Rangers star Hamilton battles at bat and in life

He was the can’t-miss kid, a talent so prodigious that he may

have rewritten the record books had things gone according to

plan.

When cocaine meant more to Josh Hamilton than life itself,

though, baseball didn’t stand a chance.

”All I could think about was how to get and use more drugs,”

Hamilton said a few days ago. ”I mean, that’s all I cared about

and all I thought about.”

Blessed with tremendous ability, he was equally cursed by

tremendous desires. They almost cost him his career, and could have

cost him his life.

Instead, Hamilton batted third Thursday night for Texas,

managing a single in four at-bats as the Rangers dropped their

second straight to the Giants, 9-0. If his team comes back to win

the championship, though, he’ll be the one being doused on the

field with ginger ale instead of champagne.

He plays a game where failure comes easier than success. But his

time on the field may be the easiest part of a life he struggles to

live every day.

By now it’s become a routine, because a routine makes it that

much harder to stray. For a baseball player, the temptations of

life can often be magnified by the temptations of the road.

”You don’t necessarily wake up in the morning and think about

it – I’m not going to drink today or I’m not going to use drugs

today,” Hamilton said. ”You have things in place. You wake up in

the morning and pray. I do my Bible study in the morning and at

night when I get home. I listen to Christian music and country

music. There’s a lot of things I had to change as far as what I was

doing and what kind of life I was leading to make my life

better.”

The years it took him to change are lost forever, which one day

may cost him a place in baseball history. Hamilton is 29 now. The

alcohol and drugs that were so much a part of his life kept him out

of the major leagues far longer than Tampa Bay ever imagined when

it made him the No. 1 pick in 1999 and signed him to a $4 million

bonus.

Watch what he did to the Yankees in the playoffs, though, and

it’s hard to believe that this is a guy who has barely played the

equivalent of three full years in the bigs.

The best player in baseball has just really started to play.

”I think that we might not give him enough credit for what he

has accomplished in a short period of time,” Rangers president

Nolan Ryan said before Game 2. ”The scouts are telling everybody,

don’t let Josh Hamilton beat you and don’t pitch to Josh

Hamilton.”

The Giants didn’t exactly follow that advice in the opener and

somehow managed to get away with it. Hamilton went hitless in four

at-bats before drawing a walk his final time up in a losing

effort.

Without their star, though, the Rangers wouldn’t even be here.

Hamilton carried them against the Yankees, batting .350 with four

home runs and so intimidating opposing pitchers that they issued

him an ALCS-record five intentional walks, including three in the

Game 6 clincher.

”He’s capable of doing this for many, many years into the

future, and I think the more he plays, the more he begins to

understand, and the better he will be,” manager Ron Washington

said. ”He makes our lineup go.”

What makes Hamilton go is a little more complex. By his own

count, his battles with addiction put him in and out of eight

different rehab centers and, as the years went on and the bonus

money ran out, he started thinking that maybe he would never play

baseball again.

But after serving several suspensions for positive drug tests in

the minor leagues, he finally made it to the majors with Cincinnati

in 2007. And now he’s the certain American League MVP after hitting

.359 with 32 home runs and 100 RBI in the regular season.

The temptations, though, remain. Hamilton had a relapse in a bar

in January of last year that came to light months later when

embarrassing pictures were posted online.

He doesn’t go out much now and, when he does, carries little

cash to reduce the chances he might head to a bar to spend it. His

idea of a big night on the road is hanging out and playing Xbox

with pitcher C.J. Wilson, who doesn’t party.

He understands how fortunate he’s been, and he doesn’t shy from

talking about it. In a way, it’s a form of therapy.

”I feel very blessed because a lot of folks don’t get second

chances,” Hamilton said. ”Drugs and alcohol, they kill. That’s as

simple as it gets. You know what it feels like to get high or to

drink. You know that little glimpse of (how) good it is. But think

of all the bad stuff that can come from it. Think about killing

somebody, waking up the next day not knowing what you did the night

before. All the bad consequences greatly outweigh that little bit

of feeling good.”

Hamilton’s teammates respect his battle so much they surprised

him by pulling out ginger ale to spray on their slugger when the

Rangers beat the Rays to open the playoffs. They sprayed him again

with the special bubbly after they upset the Yankees.

He’s the best player on the field in this World Series and, if

the Rangers win, he’ll almost surely be the one leading them to the

championship.

But that’s a few days down the road for a player who has no

choice but to take his days one at a time.

Until then, the ginger ale is on ice.

—-

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org