Hamilton's Red-letter spring is made for Hollywood
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Sometimes, the stories we tell aren't really baseball stories.
Sometimes, they're just the stories of human beings -- people who rise, who fall, who sadden us, who inspire us. We only use baseball as a reason to tell those tales.
|For more background on Josh Hamilton's story, check out Tim Keown's feature story from the June 21, 2004, issue of ESPN The Magazine.|
Thankfully, one of the great human stories in America is suddenly unfolding in front of us, on these baseball fields beneath the Florida palm trees.
For too long, Josh Hamilton was the talk of baseball for all the wrong reasons. Now he's the talk of baseball for all the right reasons.
He has climbed out of a real-life horror film and back into the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds. And if he keeps playing the way he is playing, he is going to make the Cincinnati Reds, as your standard five-tool reserve outfielder.
He is 25 years old now. It's nearly eight years since the Devil Rays made him the first pick in the 1999 draft. There is a three-year black hole missing out of his career. And the stuff he is doing this spring, he has no business doing. But he is doing it anyway.
A week into spring training, he's batting .476 (10-for-21). He has mashed a 500-foot home run. And there isn't a National Leaguer in the state of Florida with more hits than he has (10).
So already, teammate Ryan Freel says, "he's a great story."
And he is. But not just a baseball story.
"Getting back here, it means a lot, baseball-wise," Josh Hamilton says. "But also, it's going to mean a lot when I get to tell my story to people."
He is telling that story pretty much every day now, to anyone who asks. And those of us who type for a living are all too happy to help him tell it.
It is the classic saga of the all-American boy whose life unexpectedly careens down life's darkest alley -- but then, remarkably, zigzags back in the other direction. And now here this guy is, on the cusp of doing something few humans get the chance to do:
Grabbing hold of an unspeakably tragic script and crafting a much different ending. But not on any keyboard.
In real life.
He is a walking Hollywood stand-up-and-cheer production. He is teaching us all a lesson about why we give second chances in life. And he is basking in it all.
'99 Princeton (R)
Hudson Valley (A)
|'00 Charleston (A)||96||.302||.348||.476|
'01 Charleston (A)
|'02 Bakersfield (A)||56||.303||.359||.507|
|'06 Hudson Valley (A)||15||.260||.327||.360|
"Just getting back on the field," he says. "Sunshine. Uniform on. All of it. It's so good."
So good. Too good. Too good to feel real, even. Every day seems to bring a whole new reason to ask: Is this really happening?
Imagine this scene, for instance:
Imagine our hero, driving home from a spring-training baseball game last weekend, his wife by his side, a smile on his face ... and his major league baseball uniform still on his back.
"I wore my uniform home from the game the other day," he admits. "I rode home with my wife from the Twins game and stopped at Dairy Queen, with my uniform on. And when I got home and took it off, I just looked at it."
Looked at it?
"Yeah," he says. "To take in the moment."
At the Dairy Queen, he reports, "I had the biggest burger I could get. It reminded me of being in a [American] Legion baseball game. Or high school. It's just that feeling of, it's a game. And just having fun with it."
Who would have thought a couple of years ago that this guy had many -- or any -- fun days left in anybody's baseball uniform?
Somehow, he had descended into a drug abyss from which there appeared to be no escape. He'd been suspended by baseball indefinitely, for violating the terms of his treatment program. His wife had left him. He had an infant daughter he'd barely laid eyes on. He'd pushed away all the friends who had reached out to help him.
And then he turned up on his grandmother's doorstep in September 2005. He'd lost 50 pounds. He had nowhere else to turn. She took him in and fed him, and all seemed right in his world, finally. But it wasn't. A couple of weeks later, she looked into his eyes, knew he was high and confronted him.
"She told me she couldn't take it anymore, that I was hurting the people I love," Hamilton says. "My grandmother seeing me like that -- that was the turning point."
That date was Oct. 5, 2005. It is burned into Josh Hamilton's brain, because of what it signifies. It was the day his life took the U-turn that has led him here.
|NO. 1 PICKS, LAST 10 YEARS|
|Josh Hamilton was drafted out of Athens Drive H.S. in Raleigh, N.C., one spot ahead of Josh Beckett. Others drafted in the '99 first round were Barry Zito, Ben Sheets, Brett Myers and Brian Roberts. Here are the draft's No. 1 overall picks over the last 10 years:|
But the forces that led him to this team, in this spring, at this point in his life are so powerful, so cinematic, so packed with elements of fate and coincidence that even his teammates get chills talking about them.
"I told him, 'There's a reason why you're here. All this stuff happened for a reason,'" Freel says. "And he believes that."
Technically, Hamilton is in this Reds spring-training camp because they maneuvered to obtain him in December's Rule 5 draft of unprotected minor leaguers. But there is more going on here than the technicalities.
What were the odds that Josh Hamilton would wind up playing for a team whose manager, Jerry Narron, has known him since he was a teenager?
What were the odds that Narron's brother, Johnny, actually coached Hamilton in a summer-draft showcase setting a decade ago -- and had a son who had grown up with (and played baseball and basketball with) Hamilton, since he was (gulp) 9 years old?
And what were the odds that Reds GM Wayne Krivsky would work out a deal with the Cubs for the No. 3 pick in that Rule 5 draft before he even knew there was this connection between his manager's family and his future draft pick's family?
"The amazing thing to me," the manager says, "just by the grace of God about how all this worked out, is the night before the Rule 5 draft Wayne wanted to run it by me about drafting somebody with a past. Wayne said his name, and my jaw just dropped -- because Wayne had no idea I even knew him."
In fact, Narron -- as caring a man as you'll find in anyone's dugout -- had been beating himself up for years, just because he'd never reached out to Hamilton during those darkest days. So Narron told his GM, "If anybody can get this thing done, we can get this thing done together."
For added support, the Reds then hired Narron's brother as their new video/administrative coach. And they're committed, Johnny Narron says, "to be there for Josh, for whatever he needs ... on and off the field."
So far, it has all worked out so poetically, it feels more like a fairy tale than the poignant comeback drama of a troubled young man.
This guy missed three full seasons (2003-05), remember -- and got just 50 at-bats, in a short-season league, last year. So how many players could lose that huge chunk of their career -- and still look like one of the most talented players on the field?
Oh, he had his doubts it was all still in there. But "at the same time," Hamilton says, "that just lets you know that it's a God thing, because to be out of baseball that long and to come back, and to still have the ability I have, it's just one of those things that lets me know that this is what I'm supposed to do."
And maybe it is. Another one of his new teammates, Jeff Conine, has watched all this with a sense of awe.
"I know if I took three years off," Conine says, "I wouldn't be able to make contact with the ball, let alone hit balls 500 feet."
It won't always come this easy, obviously. Josh Hamilton knows that. We know that. The pitchers will get serious. The breaking balls will get sharper. The word will get out. That batting average won't be pushing .500 for long. His playing time will shrink. The temptations that swayed him once will always be there.
But spring is supposed to be a time for feel-good stories. And no one in baseball has made more people feel good than Josh Hamilton.
His wife, Katie, and his two daughters sit there in the stands every day -- watching, cheering, praying. Every day, the calls, the e-mails, the text messages roll in from all the people rooting for him. And Josh Hamilton does his best to take it all in.
Asked if there has been one moment this spring when it hit him that this was really happening, he replies: "Every day. Every day."
"It almost feels like my first spring training all over again," the star of baseball's most inspirational show says. "And I just thank God every day for it."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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