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.
On Thursday night, Hamilton was batting third and playing center field for the Texas Rangers in Game 2 of the World Series. If his team ends up winning the championship, 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. "Drug 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
- Ron Washington
- Rangers president Nolan Ryan
- drug tests
- ginger ale
- the temptations
- the bigs
- Josh Hamilton