of his arms and make sure his hands were in the proper hitting position. But by the time that was figured out, Hamilton couldn't stay healthy, dealing with injuries to his back and ribs and a torn abdominal muscle. He didn't get the consistent at-bats he needed to make the transition from his new swing to his old one.
All of that, Hamilton says, is behind him. He's ready to step in and contribute to the Rangers in 2010. Just don't tell him he's a crucial part of the lineup.
"Do I want to be crucial? Yes," Hamilton said. "I don't think I'm the man. If I focus on not thinking I am and keep my focus on God, I'll end up being that guy. Everything else will work out."
Two key changes should help Hamilton this season. First, he's going to be primarily a left fielder. That should cut down on the wear and tear of his body. Second, Vladimir Guerrero will hit in the cleanup spot, just behind Hamilton. That should give him some more protection, allowing him to see better pitches. Hamilton was at his best in 2008 with feared hitter Milton Bradley behind him.
"We know what Hamilton brings to the table," Washington said. "We'd certainly like to have him back and healthy and performing the way we know he can perform."