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: