January 27, 2008

THE SIXTH TOOL:

Faith brings Texas Rangers' Hamilton back from the brink (EVAN GRANT, 1/27/08, The Dallas Morning News)

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 27, 2008 8:49 PM
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