By Jeff Pearlman
Eight seconds. That’s the duration Josh Hamilton lives by—the span that saves his marriage and his baseball career and his money and, quite frankly, his life time after time after time.
Eight seconds. It’s how long the Texas Rangers center fielder will allow a dark thought to percolate in his mind; how long he will listen to the siren call to pull off the road, withdraw $500, and find the nearest crack dealer. “If you go longer than eight,” he says, “you’re in trouble.”
This is what Josh Hamilton regularly goes through, a constant, eight-second internal battle of good versus evil that frames the greatest personal comeback in the history of professional sports. The number one pick in baseball’s June 1999 amateur draft, Hamilton spent much of the ensuing years as a cocaine and crack addict, blowing through his $3.96 million signing bonus; shrinking from a sinewy 215 pounds to a scrawny 180; kicking off most days with a 750-milliliter bottle of Crown Royal and ending them asleep and drugged out in a car or a ditch or a random tattoo parlor. By 2003, he’d dropped out of baseball completely. “I still think about one night when I took [Klonopin and cocaine], ran out of gas on the way to my dealer, and wound up 40 miles away from where I initially scored,” he says. “I was walking down the middle of the street, pitch-black night, vehicles flying by. I didn’t know how I got there or what I was doing. I was lost. Just lost.”
Today, the 27-year-old is the centerpiece of the Texas Rangers’ efforts to rebuild, and is poised to become one of Major League Baseball’s elite players. His return from the dead is more improbable than George Foreman’s winning the heavyweight title 20 years after relinquishing the belt to Muhammad Ali; more astonishing than Andre Agassi’s rebounding from a 141st world ranking in the late 1990s to capture five more Grand Slams. “It’s the most insane, ridiculous story I’ve ever heard,” says Jon Daniels, the Rangers general manager who acquired Hamilton from the Cincinnati Reds this past off-season. “You’re not talking about someone who is fighting back from an injury. Josh was a crack addict who lived in the streets. You don’t come back from that.”
And yet here Josh Hamilton is—back from that, sitting in front of his locker at the Rangers’ spring training complex in Surprise, Arizona. Less than three years after taking his final hit from a crack pipe, the man whom teammates at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, North Carolina once nicknamed “Hammer” is not merely the feel-good story of the season, or the oft-clichéd “beacon of hope.”
No, he is the unreal turning real. “My life,” he says, “is nothing short of a miracle.”
I first met Josh Hamilton in April 1999, when I was sent to Raleigh to profile some 17-year-old high school kid one major-league scout was calling “the best prospect since Alex Rodriguez.” Hyperbole be damned, young Josh was as all-American as apple pie. Neither a drinker nor a smoker, Hamilton had curly brown hair, midday-blue eyes, and a crooked Alan Jackson smile that made the Carolina girls swoon. He refused to curse, brag, loaf, or dose teammates with attitude. He even declined invitations to the Athens Drive senior prom, telling me, “I can’t have anything bad happening to me now. If I’m put in an awkward situation, there’s too much on the line.”
On the diamond, Hamilton was the best pure talent I’d ever witnessed. As a high school pitcher, the left-hander’s fastball reached 96 mph. As a hitter, his senior year batting average was .529 with 13 home runs in 25 games. “He’s better at this game than anyone I’ve ever seen in high school or college,” John Thomas, his Athens Drive coach, said at the time.
In short, Hamilton was perfect.
Yet less than two years after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected Hamilton first overall, perfection died. On the morning of February 28, 2001, Josh and his parents, Tony and Linda Hamilton, were returning from a Devil Rays exhibition game to their Bradenton, Florida home when their Chevy Silverado pickup was demolished by a dump truck that had run a red light. Though both Tony and Linda were treated for serious injuries, Josh seemed to escape unscathed. In the ensuing weeks, however, he experienced excruciating back pain. That May, with his batting average at .180 for Double-A Orlando, Tampa Bay put him on the disabled list. Suddenly, a young man who knew only baseball found himself with pockets full of money and an endless reservoir of free time.
“That’s when I started hanging out at the tattoo parlor,” he says. “Some days I’d sit in the chair for eight hours and get two or three tattoos. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was thinking.” (He now has 26 tattoos, which he rarely displays.) It was during this period that Hamilton experienced two firsts in a single night. While visiting a strip club with some tattoo parlor pals, he drank his first alcoholic beverage and snorted his first line of cocaine. Hamilton will never forget the feel of that initial high. Energetic. Euphoric. When the buzz vanished, he instantly craved more.
The Devil Rays, meanwhile, were concerned that the injuries Hamilton sustained in the car accident had steeped him in depression. In July the team sent him to a sports psychologist, in whom he confided about his experimentation with cocaine. Tampa Bay immediately had Hamilton placed in the Betty Ford Center, but he checked himself out after eight days.
And so began a pattern—Hamilton would use drugs, fail a drug test, be suspended, be sent to rehab, leave rehab, use drugs. Team officials could only watch helplessly for the next year as the kid with Ken Griffey Jr.’s power, Craig Biggio’s intensity, and Tony Gwynn’s instincts sank further into the darkest of lifestyles.
By spring training 2003, after refusing to show for mandatory thrice-weekly drug tests, Hamilton was banned from professional baseball. With nothing left to do in Florida, he moved back up to Raleigh and settled into the life of a junkie. He spent most of his days roaming the city’s streets, trying to find a familiar dealer to hook him up. He would go three or four nights without sleeping, showering, or changing his clothes.
In November 2004, Hamilton temporarily sobered up and married Katie Chadwick, a high school girlfriend who thought his drugged-out days were behind him. “I thought when he said, ‘It’s over,’ that meant it’s over,” she told The Washington Post. “But when he had his first relapse, I knew it was going to be a long road.”
She had no idea. It was around this time that Hamilton first tried crack. “It consumes you in so
many ways,” he now says. “I can’t describe how badly I wanted more and more of it.” In July 2005,
with Katie seven months pregnant, Hamilton hit his lowest low. After a long night on the pipe, he awoke in a trailer surrounded by eight or nine strung-out druggies, none of whom he recognized. Instead of snapping out of his haze, He lent his truck to a drug dealer to buy more crack. The man never returned, and a humiliated Hamilton had to call his wife to pick him up.
Two months later, when Katie brought the couple’s daughter, Sierra, home from the hospital, she sent Josh out to pick up something from the drugstore. Hours later he was found at a nearby bar, completely high. “What I did to my family,” he says, “is inexcusable.”
Then, that October, something in Josh Hamilton snapped. Broke, weak, and desperate, he slunk up to his Grandma Mary’s front door, strung out on crack, 180 pounds of skin hanging off his 6'4" frame. Mary took him in, and the next morning, over breakfast, fired away: “You’re killing yourself. You’re killing everybody who loves you…And you’re killing me.”
“That’s when the light finally came on,” Hamilton says. “I’d had people tell me stuff like that before, but hearing it from my grandmother really hit me.” A few days later, Hamilton used drugs for the final time and entered a treatment program of his own volition.
“It was get clean,” he says, “or die.”The Prodigal Son
Hamilton did not die.
In June 2006, following eight months of sobriety, Major League Baseball granted Hamilton permission to participate in spring training. Prior to reinstatement, he had to show that he was clean (once again submitting to drug tests three times a week), committed to getting back in shape, and able to hold a steady job. To prove himself, Hamilton went all out. He attended regular recovery meetings and church services, rarely left the house alone, and had his wife handle all the couple’s money.
Eventually, he moved to Clearwater, Florida to work at a baseball academy, the Winning Inning. There, under the supervision of a former pro player named Roy Silver, Hamilton mowed the lawns, unclogged toilets, and took out the trash. In his spare time, he did nothing but hit. “It came back pretty naturally,” he says. “It’s something I’ve always been able to do.”
He alerted Tampa Bay to his progress, and soon general manager Andrew Friedman was in touch with Bud Selig, petitioning the commissioner for Hamilton’s full reinstatement. “We wanted [Josh] back in the game because he needed it for himself,” Friedman says. “That was the most important thing, and we expressed that to the commissioner’s office. You absolutely have to root for Josh to succeed.”
After weighing the evidence, Selig agreed, and that summer Hamilton played 15 games for the Devil Rays’ Class-A Hudson Valley club. But he hit .260—proof to the Rays that their once-can’t-miss kid had probably missed for good. Following the season, Tampa Bay decided to leave Hamilton off its 40-man roster, meaning he could be signed by any other franchise in the annual Rule 5 draft. With little to lose, the Chicago Cubs nabbed Hamilton, then traded him to Cincinnati. “I don’t think we saw it as a risk,” says Johnny Narron, a former Reds coach. “We knew how much raw talent Josh had. So why not go for it?”
Hamilton arrived at the Reds’ Sarasota, Florida spring training complex the following February
in the best shape of his life. The one-time addict now weighed a solid 230. He hit one monstrous shot after another, tormenting pitchers to the tune of a .476 exhibition batting average. It was
as if all those lost years were merely a bad dream, as if he had stepped right out of high school and into the major leagues. On the opening-day roster, Hamilton was listed as the fourth outfielder.
“I don’t think people understand the sort of odds Josh overcame to make it,” says Eddie Guardado, a former Reds reliever. “My brother was a heroin addict who died from drugs. I’ve seen how it reaches out, grabs you, and doesn’t let go. So for Josh to return from all those years of not playing baseball—having barely picked up a bat—and perform at that level, well, it tells you what kind of player he is.”
On April 2, 2007—nearly eight years after being drafted—Hamilton finally made his major- league debut. As he strolled toward the plate as a pinch hitter, the crowd at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park gave him a 22-second standing ovation. Though his rookie season was cut short by a handful of injuries, Hamilton was one of the Reds’ top players, batting .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBI in 90 games.
From afar, members of the Texas Rangers’ front office watched in amazement. When it was time to beef up the team’s outfield, Daniels called the Reds and offered Edinson Volquez, one of baseball’s top young pitchers. Though the Reds were saddened to lose Hamilton, it was a deal they had to make. “At first I was a bit surprised,” says Hamilton. “But when I got here I saw what type of team it was. The guys are so welcoming, I feel like I’m in high school again. The joy has completely returned.”
The Rangers, meanwhile, have high hopes. They expect Hamilton to start 130–140 games in center field, and see the potential for a .290-30 home run-100 RBI breakout season. At press time, his performance in spring training was living up to expectations: Through his first 12 games, Hamilton’s OPS was 1.747. “There’s no question Josh is one of the great talents in the game,” says Daniels. “You take one look at him and see that this man is made to be a baseball player. At his best, the sky is the limit.”
Hamilton’s life outside baseball is quiet. His internal battle is unrelenting, making him ill-suited to the postgame pursuits of the average big-league ballplayer. When his teammates hit bars and clubs—even restaurants—at night, he goes home to his family. When he needs to, he revisits James 4:7, the verse that helped pull him through his darkest days: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Resisting is not easy, but Hamilton has seen the alternative and knows it’s not an option. Today Josh Hamilton knows who he is. The only question left to be answered is, what can he do on the field?
By Jeff Pearlman