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Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Updated: December 8, 8:36 AM ET
The Things We Forget, Part 5: Josh Hamilton

By Chris Jones

It was pretty much impossible to watch this and not get goosebumps.

"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 5, on Josh Hamilton. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.

For Josh Hamilton, forgetting has never been an option. His tattooed arms tell his tale better than any archive could, gallons of ink drilled into his skin and laid bare for the world to see. With October's first chill cooling the Chapel Hill air outside, he sat in the storage room of a local bookstore, where he was doing a book signing, wearing only a T-shirt. He knew there was no point in trying to hide his backstory. He also knew 2008 will be remembered as the year his tattoos started to fade, the year people saw something other than that long period when he was lost. On July 14, Josh Hamilton was found.

Two years earlier, in 2006, not long before he was reinstated by Major League Baseball after years of drug addiction and depression, Hamilton had a dream. In it he was being interviewed by a female TV reporter at a Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium. He had a bat in his hands, but he didn't know how many home runs he had hit. He couldn't even tell what uniform he was wearing.

As events turned out, after he changed out of his street clothes in the Yankee clubhouse that July afternoon, his superhero costume was American League blue. Soon the rest would fall into place.

"The nerves don't hit you until you're actually there," he said, recounting the Derby as a line formed inside the bookstore. "I was the last guy to hit, so after the introductions, I went back inside the clubhouse and took off my shirt and unbuckled my pants and flopped down on a couch. The couches are so deep, people behind me didn't even know I was there. When the contest got to about the fifth guy, I popped up, and everybody was like, 'Aren't you in this thing?' That's when I started to get ready. That's when I started feeling it."

Hamilton stepped to the plate as Clay Counsil, his 71-year-old friend and former youth coach, waited on the mound. "I felt just as if I was hitting on a high school field," he said. He hit the first pitch to the bleachers in right-center. Then he hit another one out, then another, then another, then even more. "The crowd—the more I hit, the more they got into it," he remembered. "When they started chanting my name, that was something I'll never forget. I had chills. And right after they started chanting my name, the very next pitch, I hit my farthest ball of the night." That one went 518 feet, high into the upper deck.

When the first round finally ended, Hamilton had hit 28 home runs, a record. His closest competitors hit eight. But it wasn't the quantity of the performance that made the ground shake; it was its quality. During one stretch, Hamilton hit 13 in a row. He hit them into the black batter's eye in deep center; he hit them off the mezzanine; he nearly hit one out of the Stadium altogether, through the slim gap in right that lets the trains see in.

And then he was interviewed by ESPN's Erin Andrews, and as he spoke with her—about God, about being saved, about the heights that can be reached even from life's lowest watermarks—Hamilton couldn't stop thinking about how the whole of his dream had come true. It was almost too much for him to take. He went back into the clubhouse to hide from the crowd noise, which still roared, and the magnitude of what he'd done. He decided to skip the semifinals to gather himself, but David Ortiz grabbed him and told him to get back out there, to stay warm. Before the final round, against Justin Morneau of the Twins, he retreated to the grass behind home plate. "If a camera had been on me, you would have thought I was crazy, because I was talking out loud," he said. "I said, 'Lord, if you want me to win this thing, I'll be happy to, but if not, we've already accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.' "

Hamilton couldn't recover from his own awe. Morneau won 5-3. But the trophy was a footnote. Morneau was the champion 2008 would most quickly forget, and Hamilton would forever be the personification of faith and redemption. Now he was traveling across the country selling the most appropriately titled book of the year, Beyond Belief, talking especially to people who looked a little too much like him. "Could God have used me had I stayed the clean-cut kid I was and made it straight out of high school like I was supposed to?" Hamilton asked in the back of the bookstore. "Probably. But when someone who looks like me and has been through the things I've been through talks about life, people see that no matter how far down you go, there's always a way back." It was a perfect closing note. Then he said, "If I read your story and you haven't put God in there, I'm coming after you."

Hamilton got up and went out front to sit behind a table in the middle of the store. The first piles of books were placed in front of him. He signed, he shook hands, he posed for pictures, he held a baby. Hundreds had come to see him. Two boys carefully approached.

"Who's your favorite player?" Hamilton asked the younger one.

"You are," the boy said.

"Really?" Hamilton responded, sounding genuinely surprised. "I thought you were going to say Derek Jeter."

Afterward the boys beamed, holding their books as though they were made of glass. It was a sweet moment. They were brothers, 14-year-old Andrew and 7-year-old Alexander. I asked Alexander if Hamilton really was his favorite. He smiled and nodded. "At least for those 30 seconds," he said.

Just like that, I was back on the bridge to Mexico.

To move to Part 6 of "The Things We Forget," on Venus and Serena Williams, click here.

Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"

Part 1: The Closing of Yankee Stadium Part 2: Michael Phelps Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree Part 4: Annika Sorenstam Part 6: Venus and Serena Williams Part 7: The Boston Celtics Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods Part 9: Sidney Crosby Part 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee Stadium Part 11: The 2008 World Series Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.