When Josh Hamilton relapsed with alcohol shortly before spring training, the questions followed: Was the pressure of a contract year getting to him before the games began? Would the extension talks distract him and affect his 2012 performance?
The answer: Hamilton is batting .426.
Asked Thursday how he has remained locked in amid the uncertainty, the Texas Rangers’ All-Star outfielder replied, “I’m not.”
And he was serious.
“I’ve been fortunate and found some holes,” Hamilton continued. “I’ve felt better before. It’s still a process of trying to get everything right where you want it, feeling good.”
Hamilton is familiar with, as he put it, the process of trying to get everything right. He lives it every day, in his battle with drug and alcohol addiction. He isn’t undefeated against those demons. At the moment, though, he appears to be winning.
Hamilton, 30, is likable, approachable and relatable, even as he begins the weightiest season of his singular career. There is so much at stake: Can he remain sober? Will he stay healthy, after injuries limited him to an average of 114 games over the past three seasons? Can he produce enough to justify the long-term contract he seeks? If this is his last year with the Rangers, can he go out a world champion after consecutive October heartbreaks?
So, where’s he going to play in 2013?
“You know what? God hasn’t revealed it yet,” he told me in the visiting dugout at Comerica Park before Thursday’s series opener. “I’m praying a lot about where I’m going to be. Obviously, I love Texas. I’d love to be here. But I want to be where God wants me to be.”
Rangers officials would like to retain Hamilton, although concerns about his long-term durability could complicate the talks. As Hamilton and I spoke, Texas general manager Jon Daniels walked by and kiddingly interjected, “He’s definitely going to re-sign.”
The talks don’t appear to have advanced very far — yet. Hamilton’s story could take any number of turns in the coming days, weeks and months. His talent, his imperfection, his candor, his vulnerability — they add up to make him one of the most fascinating figures in professional sports.
And right now, he looks awfully good.
Ian Kinsler, one of Hamilton’s closest friends on the team, said he wondered initially how Hamilton would handle the pressure of a contract year.
“You never know how a guy’s going to react to that," Kinsler said. "I think with this team, it’s so much about every day — the process of showing up ready to win every day — that it took a lot of pressure off him. He knows he’s really good at baseball, which takes a lot of pressure off him. He’s done it before. He’s in a really good situation right now.”
When I asked Kinsler for his gut feeling on whether Hamilton will be a Ranger in 2013, he paused for several seconds before answering.
“Yeah,” he replied. “If we win the World Series, it’s going to be really hard not to bring him back.”
So if they don’t win it all, the chances would diminish?
“I think so,” Kinsler said. “He’s one of the best players in the game. He (would) be hard to replace.”
Hamilton is self-aware about his early season success. He acknowledges that he’s been a free-swinger. (He’s offered at 45.2 percent of the pitches he’s seen, the majors’ third-highest rate, according to FanGraphs.com.) And he’s not just being modest when he says his hits have “found some holes.” (His batting average on balls in play — .419 — doesn’t appear sustainable.)
But it won’t surprise anyone if he posts MVP numbers, because he was the American League MVP two seasons ago. Kinsler compares Hamilton’s approach to that of Nomar Garciaparra in his prime, saying, “If you hit everything on the barrel, you really can’t argue with it.” And when Hamilton senses that pitchers are trying to bait him into flailing at pitches outside the zone, he’ll take a more patient approach. He did it Thursday in Detroit: 1-for-4, two walks.
“People are going to try to get me to chase,” Hamilton said. “Right now, I’ve been able to handle some pitches that you’re not really supposed to handle. The time will come when I’m going to have to start laying off those, because I’m not going to be productive all the time.”
Hamilton is playing center field more often than he did in 2011. The position suits him well. Kinsler has observed him reading balls off the bat during batting practice, trying to hone his skills, a reminder that Hamilton remains something of a raw talent after losing several minor league seasons to substance abuse.
“You’ve got to remember: Josh didn’t spend any time in the minor leagues,” Kinsler said. “He went straight to the big leagues. This is, what, his sixth year? He’s basically had six years of baseball at the professional level.
“He’s still learning, which is crazy. He’s still learning on the defensive side. He’s still learning baserunning. He’s still learning the little things of the game. I think he’s just going to continue to get better.”
For years, Hamilton been asked about his past, about his faith, about his missteps, about his achievements, about his ability to play baseball with such power and grace. Very soon, the game will introduce one question he’s never heard before.
Josh, you’re welcome to choose your own team. Where do you want to play?