Thursday, May 8, 2008 Updated: May 9, 9:05 AM ET
Why must some fans greet a feel-good story with hatred?
By Jeff Pearlman Special to Page 2
When there is nothing better to do with their time -- when the keg of Piels has been floated, the last Camel has been snuffed and the "Girls Gone Wild: Girls on Girls" DVD has been played to exhaustion -- the dolts of this country turn to a new hobby: Mocking the recovering drug addict.
In other words, here is what Texas Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton, a 26-year-old saint of a man, will hear, oh, 1,000 times this season:
Josh Hamilton says he can handle the taunts that some fans hurl in his direction. But where is the line between heckling and abuse?
"Where's your crack pipe, crackhead?"
"Joshie, I've got some blow!"
"Snort that line! Snort that line! Snort that line!"
They screamed it in Detroit and Boston. They will, as sure as the summer's soft breeze, scream it in New York and Oakland, Chicago and Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Anaheim.
Last season, as a rookie with the Cincinnati Reds, Hamilton was baseball's feel-good story of the year -- the once-upon-a-time, can't-miss kid who missed, became a given-for-dead drug addict, rebounded and somehow managed to make the team out of spring training as a Rule 5 pickup, then hit 19 home runs. He was happy and upbeat, the kind of person one roots for simply because, at the heart of it all, we're human beings.
Now, a year later, the situation has changed. The American League leader in RBIs (and tied for third in home runs), Hamilton has emerged as a blooming superstar. In Texas, where the putrid Rangers have one of the worst records in the AL, he is one of the only players worth seeing. Hamilton can do it all -- hit for power, hit for average, run (though not as well as he used to), throw, track down fly balls in the alley. He plays hard, and he plays passionately.
"Josh is everything you want in a ballplayer," Jon Daniels, the team's general manager, told me this spring. "A complete package of talent."
Yet with this new status comes new venom. "I can take whatever they throw at me," Hamilton recently said. "When I'm on the field, my focus is 100 percent on the game."
Whether one buys Hamilton's impenetrability (I don't) doesn't make the harassment any less troubling. Throughout the game's 100-plus year history, there has been a well-established line that, though violated thousands of time, shouldn't be crossed. Ballplayers can be booed. Ballplayers can be slammed.
Ballplayers can be bombarded with venom for laziness, for indifference, for ignoring the fans, for heartless play.
They shouldn't be, however, for addiction. No way.
Two weeks ago, against every good-judgment impulse in my body, I had the sincere misfortune of making a guest appearance on Maxim Radio's Stretch Show. Though I was told beforehand that the host, Stretch, wanted to discuss Hamilton's amazing comeback, I should have known better.
(According to his MySpace page, Stretch's favorite movies are "anything that blows up s--- and leaves lots of people dead.") After asking a few obligatory questions, Stretch took a phone call from a fan in Detroit, who raved about how fun it was to mock Hamilton with chants of "Crackhead!" from his center-field seat. When I argued that the caller was a heartless moron, Stretch went off, jovially insisting that Hamilton -- or, for that matter, any professional athlete with a substance-abuse problem -- deserves all the abuse a fan can muster. Easily said when you sit inside a radio studio, recognizable to, well, absolutely no one.
Stretch refused to move on, so I did so myself -- taking off my headphones, standing up and, literally, moving on from the radio station.
As the son of a substance-abuse counselor, I had little interest in partaking in the belittlement of Hamilton's amazing recovery. (In the classic modus operandi of bullies near and far, Stretch failed to return a call for this column.) If angry fans and shock jocks think it's funny -- appropriate, no less -- to belittle a drug addict in the process of overcoming his demons, well, where are we in this world?
Do we watch sports for the joy of the game?
Or do we watch sports for the joy of humiliation? For the joy of hate?
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.