A rally-killing double play. An anxious strikeout. Boos. A first-pitch comebacker. More boos.
Tepid applause before he stepped in as the tying run in the eighth inning of Friday night's American League wild-card game, one last chance at the redemption that never came. Three pitches. Two swings. One more strikeout. Louder boos.
Throughout the 5-1 loss to Baltimore — the game that cost the Rangers their season, the game they weren’t supposed to play — Hamilton heard it from the fans in left field, the ones who literally have been behind him for five years. They didn’t boo. That would have been easier to take. They used words, the hurtful ones, the kind he’s heard for years — on the road.
How bad did it get? “Bad,” Hamilton said. He didn’t go into detail, but it was apparent the words stung. He insisted he would shake them off, because that’s what the Bible tells him to do. Hamilton cites scripture frequently. But this verse — Matthew 10:14 — sounded like a sorrowful goodbye.
“If they don’t receive you in a town,” he said, paraphrasing the Bible, “shake the dust off your feet and move to the next.”
For months, baseball observers have wondered if Hamilton will re-sign with Texas once he becomes a free agent after the final out of the World Series. Now we have the answer.
“I’m not saying that’ll happen, but you know what? It’s just — I’ve enjoyed it here, guys,” Hamilton said, stopping himself from going further. “I’ve loved my teammates. They’ve helped me grow. The coaching staff has helped me grow as a player. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have minor-league years to grow. Some of these years have been dealing with that, learning how to play the game.
“It’s been a lot of fun.”
At another point in his postgame remarks, Hamilton pegged the likelihood of his return at “50-50.” He said the chances are “the same” as if he hadn’t been booed, that he’ll give the Rangers the “first shot” and an opportunity to match any offer he receives. He said again Friday that prayer will guide his choice. But it is obvious where this is going. The emphatic defeat, the early winter, the public adulation turned to contempt — all are signs that it’s time for both parties to move on.
This isn’t an indictment of Hamilton or the Rangers. Together, they’ve been one of the best shows in baseball over the past five seasons. Hamilton has inspired thousands — perhaps millions — through his onfield triumphs after drug addiction nearly cost him his career. He won an American League MVP award. The Rangers claimed their first two pennants.
The memories will endure. The marriage is ending.
Asked if he thought, prior to the eighth-inning at-bat, that it might be his last as a Ranger, Hamilton replied, “You think about it. You do. Then the boos slowly drown it out, which is part of the game. It doesn’t matter if I play here or somewhere else. You’d like to think it wouldn’t happen here, but it does.”
Was the booing deserved?
“Well, personally, myself, (it) never would matter how high I was, if I went to a sporting event, I would never boo somebody or yell obscenities at somebody,” he said. “That’s just me.”
It’s not that Hamilton had a poor season. Actually, his statistics were excellent. He established a career high with 43 home runs — one behind Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. He ranked second in the AL with 128 RBI. He had a four-homer game — against the Orioles — May 8 at Camden Yards. Despite ongoing questions about his durability, Hamilton played 148 games, second-most in his career.
But Hamilton ended his season — and, most likely, his Rangers career — with a whimper. He missed five games during a September road trip because of ocular keratitis, an eye condition brought on by excessive caffeine consumption. Texas lost two of the games, one by a 1-0 score. The mysterious absence may have meant the difference in an AL West race decided by one game.
Hamilton made little impact upon his return, hitting .262 with one home run as the Rangers stumbled to a 3-7 finish. He committed the tiebreaking error in the Rangers’ crushing Game 162 loss to Oakland. He was a jumpy 0-for-4 Friday night, swinging at six of the eight pitches he saw, mere hours after manager Ron Washington expressed hope the team would “jump on (Hamilton’s) back.”
Of his late-season performance, Hamilton said, “It sucked, plain and simple. Period. It’s over.”
The Rangers shouldn’t let Hamilton go because of Friday’s loss, his mercurial September, or even the perpetual threat of a relapse. Rather, the Rangers benefited from the best years of his career and have more pressing needs to fill. The ease with which Baltimore lefty Joe Saunders navigated the Rangers’ lineup underscored how critical it is for general manager Jon Daniels to retool the roster.
The Rangers need a frontline catcher, more athleticism in the outfield (Michael Bourn?), and at least one left-handed power bat — to say nothing of a pitching staff that has thinned considerably since last year’s World Series. Derek Holland regressed. Ryan Dempster, a prospective free agent, underperformed after a midseason trade. Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis, still recovering from arm surgeries, won’t be ready for the start of the season. The bullpen, taxed with a heavy workload the last two Octobers, grew less effective as the season wore on.
The Rangers have a rich farm system, so they can trade for low-salaried players or promote from within. But as their core becomes more expensive, they are faced with the reality they can’t keep every star. And right now, they have better ways to spend $20 million or $25 million per year than on a 31-year-old Hamilton.
While they won’t say so publicly, Hamilton’s teammates may sense that already. Before Hamilton left the quiet clubhouse Friday night, reliever Mike Adams asked him to sign a bat, rookie right-hander Justin Grimm a ball.
After Hamilton waved at Brain Matusz’s fastball for the last out of the eighth, he sauntered toward the outfield for what might have been one last time as a Ranger. Ian Kinsler, a teammate for each of the past five seasons, emerged from the dugout and put his arm around Hamilton’s shoulder as the boos dissipated.
“He said something like, ‘Don’t listen to them,’ ” Hamilton said. “I was like, ‘I never do.’ He’s like, ‘They can cheer you one minute and do this the next minute. It’s pretty ridiculous.’ ”
In baseball, farewells between team and player can be celebratory, controversial, bittersweet, forlorn, or some combination thereof. One wonders how different the mood would be in Texas now if Nelson Cruz — or, perhaps, the should-have-been defensive replacement Endy Chavez — had caught David Freese’s drive to right field in Game 6 last year. Hamilton and the Rangers should have a championship by now. They don’t. But the wristwatch of free agency says that it’s time to go.
If those words sound cold, then I’m sorry. Josh Hamilton heard much worse Friday night — from his former fans.