February 13, 2007

GET BEHIND ME, SATAN:

New Life at the Plate: Hamilton Looks to Resurrect a Once-Promising Career Derailed by Drugs (Dave Sheinin, 2/13/07, Washington Post)

Before the Reds plucked [Josh] Hamilton from the baseball scrap heap in December with the intent of putting him in the big leagues for the first time, before he and his family left their North Carolina home and rented a house in Sarasota last month to get a jump-start on his first spring training in four years, and before the clock on his sobriety began its uninterrupted march on Oct. 6, 2005 -- before all those good things happened, Josh Hamilton was a junkie.

Here, in the sport-utility vehicle cruising toward Clearwater, Hamilton peers into his rearview mirror, waiting until his wife, Katie, sitting in back, secures the headphones over the ears of daughter Julia, 5, her child from a previous relationship, and makes sure Sierra, 17 months, is occupied with some animal crackers. Only then does he begin to tell his story.

It is early February, and Josh has already been drug-tested this morning, as he is three times a week. As he heads north out of Sarasota on I-75, the green exit signs beckon toward Bradenton. It's a good place to start the story, because this is where it all started to go bad.

"My first drink -- my first drink ever -- was at a strip club down there, with the tattoo guys," Hamilton says. "Pretty soon, I started using. First the powder. Then crack. I was 20. I wasn't playing. I was hurt. My parents left and went back home. I was by myself for the first time."

Until the spring of 2001, Hamilton was that most beautiful and precious and frightening of sports creatures -- the can't-miss prospect. But even that tag doesn't convey the immensity of his talent. He was 6 feet 4, 210 pounds, left-handed, with size 19 feet. He could throw 96 mph but was even better as a hitter. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays had made him the first overall pick of the 1999 draft -- the first high school position player to be so honored since Alex Rodriguez six years earlier -- and paid him a record signing bonus of $3.96 million.

His parents, Linda and Tony, quit their jobs, going on the road with him as he began his pro career -- with stops in Princeton, W.Va., Fishkill, N.Y., and Charleston, S.C. They would follow behind the team bus in their truck and stay at the same hotels, Linda cooking Josh's meals, and Tony breaking down his performance after every game.

But on Feb. 28, 2001, two years into his pro career, Hamilton was riding in his family's pickup truck, with Linda driving, when it was slammed into by a dump truck that had run a red light in Bradenton. Josh's back was injured and Linda had to be pried out of the driver's seat by medical personnel.

With Josh unable to play, and Linda requiring frequent medical care, she and Tony returned home to Raleigh, N.C., leaving Josh alone in the world for the first time in his life -- flush with cash, naive about the ways of the world and bored to tears.

The first tattoo he got was tame enough: "HAMMER," his nickname, on his right arm. But then came the blue flames snaking down his forearms, then the tribal symbols whose meanings Josh didn't even know, then assorted demons, and the face of the Devil himself. The tattoo parlor became a hangout, and Josh would spend eight hours in the chair at a time, watching the needle squirt the ink under his skin. Afterward, they'd all go out, get drunk and score some blow.

"They weren't bad people," Josh says now. "They just did bad things."

When he went home to Raleigh for a visit, his mother greeted him at the front door and broke into tears. "What have you done to your beautiful body?" she asked him. "Tribal signs? What tribe are you from?"

One of the last tattoos he got was the one of Jesus's face superimposed on the cross, perhaps an odd choice for someone seemingly so ungodly.

"I don't even know why I got that one," he says. "See, I didn't realize it at the time, but I think it was like spiritual warfare -- the Devil, Christ. I have tattoos of demons with no eyes. And I didn't realize it at the time, but no eyes means 'no soul.'

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 13, 2007 9:18 AM
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