Faith brings Texas Rangers’ Hamilton back from the brink
Just past 8 a.m. on a gray Eastern Carolina Friday, Josh Hamilton’s silver GMC truck, grinding gravel into grit, rumbles into the alley directly across Market Street from the Ava Gardner Museum.
His ash-colored sweatpants are streaked with grease, the residue of eating a chicken biscuit while driving 40 miles from his home in Cary at the crack of dawn. As he enters a hollowed out jewelry store turned batting cage, Hamilton yanks a Rangers royal blue fleece shirt over his head.
“I like this color,” he says from under the shirt. “It really brings out the blue in my eyes.”
Just then, his sturdy, heavily tattooed forearms emerge and his head breaks free. He is 6-4, 240 pounds and has a smile that would have made one of the sirens Gardner portrayed on the screen swoon.
Now, it’s time to go to work, another full day of preparing for his future as the Rangers’ center fielder.
He spends 45 minutes in the cage working with Johnny Narron, friend and mentor and new Rangers special assignment coach. Hamilton swings one-handed with an easy but powerful grace. He hits a handful of line drives off tees and soft-tosses and then another 25-30 in full-scale batting practice. It’s a breeze compared to last winter, when he would hit 300-400 balls a day while trying to cram the 3 ½ seasons that he lost to drug addiction into two months.
The rest of the day includes 2 ½ hours with a merciless personal trainer. On alternate days, he visits a similarly sadistic pilates instructor.
When he finally gets home and takes off his size 16 shoes, the doorbell rings. A lab technician is waiting. Three times a week, Hamilton’s past and future intersect when he urinates into a cup and waits for confirmation that tells the baseball world what he has known for 27 months: He is clean, sober and drug-free.
“I think he looks forward to the tests,” Narron says. “He knows he’s an addict. He knows he has to be accountable. He looks at those tests as a way to reassure people around him who had faith.”
Faith. It comes up often in the story of 26-year-old Joshua Holt Hamilton. It’s virtually impossible to tell his story without mentioning his Christian faith. He’d prefer you not even try.
Faith, he regularly testifies, has put him back in baseball after four years of addiction problems so ugly you can’t blame his family for not wanting to relive them. But because of faith, they do – to churches, youth groups and halfway houses.
If Hamilton could shake his habit – it included downing a bottle of Crown Royal almost daily and cocaine and crack cravings so strong he burned through a $3.96 million signing bonus – and finally get to the big leagues last season, there had to be a reason.
The reason came to his wife, Katie, more than two years ago in a dream while Hamilton was serving a year-long suspension ordered by Major League Baseball for multiple failed drug tests.
“God told me he was going to give Josh baseball back, but it wasn’t going to be for baseball,” Katie says. “It was going to be for something much bigger. He was going to give Josh a platform to help others. He is the most beautiful choreographer. It’s not by accident that all the things that have happened in our lives have happened.”
On this particular January weekend, Hamilton tells the story three times: To a reporter, to an audience of 500 at Apex Baptist Church and to a rescue mission. The talks usually last about an hour. When Katie is involved, they almost always involve tears. And the crowd, whether it’s one or 500, sits engrossed.
The full story can’t be captured in an hour. To really understand how far Hamilton has come, it’s important to understand just how far he fell.
When he was barely 15, Hamilton was already a North Carolina sports legend. He was that rarest of finds, a true five-tool player. Left-handed, he was so gifted that he occasionally played shortstop and even hoped to be a catcher. But coaches were too protective of his arm because when he pitched, he hit 95-96 mph. When he played the outfield, nobody ran on him. When he hit, everybody gasped at the power.
“I’ve seen some really special amateur players – Kirk Gibson and Bo Jackson – but Josh is the most talented kid I’ve ever seen,” says Jax Robertson, special assistant to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ general manager – and whose son was a teammate of Hamilton’s at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, N.C. “Every skill was above average; some were off the charts. He had instincts, athleticism, passion and compassion.”
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Hamilton the first overall choice in the 1999 draft. He was the first high school player to be No. 1 since Alex Rodriguez in 1993.
Hamilton signed two days later. His parents left their home to be his chaperone. Together, they packed up and headed to Princeton, W.Va., in the rookie-level Appalachian League. Almost immediately, Hamilton was launching talk-of-the-town homers. Within two years, he was named the top prospect in all of the minors.
Then it crumbled.
In February 2001, Hamilton and his parents were involved in a car accident in Bradenton, Fla., after one of his spring workouts when a dump truck sideswiped their pickup truck. His parents, Tony and Linda, had to return to North Carolina because of their injuries. For the first time in his life, Josh Hamilton was alone.
He eventually ended up on the disabled list that May because of lingering back issues, probably from the accident. Someone used to constant activity and who had been somewhat sheltered from teammates suddenly had nothing but time and money on his hands. He started hanging out at a tattoo shop, where he had earlier had Hammer inked on his right arm.
One tattoo led to another. He has himself inked with flames, tribal signs and blank-eyed demons, 26 images in all. He started hanging out with the guys from the place, too. He joined them one night at a strip joint. That, Hamilton says, is when he took his first drink and snorted his first line of cocaine.
“It was just a familiar place to go,” Hamilton says. “They weren’t bad people. They just did bad things. But I chose to do it.”
The initial cocaine high, brought on by the drug’s stimulant properties, is one of euphoria and a rush of energy. In some ways, it’s like the rush from hitting a homer or throwing out a runner. Hamilton couldn’t play, but he found a substitute for the feeling.
A couple of weeks later, Rays officials sent him to see a sports psychologist because it seemed his lingering back problem was affecting his outlook. The psychologist also asked Hamilton if there was more he wanted to discuss. Hamilton mentioned experimenting with drugs.
“I was on a plane to Betty Ford the next day,” he says. “They told me it was about my parents; I wasn’t having any of that. It didn’t have anything to do with my parents or anybody else. It was my decision.”
He lasted eight days at the Ford Clinic. It began a cycle: There were failed drug tests, suspensions, short rehab trips, stretches of sobriety, reinstatement and, inevitably, relapse.
After Hamilton was reinstated in May 2003, his first workout included a homer over the 30-foot batter’s eye in center field. Afterwards, some teammates invited him out. He declined. Instead, Hamilton went out alone and got trashed.
“I did it on purpose,” he says. “I just couldn’t come to grips with how to deal with the life. I remember a couple days after that – I showed up for early hitting knowing I had failed a test. I sat in the dugout with [hitting coach] Steve Henderson. I looked at the pitcher’s mound and the field, and I just said, ‘This might be it for me.’ I started to cry.”
Over the next two years, there were more tears and more self-destructive behavior.
In September 2003, Hamilton ended an aimless drive at the back door of Raleigh homebuilder Michael Dean Chadwick at 11 p.m. Chadwick had battled drug addiction for 15 years before becoming a faith-based motivational speaker. Hamilton briefly dated his daughter, Katie, in 2002.
“I’ve thought about why he ended up here numerous times, but the truth is I don’t know; I just think it was destiny,” says Chadwick, now Hamilton’s father-in-law. “I took one look at him, and I might not have known who he was but I knew what he was. It wasn’t very long into our conversation I realized the only chance, and it was a slim chance, for him to get back was that he had to come to it on his terms.”
Others reached out to Hamilton, but he couldn’t find the power to take their hands.
He married Katie during a sober stretch in 2004, but within six months the marriage was strained. On the day that Katie returned from the hospital following the birth of their daughter, Sierra, she sent Hamilton to pick up prescriptions. A 10-minute errand stretched into something much longer. Katie called a local bar. Josh was there.
“That’s when I knew we had the battle of our lives on our hands,” Katie says.
Everyone around Hamilton has a similar story. His father, Tony, remembers leaving Josh in a hospital one night, seeing his son’s heart beat so hard “the shirt jumped off his chest,” and not knowing if he’d see his son alive again.
Chadwick once paid a $2,000 debt to stop a drug dealer from harassing Hamilton. He remembers Hamilton’s 24th birthday, May 21, 2005, as the “night from hell.”
Hamilton dug ditches and swept model homes for Chadwick’s company during his baseball exile. He showed up at an employees party and quickly grabbed a drink. Before the night was over, he ripped the rearview mirror off his truck, punched out the windshield and was twice stopped by police. Following the second incident, he was taken to jail. When he was released, Hamilton says he ran eight miles to an acquaintance’s home.
Hamilton cites a day in the summer of 2005 as his lowest moment. He awoke from a crack binge in a stiflingly hot trailer surrounded by a half-dozen unfamiliar stoned faces. His reaction: He loaned his truck to a dealer to get more crack. When the dealer didn’t return, Hamilton took off on foot, found a pay phone and called his temporarily estranged wife. She picked him up.
He showed up shortly afterwards at his grandmother’s home, gaunt and disheveled. Mary Holt couldn’t turn him away. But it wasn’t until after he used in his grandmother’s home and she confronted him about it that something changed.
“I’m tired of you killing yourself,” she told him in October 2005. “I’m tired of watching you hurt all of these people who care about you.”
“It was different when she said it,” Hamilton says. “That was the moment my heart opened up, and I could actually hear what I was doing. I had lost my family and everybody close to me. That’s when I surrendered.”
The road back from those depths would appear to be long, considering Hamilton went three years without playing a game. Really, though, it wasn’t.
MLB lifted the suspension in June 2006 after Hamilton was sober for eight months. He played 15 games at the lowest rung on the minor league ladder. Eight months later, he was in the majors. Of course, another unexplainable twist of fate – or faith – was involved.
Tampa Bay didn’t protect Hamilton on its 40-man roster after the 2006 season. Rays general manager Andrew Friedman doesn’t look back at a wasted draft pick.
“You want all of your decisions to work out in this game. Some don’t, and you accept them,” Friedman said. “Josh, he’s fought through such adversity to turn his life around, and no matter what uniform he wears we will always be pleased about that.”
Cincinnati maneuvered to get him through the Rule 5 draft. The one caveat: The Reds had to keep him in the majors all season. It was a gamble. But in Reds manager Jerry Narron, who once fought to keep an unproven Michael Young on his Rangers team six years ago, Hamilton found an advocate.
Narron’s brother, Johnny, had coached Hamilton as a teen. Jerry had seen Hamilton’s talent up close. After doctors suggested what support Hamilton might need to make the against-the-odds transition to the majors, one thought stuck with Jerry: Get Johnny back together with him..
“Doctors told us he’d need somebody to talk to, somebody who he could trust, who he could depend on,” Jerry says. “The guy that fit that to a ‘T’ was Johnny.”
Within a week, Hamilton and Johnny were working together in Smithfield. Johnny joined Cincinnati’s staff. In addition to scouting video and assisting with hitting instruction, Hamilton’s welfare fell under Johnny’s duties.
They were rarely apart. When Hamilton got antsy in the clubhouse, Johnny would play patsy on NCAA Football ’07. When Hamilton went on the disabled list, Narron accompanied him on daily movie expeditions, even if meant sitting through “Transformers” for three consecutive days. They talked daily about baseball, life and faith.
“He is a unique talent who has some unique needs,” Johnny says. “I’m there for him and all 25 players. Whatever I do for Josh, I’d do for anybody in the clubhouse.”
The Reds could have returned Hamilton to Tampa Bay last spring, but he won a roster spot and received a standing ovation from 42,000 fans in Cincinnati on Opening Day. He was among the leading contenders for NL Rookie of the Year for a few months, but problems with a wrist and hamstring limited him to 90 games, hitting .292 with 19 homers.
When the Rangers started pursuing a trade for Hamilton this winter, the Narrons were among the first calls that general manager Jon Daniels made. The due diligence didn’t stop there.
The Rangers consulted with MLB about potential penalties if Hamilton relapses. For the record, there is no precedent regarding further penalties; it would be handled at commissioner Bud Selig’s discretion.
The Rangers spoke to doctors about dealing with addiction. They did some basic research on athletes and addiction. They found, at least on an anecdotal level, athletes who had strong faith-based beliefs were better positioned to stay clean.
UT-Southwestern addiction specialist Dr. Bryon Adinoff concurs.
“If you replace addiction with religion, it’s not an addiction’ it’s something meaningful, socially appropriate and rewarding,” Adinoff says. “It’s typically very healthy behavior.”
To that end, the Rangers wanted first-hand knowledge of how Hamilton expressed his faith. They sent scouts to some of his talks.
“He seemed to be presenting a very consistent message,” Daniels says. “Before he got involved with drugs, everybody who dealt with him thought he was a very high-quality guy. We saw that. I think there are two things that have played a part in why this attempt at fighting addiction has been successful: Family and faith.”
“I haven’t gotten tired of telling this story yet,” Hamilton says. “It’s my obligation – no, it’s my privilege – to tell it to whoever wants to hear it. I realize how fortunate I am. If people can see that I’m not that different than them, maybe it can help them, too.”
Because for all the amazing physical tools Josh Hamilton has displayed, the one that has made him a major leaguer is one everybody is capable of developing.