I remember the first time I met Josh Hamilton. He walked slowly up the steps, through the box seats behind home plate at Joseph P. Riley Jr. park in Charleston, South Carolina. He was wearing a gray Tampa Bay Devil Rays t-shirt and white game pants.
Hamilton was clean shaven with curly brown hair – and not a single tattoo. He dropped into one of the empty box seats on a hot, humid July 4 late afternoon in South Carolina and propped his massive feet on the seat in front of him. That’s what I remember most: his massive feet.
We talked about his introduction music; a few minutes later he was gone. I sat with a Charleston Riverdogs employee and talked about Hamilton. On the field all the talk was about his amazing bat speed, arm and defensive skills. Off the field, people talked about his million-dollar bonus and, not if, but when he would arrive in Tampa to rescue Chuck LaMar’s embarrassing franchise.
Alcohol? Cocaine? Sleeve tattoos? Not Hamilton. He was a humble, innocent 18-year old country boy from North Carolina. While Charleston teammates were living hard and fast, soaking up every second of their 15 minutes of fame, Hamilton was playing pool with friends after games. In bed early, up early and back at the ballpark to hit in the cage or off a tee.
After that night’s game, the fans stayed in their seats and players, coaches and their families gathered on the infield grass to watch the annual 4th of July fireworks display – everyone but Hamilton, that is. He was on the field too accompanied by his bat, a tee and a bag of tennis balls.
As the fireworks exploded so did the tennis balls off Hamilton’s bat and into the screen behind home plate. Occasionally he would pause, look toward the sky and catch his breath. Then, back to it, which explained the line drives and long home runs he hit during games.
A Florida car accident sent him on a crash course of injuries, drugs, alcohol and rehab. I began to think you’d never get to see the Hamilton I saw. But he got clean. The Chicago Cubs selected him in a Rule 5 Draft, then traded him to Cincinnati, but as we’ve seen this week, sobriety is a day-to-day negotiation.
“It never gets easy,” Hamilton told the media in a prepared statement last week in Texas. “I’ve put my wife through a lot in our marriage, and she’s a very strong woman. It’s about time I become the strong one in the relationship … take the lead in making decisions and stepping up and being the man I’m supposed to be, not continuing to hurt her.
“My life in general is based on making the right choices,” he added. “I look at it like that, you all know how hard I play on the field and I give it everything I absolutely have. When I don’t do that off the field, I leave myself open for a weak moment. Once I drink, I can be very deceptive, very sneaky in a lot of ways.”
Those are some powerful words coming from a 6’4″ 240-pound 30-year old man who blasted 28 home runs during the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium (three of those home runs were estimated at more than 500 feet). Few players in the histroy of the game can — or could – harness the level of physical and mental control it takes to do that; Hamilton did. The results were a joy to watch.
But, put a shot glass or a 12-ounce bottle of beer in fron of him and, within minutes, seconds even, you can throw it all away. The power of addiction is sometimes stronger than our passion.