On and off field, Hamilton finds ways to inspire
One of the things Josh Hamilton learned early on is that people see him as far more than a remarkable baseball player.
"They want to tell me their story," he once said. "It'll be about their son or father, about their best friend."
They think of Hamilton as someone who will listen and understand, and they want him to know that his fight against the demons of addiction has helped others with their own fight.
"I've walked away with tears in my eyes," Hamilton said during a 2008 interview. "At first, you have trouble believing you've helped the way they say you have."
Hamilton has come to believe that his life is about much more than baseball. At the moment, he's the game's most remarkable player, a tower of strength and speed who has made the most difficult game on earth look easy.
In becoming the 16th player to hit four home runs in a game, Hamilton on Tuesday added another chapter to a story that's almost beyond belief. He's still only 30, even though it seems he has been around forever.
Maybe it's the fact that Hamilton seems to have an old soul with old eyes and an older demeanor. He projects a calmness, but clearly has struggled to find calm.
In five full Major League seasons, Hamilton is a four-time All-Star and won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2010. On Tuesday, the game slowed down for him as he waited, waited, waited and erupted, driving four pitches out of the park and hitting another for a double.
Hamilton is the best player on the best team in baseball, a team that is deep and talented and close. Yet he's the special one in the lineup, the one capable of elevating a really good team into a championship team.
When Hamilton is healthy -- and he has played more than 133 games just once -- there's no player capable of doing the things he can do. And to think, there was a time when almost no one thought he'd ever step foot on a Major League diamond.
Hamilton was the first pick of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays envisioned him as a player they would build an entire franchise around. He had once-a-generation gifts. He was stronger than Ken Griffey Jr., bigger than Alex Rodriguez, faster than Cal Ripken. There simply was nothing he couldn't do.
And then, drugs and alcohol very nearly killed Hamilton. He lost three entire years, not of his career, but of his life.
"I was blessed with so much talent," he said in that 2008 interview, "and I was wasting it by using drugs and alcohol."
When Hamilton was at his lowest, his days were simple. He was on a drug or alcohol binge, or he was sleeping one off. Hamilton remembers the day in 2005 when he showed up at his grandmother's door. He had lost 50 pounds and was covered in tattoos. His eyes were vacant, his voice weak. He was 24 years old.
"I thought I'd hit rock bottom a few times," Hamilton said, "but that really was it. To see the look in her eyes. She didn't recognize me at first, and then to see the disappointment, to know how many people I'd hurt ..."
By 2005, Hamilton's body was broken, his marriage shattered. Finally, something clicked. Problem is, no one trusted him. He pulled weeds and cleaned bathrooms at a Minor League ballpark just to get a chance to work out.
In 2006, Hamilton got back to the Minor Leagues. He was in the Major Leagues a year later. Millions of baseball fans were introduced to him at the All-Star Game in 2008 at old Yankee Stadium.
He stepped into the batter's box on the eve of the game for the annual Home Run Derby and sent 28 home runs soaring into the Bronx night. Still, when he talks to groups, when he listens to strangers, it's seldom about baseball.
Hamilton is the most popular player on the Rangers, perhaps because of those frailties, because he has been so open about his challenges.
"I finally realized my life wasn't about baseball," he said. "It's about being a good husband and father. It's about being responsible."
Hamilton believes his life, his ongoing fight, has become his real mission. He has slipped twice in his five seasons with the Rangers. His apologies -- and contrition -- have been very public.
"I've tried to be honest about everything," he said. "I haven't blamed anyone or made excuses. When you look back on it, I was young and clean-cut when I was drafted in '99. I was a golden boy. I'd never done anything wrong. How many people would listen to me? Now they see me, and they know."
Hamilton's arms are covered with tattoos, a lasting symbol of his other life. He said they're a constant reminder of how far he has come. The Rangers have set up a support system that limits his freedom away from the ballpark. He carries no money. He does not socialize with teammates when there will be alcohol served.
He's alone in a way few of us are ever alone. During trying times, he recites James 4:7, one of dozens of scriptures he says has helped.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
"I've found if I remember Scripture, things go away," Hamilton said.
There are constant reminders about his past life. For instance, on the morning after hitting those 28 home runs at Yankee Stadium, he was watching "The Natural" in his Manhattan hotel room when there was a knock at the door.
It was a collector, there to take a urine sample. Hamilton held up his hand while Robert Redford's character batted.
"Hold on," he said, "I've got to watch this."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.