CINCINNATI — Josh Hamilton kept running into fans around his Cincinnati hotel the last couple of days and they kept conveying the same message to him.
“We wish you still played for the Cincinnati Reds,” they told him.
He smiled and answered back, “Then why did you trade me?”
The fans didn’t trade him, it was the Reds, the team that rescued him from a life filled with syringes and drug-induced lost days and nights after which he awakened to find his body covered in tattoos.
It was six years ago that the Reds took a chance on Hamilton, former overall No. 1 pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Reds plucked him out of the Rule 5 draft for $50,000 because the Rays had given up on him ever rehabilitating himself and didn’t think anybody would take him in the draft.
And there he was on Opening Day, 2007, wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform. He didn’t start that day against the Chicago Cubs, but was a late-game unsuccessful pinch-hitter.
“I’ll always remember my first at-bat here,” he said. “They announced my name (as a pinch-hitter), and for the fans to stand and give me an ovation like they did was special. And it will always be special. I had nothing vested in the town or the team because I’d never played here.
“So it showed me a lot about the character of the town as a whole, as a baseball community. It looked and sounded as if they not only appreciated the game of baseball, but life, too.
The Reds traded him after the 2007 season for pitchers Edinson Volquez and Daniel Ray Herrera (both gone now) and he played for the Rangers through last season. Now he is with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who are in Cincinnati to open the season against the Reds.
“It’s awesome that the Lord has brought me back to where he brought me up and brought me through,” said Hamilton. “It is a reminder of, ‘Look where you were and look where you are now.’
“I think it’s cool that we have Cincinnati now, then we go right to Texas — just a reminder that these were seasons of your life, good seasons of your life and now it is time to move to a different one.”
Hamilton won an MVP trophy with the Rangers but has moved on to the loaded Angels and some believed this Reds-Angels series could be a World Series rehearsal.
“It’s fun being with the Angels,” he said. “I played against them for five years and they were our division rivals. It was stressful seeing these guys all the time on the other side, but now it’s fun to be a part of it, to be with them. It’s a special team and the chemistry is there, just like it was in Texas — guys lovin’ on each other in the clubhouse and that spills out onto the field.”
Hamilton remembers his year in Cincinnati as a learning segment of his development.
“I learned how to be a professional,” he said. “I was around a veteran staff of guys who knew how to do that — guys like Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., David Weathers, Mike Stanton and Eddie Guadardo, guys who had been around a long time. So I was right where I needed to be to make that transitional comeback.
“The Cincinnati fans were great and I enjoyed spending time with them,” he said. “It is going to be fun to play against them today.”
Of his trade from Cincinnati to Texas, Hamilton said, “It was more thankfulness and appreciation for the Reds taking a chance on me more than it was, ‘I can’t believe that they traded me.’ It’s just a part of my journey. I was where I was supposed to be that year and now I’m where I’m supposed to be this year.”
And now he is on the field, his old field, with a new team, and both teams carry high hopes.
“You always want to play teams that have high expectations,” he said. “We have them so we need to jump out of the gate and jump on them. Both these teams can play the game, so we’re ready to play in this place they call Great American Small Park. I can’t wait.”