Slugger Josh Hamilton comes full circle
Playoff pressure is nothing compared to what the former Tampa draft pick has endured
For Josh Hamilton, the battle was fought and won more than four years ago, when he threw off the shackles of drug and alcohol addiction and clawed his way back into baseball after most of the world had given up on him.
Of course, as every addict knows, the battle begins anew every day, and wins are sometimes counted in minutes, hours, days and weeks of sobriety.
No wonder, then, that Hamilton is so calm and collected as he and the Texas Rangers stand on the brink of a long-awaited return to the playoffs. What are the pressures of playoff baseball compared to the battle he has already fought to just be here, to merely wear a major league uniform again?
No wonder he's not worried about his cracked ribs or that his body might not be 100 percent healthy. His heart and his mind are clear, and that's why he can so casually shrug and tell questioners that he's "healthy enough" when they ask about his ribs and his swing.
That he is returning to the "scene of the crime," as it were, is just another delicious irony adding to storyline as the Rangers meet the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of their American League Division Series on Wednesday.
You see, the Rays eliminated "Devil" from their name, just as Hamilton purged his own demons from his life.
Both the team and player, then, will enter these playoffs "devil" free, although you can still find the Internet photos of Hamilton proving that no one in his position is immune to relapse.
There are two major reasons for Texas fans to believe that this postseason won't be the same ol', same ol' for the Rangers.
One is left-handed starting pitcher Cliff Lee, who gives the Rangers a true ace for the first time in a postseason game.
The second is giant-slayer Hamilton, who carries a bat, not a slingshot, and has been called by many the most talented baseball player they have ever seen.
That was pretty much what Tampa Bay -- still the Devil Rays -- was thinking when it made Hamilton the first overall pick in the 1999 draft. Scouts love to gush about finding "five-tool" players -- players who can run, hit, hit for power, field and throw -- and Hamilton had all those tools and more.
First, though, he had his devil to wrestle. It took most of three years and almost destroyed his life and his career, but through his faith and his dedication, Hamilton is here.
A part of him wishes, of course, that he hadn't thrown away those three years, that he'd been exactly what Tampa thought it was getting when it gave him a $4 million signing bonus. If that had happened, he might be starting Wednesday night's game wearing Tampa's home whites, and who knows whether the Rangers would have been here at all.
But Hamilton understands there's no looking back, that a man deals with life and its challenges day by day, and he blames no one but himself that it didn't work out with the Rays. Thus, while he will be happy to see old friends and to express his thanks to those who stood by him while they could, there will be no wistful trips down memory lane, no "if onlys," no might-have-beens.
"The first time I came here, that was great," Hamilton told reporters at Tropicana Field on Monday, "but ever since then, Texas is home.
"I have fond memories of the Rays and my time with the organization. It's cool to come back full circle from where it began. I'm going to have some people here watching the games that helped me through tough times. Overall, I'm excited."
Hamilton's life experiences should play well for him in these playoffs, in fact. Why get uptight when you've already been down the darkest road anyone could ever imagine and come out into the light, where you've anchored your life in your faith, your family and your work?
At this point, what is there to fear?
Hamilton has been there, done that. He doesn't like to fail, but he knows how to pick himself up and keep going on those occasions when it happens.
This is not to say Hamilton has dealt with such life-or-death stuff that he takes baseball less than completely seriously. He is as fierce a competitor as you could hope to meet. He has more natural ability than perhaps any other athlete to wear a professional sports uniform in the Fort Worth-Dallas area, but he also is driven to win.
That is why I expect something truly extraordinary from him in this playoff series.
Maybe I'm expecting too much, in fact. He owns a measly .147 batting average for his career at dismal Tropicana Field, one of those depressing indoor stadiums that should never have been built in the first place. He has hit just .233 against Tampa pitching overall.
And we all know the Rangers haven't won a single road game this year against the Rays, or at the home fields of either the Twins or the Yankees, for that matter.
But that's history, and we're talking about the future here.
Manager Ron Washington has said again and again that if his team plays its game, "I'll take my team against anyone."
That game includes Hamilton in the middle of the lineup. He's been called "The Hammer" -- it's tattooed on his arm -- "Hambino" and even "The Natural." They all fit because of what he truly is: "The Difference-Maker."
With him in the lineup, every other hitter in the batting order is immediately and significantly better. The Rangers' offense averages almost a half-run more when Hamilton is there.
He will be there Wednesday night. Call it a quirk of fate, destiny, God's plan or whatever you like, but there's a reason he'll be there, and in a Rangers uniform.
His battles have been bloody and decisive and he bears their scars, but he has survived them, coming out the other side a better man and still perhaps the best all-around baseball player any of us will ever see.
It's time to start making up for lost time. Let the games begin.
Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.