Rangers hope for best from Hamilton, Bradley
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The same assimilation process takes place each spring at Major League Baseball camps, and it entails more than just changing the name plates above the lockers and lining up for photo day.Players come and players go, and the newcomers often require a little extra guidance or TLC so they can blend into the fabric of the clubhouse and perform to expectations on the field. And then you have the newest Texas Rangers: outfielders Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley. They dwell in a completely different realm. Hamilton, 26, has only 298 big league at-bats on his résumé, but he's come to symbolize the meaning of despair, struggle and redemption in sports. The rules require him to be tested not only for performance-enhancing drugs, but three times a week, year-round, for drugs of abuse. Hamilton is forthright in his admission that his next slip could cost him not only his livelihood, but his life. Bradley, 29, brings a reputation for combativeness that belies the soft-spoken presence who drifts through the Texas clubhouse. When we last saw Bradley in action, he was being peeled off umpire Mike Winters during a pennant-race confrontation in September. The commissioner's office suspended Winters five games for his lack of comportment, which had to be of some solace to Bradley. But that didn't heal the torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus that Bradley suffered in his struggle to break free from Padres manager Bud Black. Five months after surgery, he vows to be ready by Opening Day.
In their respective demeanors, the new Rangers are as different as an outstretched hand and a clenched fist. Hamilton invites you to his locker, smiles and apologizes each time he pops out of his chair and spits tobacco juice into a nearby trash bin. He sifts through the pain in his past for nuggets of clarity and truth, and shares them with a Carolina drawl and a candor that's disarming.
He's happy for the opportunity to share his story of personal weakness and religious awakening and grateful to the national media -- believe it or not -- for holding him accountable.
"I'd be the biggest hypocrite ever, as far as my sobriety and Christianity, if I didn't stay on the right path and do the right things,'' Hamilton says.
Bradley, in contrast, hails from the barbed-wire school of hospitality. Approached with an interview request, he stares into his locker stall and speaks barely above a whisper. But the message is clear: He has no desire to discuss the state of his knee, the events of last fall or his "fresh start'' in Texas."Come back when you can think of some new questions,'' he says, before ever being asked any old questions. None of this fazes the Rangers, who derive a sense of excitement from the presence of two such blessed talents. When you've posted one winning season since 2000, you welcome the cavalry, warts and all. Last year, Texas' Opening Day outfield consisted of Frank Catalanotto in left field, Kenny Lofton in center and Brad Wilkerson in right. The Rangers' pitchers ranked 27th in the majors in strikeouts, and the combination of an immobile outfield and a staff that pitched to contact did not bode well for success. General manager Jon Daniels knew there were risks involved in adding Hamilton and Bradley to the mix. To acquire Hamilton from Cincinnati, the Rangers had to part with top pitching prospect Edinson Volquez. And they invested $5.25 million in Bradley, his questionable knee and his history of histrionics. Daniels, to his credit, did his homework before making the commitment. He notes that San Diego, Kansas City, the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh and the Rangers all had interest in Bradley when Oakland traded him to the Padres last summer. Why is that significant? Because Padres assistant GM Paul DePodesta, former Royals manager Buddy Bell, Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry, then Pirates manager Jim Tracy and Texas manager Ron Washington all advocated bringing in Bradley after previous encounters with him.
"It was the guys who had been there in the trenches with Milton and understood his personality who wanted him,'' Daniels says. "To me, that speaks volumes.''
To hell and back
Hamilton's story is one of the most harrowing and uplifting in recent memory. Many scouts who watched him as a high school senior in North Carolina ranked him with Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in terms of raw ability. Think about it: He could throw a fastball 95 mph from the left side, and Tampa Bay, which drafted him first overall in 1999, was so dazzled by his prowess as an outfielder that it never really considered him as a pitcher.
Who knows where Hamilton would be now if he hadn't gotten lost in a blizzard of crack cocaine and misguided independence? He fell in with the wrong crowd, adorned his body with tattoos, and made eight trips to rehab before finally digging his way out. The official rock-bottom moment came in October 2005, when Hamilton arrived on his grandmother's doorstep looking gaunt, strung out and on a collision course with oblivion.
So it's easy to see why Hamilton's comeback resonated when the Reds acquired him through the Rule 5 draft and he showed up at camp with his skills and exuberance intact. Hamilton was so awestruck over his good fortune last spring, he stopped off at a Dairy Queen with his wife on his way home from a Grapefruit League game and ate dinner while still wearing his Cincinnati uniform.
"I didn't get bothered or anything,'' Hamilton says. "People probably thought I was just some guy playing in an old man's league.''
Hamilton hit 19 homers in 92 games before gastroenteritis and a sprained wrist eventually took a toll. But the Reds had a surplus of outfielders and needed pitching, and they passed along the fairy tale to Texas for the sake of improving the team ERA.
At Rangers camp in Surprise, they're getting a crash course in what the fuss was all about. Hamilton hits high, majestic drives over the fence in batting practice, and his teammates strain for superlatives.
"We haven't had any shortage of offensive monsters since I've been here,'' says Michael Young, ticking off the names of Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee and Juan Gonzalez, among others. "But I think they might all take a backseat to this guy in batting practice. When you're hitting balls to the opposite field off the top of the clubhouse, it's just silly.''
His fellow Rangers attest that the ball even sounds different as it comes off Hamilton's bat.
"I've never seen anyone as gifted as him,'' Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler says. "He was born to play this game.''
And fans still flock to him in droves. When Hamilton arrived at camp two weeks ago and found two pieces of mail in his slot, he assumed that people didn't know he'd been traded. Then a clubhouse attendant pointed to a box overhead that was crammed to the brim with letters. The fans had found him, all right.Hamilton sends the letters home to his mother, who puts them in a scrapbook. "Some of the stuff just breaks your heart,'' he says. The mail comes from drug addicts as well as the sons, fathers, mothers and sisters of addicts. The letter writers take a personal stake in his success, and it has absolutely nothing to do with their fantasy teams.
In an effort to keep Hamilton focused, the Rangers have hired Johnny Narron, his close friend and Cincinnati's former video coordinator, as a special assignment coach. The two men will have rooms nearby in the team hotel, and if Hamilton ever wants to talk or share in a Bible study, he knows that Narron is just a tap on the door away.
Early indications are that Texas will be different than Cincinnati. At his introductory news conference, Hamilton was surprised to see Young, Kinsler and third baseman Hank Blalock standing against a back wall. He assumed the team had summoned them to speak. But they attended simply to show support, hear his story and give him bear hugs when he left the podium and exhaled.
"Considering his past and what he's been through, I think it's important for us to make him feel like he's part of this,'' Young says. "Once the season starts and we get to know each other a little more, Josh is going to be one of the boys.''
But can he ever let down his guard from behind a wall of vices? Hamilton has forsaken alcohol and cocaine for prayer and pepperoni pizza, but he's day-to-day from here to eternity.
"It doesn't bother me if guys have a drink in front of me or make a joke, but one day there's gonna be that guy -- and I don't think it'll be on this team -- who'll be an idiot and won't take no for an answer,'' Hamilton says. "I'm fine with it. The more time I spend with my teammates, I think the better off we'll be.''
Bradley supposedly turned the corner last season in San Diego, when he went on a tear and appeared to be the guy to carry the Padres to a National League West title. In late August, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez referred to him as "my favorite player.''
Bradley is, by all accounts, intelligent, sincere and well-meaning. But fans and even umpires with a sadistic bent have learned they can push his buttons to get a rise out of him, and he must prove he can avoid taking the bait. While the Rangers claim Bradley has matured now that he's married with a son, it didn't help him in San Diego.
"Milton is moody,'' says a major leaguer who considers Bradley a friend, "and he wants to win so bad, it's hard for him to handle losing. Just look at his track record. He never gets in trouble for off-the-field stuff. It's always on the field.''
Texas management actually regarded Bradley's intensity as a selling point. As much as the Rangers value their family atmosphere and good-guy-laden clubhouse atmosphere, Daniels thought the team could use a player with a little edge and competitive abandon.
Washington doesn't plan to temper that aggressiveness unless absolutely necessary.
"I'm not going to take Milton's fire from him,'' Washington says. "If he feels like he's got a reason to be upset about something, I'll just try to get there before they throw him out. But I'm not going to stop that.''
The Rangers will be challenged to keep both players on the field in 2008. Bradley is entering his ninth big league season and has surpassed 101 games once. The Rangers would probably be overjoyed with anything north of 130 games from Hamilton.
In Daniels' dream alignment, Hamilton will be chasing down balls in center, Bradley will make headlines for his production in right rather than his outbursts, and the Rangers will figure out the pitching as they go along.
Two five-tool players. A pair of compelling stories. One destination. Amid the promise of the Cactus League, the possibilities seem endless.Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.