10/26/10 10:00 AM ET
Hamilton finds redemption in faith, sharing
Rangers star hopes others can learn from his rise from despair
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
About the night he woke up in a trailer not knowing where he was, who he was or where he could go. About his squandered signing bonus, his resurrected marriage, his fall and subsequent rise from grace.
He would like you to know about the desperate knock he made on his grandmother's door five years ago, a knock that gave way to a promise, which slowly led to redemption. The dreams. The demons. The attempts he made to take his life. Yes, he wants you to hear those stories, too.
He wants you to see each of his 26 tattoos, which, once a piercing reality of his downward spiral, now serve as a permanent reminder of how far he has climbed.
He also believes you should understand truly how small a part of his life baseball is. And appreciate how the lyrics in the TobyMac song he has played when he steps to the plate -- "It's never too late to get back up again. You may be knocked down, but not out forever" -- weren't selected by accident.
But if you only remember one thing about Joshua Holt Hamilton, he prefers it to be this:
This journey that he's on -- still on, as he will emphasize -- there's not a thing he would have changed along the way.
"There's a bigger picture to why I am here," Hamilton said on Tuesday. "It's made me a more spiritual man. It's made me, being a father, better with my kids. All these bad choices that I've made, being able to find a solution -- which is Christ and having that relationship with Him -- has made every aspect better."
Hamilton's story was extraordinary before his fall.
The No. 1 pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, the left-handed-hitting outfielder was destined to be a star. He had a swing that would make people stop and watch him take batting practice and a fluidity about it that allowed the Rays to dream.
Tampa Bay had paid $3.96 million to sign the Athens Drive High School (Raleigh, N.C.) graduate, a seemingly modest sum when one factored in the upside.
"I've been working in baseball for a long time, and I know when someone has 'it,'" recalled Rick Zolzer, who, as a staff member with the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades, saw Hamilton get his first taste of professional ball in 1999. "He was a young skinny kid, a restless kid who had ungodly ability. He was an absolute freak. The ball made a different sound coming off the bat when he hit it."
From Hudson Valley, Hamilton began his climb. He dominated low-Class A pitching in 2000. His ascension appeared unstoppable.
Adversity first hit in February 2001, when Hamilton and his parents, Tony and Linda, were involved in a car accident in Bradenton, Fla. Hamilton suffered a back injury that landed him on the disabled list. His parents were forced to go home and recover from their injuries.
Hamilton was alone, vulnerable.
"I went looking for something I shouldn't have to fill that void that was there," Hamilton said. "The choices I made were my choices."
He began spending his days in tattoo parlors. The signing-bonus money started going to alcohol and crack and various other drugs. To pay for the addiction, he sold possessions, among them his Renegades championship ring.
He would wake up not knowing who was around him. There were nightmares and fits of violence and little concern about a career once destined for greatness. Baseball became an afterthought to survival, though Hamilton wasn't even always concerned with that. Sometimes he wanted to die. Other times he was too messed up to know what he wanted.
Major League Baseball hit Hamilton with numerous suspensions as the drug tests began coming back positive. He tried checking into a rehab clinic, but that stay lasted only days. He appeared in 56 games in 2002 and not a single one for the next three years.
Those dreams of being baseball's next superstar were shattered by the reality of self-destruction. He didn't seem to have a chance.
"The odds of getting off of crack are about one percent," Michael Chadwick, Hamilton's father-in-law, said. "The odds of going back to a baseball field don't exist. Somebody forgot to tell God."
Chadwick still doesn't know why Hamilton showed up at his Raleigh, N.C., house in September 2003. Maybe Hamilton had heard Chadwick when he was a guest speaker for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group at the high school. Or maybe Hamilton had learned of Chadwick's story -- he abused drugs for 15 years before coming clean -- and hoped he could relate.
|"I told him, 'You didn't get this way overnight and you can't get over it overnight. This won't ever go away until there's a change in you. There has to be a change in your heart.'"|
-- Michael Chadwick,|
Hamilton identified himself and claimed to be a former No. 1 Draft pick, to which Chadwick turned to his wife.
"He must be higher than I ever was," Chadwick recalled saying. "And I got pretty high."
It wasn't until the Chadwicks' daughter, Katie, came downstairs and recognized Hamilton as a former classmate that Hamilton's story was verified. Chadwick, now a faith-based motivational speaker, ushered Hamilton into his house.
The two began talking and continued nearly until dawn.
"I told him, 'You didn't get this way overnight and you can't get over it overnight,'" Chadwick said. "'This won't ever go away until there's a change in you. There has to be a change in your heart. There has to be something coming into your life more than getting high. Until this happens we'll have this conversation 100 times and we'll have the same ending, and that's just the fact.'"
After that, Hamilton turned his life around briefly, and married Katie Chadwick. However, tranquility didn't last.
There would soon be relapses with both the drugs and alcohol. Josh and Katie separated as Josh's behavior became too detrimental for him to be around his newborn daughter and step-daughter. He squandered away more money, lost more weight.
And in the middle of one October night in 2005, he ended up at the home of his grandmother, Mary Holt. It was this visit that came to Hamilton's mind when he stood in the outfield last Friday night as Neftali Feliz struck out New York's Alex Rodriguez to send the Rangers to the World Series. The memory brought Hamilton to tears.
"I was just thinking about the moment at my grandmother's house when I thought I could never be in this spot," Hamilton said. "There definitely was a time when I thought baseball was a thing of the past."
While Hamilton was with his grandmother, he made her a promise. He was done. Done with the drugs. Done wasting away his life. Done ruining the few relationships that he still had left.
Hamilton hasn't been high since.
Weaning himself from all his addictions was the most difficult part, though it was hardly the lone obstacle in resurrecting his baseball career.
Before baseball could return, Hamilton believed he had to turn his life over to Jesus. He became a devout Christian, finding some semblance of freedom when he took ownership of his religious beliefs. With faith, Hamilton felt purpose. He no longer had to battle the Devil alone, and he found a high that required no drug.
"The amazing thing is that He wants to have a personal relationship with me," Hamilton said. "My father-in-law says it best: When God can't find the straight stick, he uses the crooked one. I'm the crooked stick."
Added Chadwick: "It's an amazing thing to see how God can absolutely transform a life. I don't care what anyone says. It's a miracle."
Hamilton's second chance in baseball began in June 2006, when MLB lifted his suspension. Four years had passed since Hamilton had last taken a field. He ended the '06 season with a 15-game stint at Hudson Valley, a place that, seven years earlier, had seemed nothing more than a routine stop on a journey to stardom.
Now, his mere presence there was monumental.
Hamilton showed up much bulkier than he did as an 18-year-old, though no one questioned the presence of his raw talent. In fact, there's one story that has become almost legend around the Renegades' park. One day, during a rain delay, Hamilton was challenged by teammates to place a ball on a tee, stick that tee at home plate and try to hit a home run.
Hamilton took the bet.
His first attempt landed at the warning track. His second cleared the outfield wall. He took one more for kicks.
It left the park.
Hamilton collected his money and bought the team dinner with it.
"People don't understand the level that he plays on," Zolzer said. "For him to lose four years of growth and then treat Major League pitching like he's playing Wiffle ball in the driveway is absurd. He had no idea how much ability he had."
Apparently, nobody did.
The Rays placed Hamilton on outright waivers during the 2006 season. He could have been had by any team for a $20,000 claiming fee. Each of the other 29 teams passed. Hamilton was left off the Rays' 40-man roster later that fall, making him available to be selected in the December Rule 5 Draft.
Unbeknownst to the Rays, one team had such a plan.
Chris Buckley, the Reds' senior director of scouting, had gotten a tip that Hamilton, prior to his return to Hudson Valley, had been working out at a complex in Florida. Reports were that he was looking good, too.
Buckley phoned then-general manager Wayne Krivsky and planted the seed.
"We really hadn't seen him play because he had been suspended," Krivsky recalled. "We hadn't scouted him since high school."
But going on Buckley's suggestion, the Reds began doing their homework. They went through the process surreptitiously, taking every precaution so that no other club would sense their interest in the former top pick. Buckley talked to various people in the Tampa Bay area who had been watching Hamilton practice. Everything -- on both the baseball and personal ends -- checked out.
Buckley forwarded all the reports to Krivsky, who believed it was enough to take the chance.
Worried that Hamilton could be selected early in the Draft, Cincinnati made a deal with the Cubs. Chicago would select Hamilton and then flip him to the Reds. Altogether, the transaction would cost the Reds $100,000.
Even after the change in organization, Hamilton was a long shot to make -- and stay on -- the Reds' roster for the entire '07 season. But there were early signs that he would. What Buckley had heard, he soon saw. So did Johnny Narron.
Narron first met Hamilton when he was a nine-year-old playing rec basketball with Narron's son. Now, prompted by a request from his brother, Jerry, who was managing the Reds when Hamilton arrived, Narron agreed to serve as Hamilton's hitting coach that winter.
"The raw talent that God has blessed him with is beyond most people's understanding," Narron said. "When he started hitting in 2006, I still saw that he had that special talent. I could see that he had been away from the game and that he would have to work to get back to where he could be, but I could also see that talent was still there.
"I've always thought that if he was healthy enough to play, his talents could play. They're extraordinary. He has a unique talent."
|"He is an absolute superstar. But he is so down to earth and gives so much of his time and heart and love to random people. People write him inspirational letters and he writes them back. He takes time to reach out and hopes that he can help bring people back from the dark places that he has been.|
-- C.J. Wilson,|
"It was very tough to trade him, but at the same time, we needed pitching and had other outfielders in the system," Krivsky said. "He always had the God-given ability. It was just a matter of being able to stay healthy and then he could put up some tremendous numbers."
Texas felt like home to Hamilton right away. Whereas he wasn't entirely accepted in the Reds' clubhouse -- some scoffed at the attention he received -- a group of Rangers players immediately embraced Hamilton.
"They didn't judge him," Narron recalled. "They weren't jealous of him because Josh takes a lot of time for fans and people gravitate toward Josh. They didn't have a problem with that."
Narron watched it all firsthand. He had been hired full-time by the Reds to be a confidant, an adviser and an escort for Hamilton, and the Rangers brought him to Texas for the same purpose.
Hamilton and Narron have become nearly inseparable on the road, as Hamilton mostly avoids going out with his teammates. The temptation would be too much, he fears. So Hamilton and Narron spend their free time in other ways. They play video games, have Bible studies, go to movies.
They stay in adjoining hotel rooms whenever possible. When per diems are passed out, Narron collects Hamilton's portion. Hamilton, who is still drug tested three times per week, believes that without money in his wallet, the likelihood of relapsing is reduced.
"I'm with him and I'm for him 24 hours a day," Narron said. "I've been very blessed to be a part of this whole trip. I'm able to be there and support a young man who has turned his life over to God. I love Josh. I know that Josh loves me. We respect each other. It's a relationship that we both believe was meant to be."
With Narron keeping him accountable and his teammates fostering a supportive environment, Hamilton has thrived. He's been an All-Star for three straight seasons and put on an unparalleled show in the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium in 2008.
He's a strong candidate to take home the American League Most Valuable Player award, which would be his first and would be a fitting complement to the one he just claimed in the ALCS. Both may be accompanied by a World Series ring.
Hamilton continues to find team-wide support through it all. No better an example can be found than in the Rangers' decision to celebrate their Division Series victory with ginger ale rather than champagne or beer. The gesture ensured that Hamilton could take part in the celebration.
"In order to really experience what it's really like to be in his shoes, you have to really hang out with him and see how different he is from everybody else," said C.J. Wilson, who has become a close friend of Hamilton's because of his straight-edge lifestyle, whereby he abstains from using drugs and alcohol.
"He is an absolute superstar. But he is so down to earth and gives so much of his time and heart and love to random people. People write him inspirational letters and he writes them back. He takes time to reach out and hopes that he can help bring people back from the dark places that he has been. He's one of the strongest people I've ever been around. He's someone that I look up to."
Hamilton prays that Wilson is not the only one who does. As his career has taken off, the secrets of Hamilton's past have been willfully disclosed with the hope that others might learn from his mistakes. Or if they've already made mistakes, Hamilton wants them to know that they can make it out.
Five years ago, there were days Hamilton believed he'd be digging ditches or working construction for the rest of his life. On Wednesday, when the World Series opens at AT&T Park in San Francisco, he'll be on baseball's biggest stage.
"I think it's not going to sink in until it's completely over with, so I can focus on what I need to do as far as playing and spreading my message to people," Hamilton said of the journey. "I feel very privileged and blessed to because a lot of people don't get second chances. Because drugs and alcohol, they kill. Plain and simple."
Hamilton's resurgence lies much deeper than numbers or awards or fame. It comes through every detail of his past and is strengthened with each hope he has for the future.
Hamilton doesn't attempt to hide from his imperfections, nor will he lie and say that he has overcome it all. But he will tell you that he is at peace, and that this is how the story had to be written.
And that, Hamilton will say, is why it is OK that you know.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.