Josh Hamilton, Hero or Zero?

June 27, 2008 at 2:04 am | Posted in Baseball, Rays | 17 Comments

People who know me well can tell you that I am a notoriously opinionated person. Whether it’s sports, politics, movies, the I/T industry, or any other subject that I know well, I form opinions about what I like and don’t like. I’m always open to new ideas, and my opinions do change over time, but I love to take a position on something and have friendly debates about it with people who have opposing views. It’s not often that I can’t make up my mind about anything.

When it comes to baseball players, there I players that I love to cheer for and others who I love to hate, and there’s usually very little ambiguity. I love to cheer for Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, and I love to jeer ex-Rays Aubrey Huff and Elijah Dukes. I marvel at the accomplishments of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Greg Maddux, while I am infuriated by the performance-enhanced records of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. It is usually easy for me to decide whether or not I like a player. But there is one man who is truly an enigma for me, and he is Joshua Holt Hamilton.

I first became aware of Josh Hamilton shortly after I moved near Raleigh, North Carolina in 2001. He was a local sports celebrity, having played at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh before being chosen with the #1 overall pick in the 1999 draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Devil Rays gave him a $3.96 million signing bonus and counted on Hamilton to play a major role in building a winning team. He was very successful in the minor leagues in 1999 and 2000, and local sports fans were buzzing about the possibility of seeing him play for the Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate) in the near future. As my interest in the Devil Rays began to grow, I thought about how exciting it would be to see this local kid starring in Tampa Bay’s outfield.

Before the 2001 season, the hype for Josh Hamilton was at an all-time high as he was rated as the #1 prospect in the game by Baseball America. Unfortunately, Hamilton was involved in a car accident before the season and he was limited to only 27 games between Single-A and Double-A due to the injuries that he suffered. It is believed that Hamilton first began to experiment with drugs during that season. The future looked a little bit brighter in 2002, when he hit .303 in 211 at-bats in Single-A before the injury bug struck again.

By 2003, everything began to fall apart for Josh Hamilton. He abandoned the organization and his teammates during spring training. He showed up again at different points during the season only to disappear again shortly thereafter. He didn’t play a single game that year, and fans began to wonder if something was seriously wrong with the prized prospect. The only thing that we knew was that Hamilton was being affected by “personal problems”. It became obvious that the Devil Rays were worried about Hamilton’s future when they drafted Delmon Young with the #1 overall pick in the 2003 draft. People began to talk about a future outfield of Carl Crawford in left, Rocco Baldelli in center, and Young in right instead of Hamilton.

Before the 2004 season, the details of Hamilton’s “personal problems” began to come out as he was suspended by MLB for violating its drug policy. He was suspended for the entire 2004 and 2005 seasons. Tampa Bay fans began to believe that Hamilton was a lost cause and few believed that he would ever be able to come back and advance to the major leagues. It was common to hear Rays fans lament that the team had chosen Hamilton with the #1 pick over Josh Beckett, who had already developed into a star pitcher in the major leagues. The decision to draft Hamilton was considered to be one of the two worst moves the team had ever made; the other was trading Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker immediately after acquiring Abreu in the expansion draft in late 1997.

By 2006, Josh Hamilton was all but forgotten. Then in early in 2006, Tampa Bay newspapers began to report that Hamilton was trying to turn his life around and become clean. He began to work out at a baseball academy in Florida. Midway through the season, he had made enough progress that he was allowed to return to baseball and he joined the roster of the Hudson Valley Renegades, a short-season Single-A team that mostly included players who had just been drafted. He hit only .260 with no home runs and 5 RBI in 15 games before injuring his knee. It was good to see that Hamilton had been able to make somewhat of a comeback, but most people believed that it would take several years for him to regain and hone his skills in the minor leagues before he’d be ready for the majors, and that was assuming that he didn’t return to his drug addiction or fall victim to injuries.

It was within this context that the Rays left Josh Hamilton off of their 40-man roster prior to the Rule V draft in December 2006. Despite having players like Damon Hollins and Travis Harper on the roster who they would soon release, the front office didn’t think that any MLB team would want to take a player in the Rule V draft who had played only 15 games since 2002, was injury prone, and had a drug problem. They were proven wrong when the Chicago Cubs drafted Hamilton and sold him to the Cincinnati Reds. Still, the rules of the Rule V draft dictated that the Reds would need to keep Hamilton on their 25-man roster for the entire season or they would have to return him to the Rays. Few people believed that he was ready for the majors.

As we all know, an amazing thing happened after that. Josh Hamilton played well enough in spring training to make the Reds roster and he had a great rookie year, hitting .292 with 19 home runs and a very impressive .922 OPS. The Reds traded him to the Texas Rangers after the season, and he has become one of the most productive offensive players in baseball this year. Hamilton has also seemingly beaten his drug addiction and he is trying to become a positive role model for kids.

My feelings about Josh Hamilton are very conflicted. On one hand, I am very happy for him that he has beaten his drug addiction and turned his life around. It is great to see that he is finally fulfilling his vast potential and he has truly become an All Star caliber player. I am also very relieved for his family, especially his wife and his daughter. Hamilton is also setting a good example for kids by working hard to overcome adversity (even if it was self-inflicted) and have success. He takes a lot of time to talk to kids about the negative affects of doing drugs, and I fully applaud him for those efforts. I truly hope that he continues to stay clean and have a very successful major league career, even if he is not playing for my favorite team.

On the other hand, Josh Hamilton severely disappointed the entire Tampa Bay Rays fan base. The Rays’ success this year makes it more bearable, but can you imagine how much greater the Rays would be if they had Hamilton in right field? It’s almost unfathomable. Hamilton basically took $3.96 million from the Rays and they got nothing in return for their investment. I assume that he spent a sizable portion of that money to feed his drug addiction. He abandoned the organization and his teammates at a time when they really needed him. The Devil Rays were an awful team during the years that Hamilton did not play. If he had stayed clean, he probably would have made the majors sometime around the start of the 2004 season. He would have lived up to his potential and he would have helped the team win a lot more games than they did in the ensuing seasons.

When I think about Josh Hamilton, I think about players like Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Steve Howe from my childhood. All of them had similar drug addictions. They all made several comebacks after getting clean, but each time their addictions got the best of them, and they were continually suspended for their drug use. I fear that the same thing might happen to Josh Hamilton, and that would be a terrible thing, not only for Hamilton and his family, but also his large fan base that includes many kids.

I was at the RBC Center in Raleigh for a Carolina Hurricanes hockey game in late 2007. It was “Josh Hamilton Day” at the arena and Hamilton was there to be honored by his hometown fans. I began to wonder if Hamilton was really worthy of being honored. Do his positive accomplishments outweigh his failures? Is he someone who kids should look up to? What happens if and when Hamilton relapses back to his drug addiction and lets down his new fan base? These are very difficult questions, and I don’t have the answers yet. As Hamilton was introduced to the crowd at the arena, the fans erupted in loud cheers. I couldn’t figure out if I should cheer him or boo him. I finally decided to just remain silent.

During one of the intermissions between periods, Josh Hamilton was available to sign autographs for fans. I decided to wander over to the table where he sat, but there were over 100 people in line and I didn’t want to wait so long. As I walked away, I caught a glimpse of Hamilton posing for a picture with two young kids, a boy and a girl, who I imagined were siblings. Their faces lit up with glee as they met their hero, much like my face lit up when I met Don Mattingly at a Toronto hotel in 1988. I couldn’t help but think about the reactions that those two kids would have if Hamilton ever resumes his drug use.

I saw Josh Hamilton again this past Friday as he was playing for the Texas Rangers in the game that I attended in Washington against the Nationals. When he came to the plate, I still hadn’t figured out if I should cheer or boo. I suppose that only time will help me to decide how I feel about Josh Hamilton. If he is able to stay clean for many years and continue his success, then I will gain a lot of respect for his ability to work hard to overcome his problems. If he goes down the path of Gooden, Strawberry, and Howe, then I’ll have no reservations about booing him as loudly and proudly as I boo Elijah Dukes.

What do you think about Josh Hamilton? I hope that this post will be thought-provoking and will elicit some good discussion. Also, I’d encourage you to check out a very good blog about Josh Hamilton’s cards, The Hamiltonian. And finally, check out my best Hamilton card, an autographed card that I pulled from a hobby box of 2007 Upper Deck Masterpieces:

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17 Comments »

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  1. That was an awesome post. Personally, the Rays disappointed me much more when Canseco hit 30 home runs by the All-Star break but then threw him away a little later.

    Josh? I never cared for him then or today. I have traded every last card of him (including an auto/game-used). He just never appealed to me but if he maintains his stats I will be very happy for him.

  2. I’ve never followed Hamilton and don’t necessarily care about him as a player, so I didn’t know the story. If he stays clean for the rest of his career, he will be the stuff of movies. A would-be hero comes on to the scene, hero falls, battles his faults and returns to rise again. “The Josh Hamilton Story” on Lifetime…..coming this fall… or something like that.

  3. Good read, but I don’t see how you can say Josh ‘abandoned’ the Rays. He screwed up horribly, no doubt – but he also managed to claw himself out of the gutter. He didn’t ditch the Rays as a free agent, or hold out for more money or anything like that. They left him unprotected, and a team took a chance on him. Yes, the Rays had put up with a lot from him, and I’m not minimizing that – but Josh didn’t leave on his own.

    As for whether kids should look up to him – why not? As of right now, he’s a pretty amazing story. First, he’s a great cautionary tale for parents to tell their kids about just how badly you can screw up your life, even if it seems that you have it all. Second – he gives hope to all those people who have screwed up in their lives that there is a way back. Also, you can’t predict the future. He might screw up again. But, its impossible to tell who will screw up in the future. Lots of steroid tainted baseball players out there were idolized by kids before it turned out they had screwed up pretty badly as well. Every athlete’s fan base includes a lot of kids. The only way to keep kids from seeing their heroes screw up is to not let them watch sports.

  4. 30 home runs by the All Star break, Mario? I had to check on that, and it looks like he only hit 9 home runs for the Devil Rays in 2000 before he was given to the Yankees at the trade deadline. That was before I was a Tampa Bay fan, but that move did puzzle me at the time.

  5. Thanks for your input, Tricia. My comment on Josh abandoning the Rays was in reference to walking out on them in 2003, and missing the next three full seasons. In hindsight I fully blame the Rays front office for leaving him unprotected for the Rule V draft in 2006, especially when worthless players like Hollins and Harper were being protected. It’s really the only significant bad move they’ve made since Andrew Friedman became GM, and it was huge. Of course if Hamilton had not screwed up the way that he did, he would have already been a star by 2006 and never would have been eligible for the Rule V draft.

    I’m definitely with you in hoping that Josh can stay clean and maintain his success! If he does that, I’ll feel much better about cheering for him and may one day become a full-fledged fan.

  6. Ahhh, I misunderstood the timing you were referring to. Yes, he walked out on the team there, but I think he would have been a detriment had he stuck around anyways. When he was ready to play ball again, he returned to the Rays organization. I can see how fans would be upset that their first overall selection just walked away from the team though.

  7. The year before he had 31….and then got hurt. A year later he was gone. :(

  8. Has anyone ever noticed on these “Stroke of Genius” cards that the set title in the bottom right is misspelled? “UD MasterPEICES”….

    That’s my two cents. I don’t know much about Josh Hamilton. But, on the other hand the only things I know about Albert Pujols are that he’s a Cardinal and that apparently his Bowman card thinks that it’s a ’52 Mantle…

    I’ve got LOTS to catch up on in Baseball. Great Post…

  9. Good catch, JV. I usually notice spelling errors, but somehow missed that until you pointed it out.

  10. i have to agree with u on many well-made points. as a person w/ extensive personal & professional experiences w/ addiction; i have found that crack cocaine is one of the top 2 drugs that are hardest to kick. but, i do applaud josh h. for his honesty about how he recovered..i will make up my mind about him after he proves his truthby staying clean for awhile longer..addicts do tend to go back 2 the drug whenever anything adverse happens in their lives. I Truly hope that josh can remain the rolemodel and family man he says he wants to be. drug addiction is theHARDEST THING In life to overcomand one should never underestimate its power & strength. I know b/c i’m a five time loser myself before i finally got clean in 2005

  11. jewelsnb, you are not a loser anymore. Just don’t ever give up.

    To me Josh is a “man among men.” No matter what a person does, or who they do it in front of, it is hard to admit faults. Human nature.

    I have had the opportunity to shake his hand and look him in the eye, and I saw something there that makes me confident that he is on this path forever. It’s impossible to describe in words, but I just knew somehow.

    A side note, he has one of the biggest autographs I have ever seen…:)

  12. I hope you’re right, ejahnke. It does sound like what a lot of people were saying about Darryl Strawberry in the mid-1990s, but hopefully Hamilton is different.

    And thanks for your personal insights, jewelsnb!

  13. My husband and I were watching All Star Home Run Derby last night as Hamilton was hitting HR’s one after another non-stop. I really don’t follow baseball as my husband does, so I really didn’t know who Hamilton was until last night. When TV personals and reporters started talking about his struggles and overcoming his addiction, I just couldn’t help, but cheer for him. My husband is a recovering addict who has relapsed twice this year. Drug addiction is not an easy thing to overcome, everyday is a struggle for many people including my husband. I’m sure, Hamilton goes through same thing as many others who try to stay sober every day.

    When my husband saw Hamilton played last night and hitting Home Runs, I saw tears in his eyes. It was like Hamilton was telling and showing all the people who are going through addiction that they are not alone, and that they can, too, overcome it… Hamilton hit 28 HRs in the first round, although he didn’t win the title. When we heard his interview after the play, I knew that Hamilton will be able to stay on the right path for good; I saw and felt the determination within himself and his performance. I think many other players who were in the same field also saw that in him..

    His story is very inspiring and having to know that he has a wife and two little girls, I am very grateful for last night’s event. ( My husband and I have two little girls as well, 2 & 4.)

    Your insight is very informative and I hope that Hamilton will be able to prove you and others that he’s not like Darryl Strawberry or like others whose addiction weighed more than the passion for the sport or love for their families.

    I think Hamilton can pull it through!

  14. Thank you for sharing your story and your views, Maki! One of the best things about Hamilton’s comeback, and his amazing accomplishment last night, is that he has been able to inspire so many people like your husband who are battling their own addictions. He seems to be making a very positive influence on people, and that is something for which he should take even more pride than his accomplishments on the baseball field.

    I just hope that he can handle the intensifying public attention that is on him and the weight that he is carrying on his shoulders from being such a huge inspiration to people. His story has been so great for baseball fans and anyone who is struggling to overcome their own challenges, and I’d like to see that story continue indefinitely!

  15. The writer of this blog should read the book Josh Hamilton wrote. In it, he describes how the Rays didn’t like the fact that his parents came with him to the minor leagues. Josh was very close to his family-they were his support. AFter the auto accident, Josh’s parents had to go back to NC for neck therapy for his mom. Josh sustained a back injury in the accident that left him unable to play. So he lost the two most important things in his life at that time. Never did Josh even hint in the book that he blamed the Rays for his getting into drugs. But as a mother myself, I can see that he needed support during this time and it seems to me that the Ray’s organization should have done more to guide him. They knew that he was, my opinion, very sheltered at home. For Pete’s sake! They had a huge $$ stake in the kid!

  16. bobbie – it’s funny that you mention the book. I got it as a Christmas present and I’ll be reading it soon. It’s true that the Devil Rays front office was completely incompetent in the first half of this decade, and I’m sure that they could have done more to help, but I have no doubt that Josh Hamilton is deserving of the lion’s share of the blame for his own problems during that time period.

  17. Wow, after the year he is having in ’10, there is little doubt that Hamilton is a hero. Texas is gonna be a bear in the playoffs. Ryan and company sure are bringing the heat.


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