Hamilton ended the season under a dark cloud. He was booed in his final, futile at-bats as the Rangers lost control of the AL West and then the Wild Card game.
The enduring image is of Hamilton nonchalantly dropping a routine fly ball in Game 162 – the one that decided the AL West title.
As the season ended and Hamilton became a free agent, the prevailing vibe was that there was no way he was coming back to Texas. The fans, and perhaps even his own clubhouse, had grown tired of the persistent drama around Hamilton.
There was also a growing feeling among the fan base that Hamilton had quit on the Rangers at the end, and Hamilton’s actions did little to refute that notion.
Fast forward to Tuesday and one of developing stories at the Winter Meetings was that the Rangers and Hamilton were close to agreeing on a contract. There were even reports that the two sides had agreed on a four-year deal.
The story lost some momentum by nightfall as there was little confirmation to the original reports. Rangers GM Jon Daniels said he hadn’t spoken to anyone in Hamilton’s camp. Hamilton, who visited the meetings, later tweeted a picture of himself and his wife, presumably at the Nashville airport, with the caption, “Heading Home!”
The Rangers are notoriously tight-lipped about their biggest off-season moves, and re-signing Hamilton would be a whopper.
The story all along – the one that both sides acknowledge – is that Hamilton would test the market and then give the Rangers a chance to top the best offer.
It seems too soon in the process for that to have happened. Whatever market there is for Hamilton has yet to fully emerge and it’s unlikely he would give up waiting and seek a deal with the Rangers.
The Rangers’ primary free agent target is presumed to be pitcher Zack Greinke, who also is coveted by other deep-pocketed clubs. It’s unlikely the Rangers deal with Hamilton until they know where they stand on Greinke.
And if Hamilton returns, it will likely be on their terms. As unhappy as the fans were with Hamilton, management couldn’t have been pleased with the way the season ended with him, either. Hamilton is just lucky Nolan Ryan wasn’t in the dugout after he lazily dropped that fly ball in Oakland.
It’s always something with Hamilton, whether it’s energy drinks giving him blurry vision (allegedly) or trying to quit smokeless tobacco in mid-season. At one time his blue eyes were to blame for him not hitting during day games.
His teammates apparently have had enough. While a gimpy Adrian Beltre almost has to be sedated to stay out of the lineup, Hamilton takes himself out of crucial games and is out for long stretches.
Remember the words off reliever Mike Adams in a recent MLB Radio Network interview: “You don’t know which Josh is going to show up at the ballpark. It’s nothing to be negative about toward Josh; that’s just the way it is. That’s what you get with Josh.”
Oh, but it is a negative in a clubhouse where Michael Young, the ultimate baseball professional, sets the tone. It’s definitely a negative in the “No Excuses” culture crafted by Ryan.
For Hamilton to be welcomed back into the Rangers’ clubhouse, he will have to return with a dose of humility.
When his bat is hot and he’s hitting four homers in a game, teammates can put up with his quirks. When he’s flailing at the plate and refusing to change his hitting approach, teammates don’t want to hear about your ocular keratitis – get up there and hit. That’s not being insensitive, that’s just the way baseball go.
This does not mean players and management have not been sympathetic toward Hamilton’s problems with substance abuse. On the contrary, the Rangers have been very supportive in that area, which is one reason there’s a good chance Hamilton returns. It’s unlikely he will find another major market with the kind of support system he has in place in Texas.
As for the fans, they were staunchly in Hamilton’s corner until the bitter end of 2012. It won’t take much to win them back if Hamilton can find his swing again. This isn’t Boston or New York where players are cheered or jeered based on the previous day’s boxscore.
But Hamilton will have to display the kind of hustle he flashed, often to the detriment of his health, for most of his time in Texas. Hamilton used to be known for crashing into walls chasing baseballs. At the end of last season, he was known for letting them drop or dribble past him.
It is possible for Hamilton to return and win back the fans and clubhouse, but the market will determine much of it. One gets the sense the Rangers would welcome Hamilton back if they can get him at a reduced price.
All it takes is one team to offer Hamilton crazy money, but his sour end to the season may have spooked other clubs. If the Rangers can get Hamilton for considerably less than crazy money, then that gives the club a certain amount of psychological leverage.
Hamilton can go home again, but it will probably be under house rules.