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The Strike Zone

Hamilton's return adds spice to Angels-Rangers rivalry and opens old wounds

Josh HamiltonJosh Hamilton's return to Texas was everything a Rangers fan could have hoped for. (USA Today Sports)

On Friday afternoon, Josh Hamilton returned to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for the first time since departing for the Angels via free agency this past winter. Showered by an anticipated flood of what Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times called "vicious boos" when he came to the plate against Derek Holland in the second inning, he struck out swinging at a slider just off the plate. Greeted by boos again in the fourth, he whiffed again against Holland, this time on a low-and-away slider. By the time the day ended, he'd gone 0-for-4 and the Angels had fallen, 3-2.

O-fer or no, one can argue that the 31-year-old slugger deserved a better reception in his return to Texas. Hamilton spent five years as a lineup centerpiece for the Rangers, earning All-Star honors in each season. Certainly, he had trouble staying on the field, missing roughly 30 games a year due to an assortment of injuries and finding no shortage of controversy off the field. But he also won a batting title and the AL MVP award in 2010 and helped the team to back-to-back pennants – the first two in franchise history, mind you — in 2010-2011, as well as a third straight playoff appearance last year. As a free agent, Hamilton expressed a willingness to stay in Texas, and was reportedly still negotiating with the team at the time that he agreed to terms with the Angels on a five-year, $125 million deal in December.

But to some segment of fans, the arc of Hamilton's 2012 season was interpreted as his having already defected to the enemy. Recall that he bolted from the gate in 2012, putting up numbers straight out of a videogame through the end of May: .368/.420/.764 with 21 homers, including a four-homer game on May 8. He proceeded to hit the skids in a dreadful summer slump (.202/.288/.399 in June and July) that he blamed on his attempt to quit chewing tobacco. While he largely returned to form over the season's final two months (.281/.351/.560 with 14 homers from Aug. 1 onward), he missed five games in late September due to blurred vision caused by overconsumption of caffeine and sports drinks.

Although the Rangers went 3-2 in his absence and won in his initial return to the lineup, they proceeded to drop seven of their final nine regular-season games, blowing a five-game AL West lead that bumped them out of the first place perch they had held since April 8. It didn't help that Hamilton struck out in 18 of 44 plate appearances after returning to the lineup, or that he dropped a fly ball that broke open Game 162 against the A's, enabling green-and-gold upstarts to snatch the division title away.

By the time the slugger had gone 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts in the Rangers' loss to the Orioles in the wild-card game, he had already been cast as the scapegoat of a lost season. Not Michael Young, whose -2.0 WAR performance alone was enough to turn the tide in the division race. Not the first basemen (Young included) who combined to hit a paltry .251/.301/.399 while playing half their games in the league's most hitter-friendly park. Not Roy Oswalt, Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman and Martin Perez, a quartet who combined for a 5.57 ERA in 48 starts as rotation fill-ins. No, the blame fell on the guy who set a career high in homers and nearly did the same in RBIs, because that was the most convenient narrative to apply.

Given Hamilton's age and stated desire for a seven-year, $175 million deal, one can understand Texas' reluctance to retain him. The uncomfortable link between his tobacco and caffeine issues and the more serious substance abuse issues that nearly derailed his career entirely — issues that had already resurfaced via well-publicized relapses involving alcohol — only added to the reasons not to keep him.

So Hamilton packed his bags and his baggage for Anaheim, joining a team that had failed to make the playoffs for the last three years, one whose division dominance — five AL West titles in six years from 2004-2009 — had been interrupted by the slugger and his fellow Rangers. He joined a franchise that had lured Albert Pujols and former Texas teammate C.J. Wilson as free agents the previous winter, and an outfield that already starred the league's top young player, Mike Trout. While the Angels weren't willing to meet Hamilton's initial demands, they offered some combination of more years and more money than the Rangers did, as well as a fresh start — something Hamilton had no reason to believe he was going to get in Texas, particularly with team president/CEO/icon Nolan Ryan publicly criticizing the timing of his tobacco battle shortly after the team's elimination.

The war of words has continued since Hamilton picked the Angels in December. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels shed crocodile tears over the Hamilton camp's failure to offer his old team a chance to match the Angels' bid. Hamilton later made waves by calling Dallas-Fort Worth "not a true baseball town," due to the way the NFL's Cowboys dominate the sports scene.

With the two teams set to face each other another 18 times this season, with a similar number of matchups over the next four years, the Hamilton-versus-Texas narrative isn't going away. Already, it's positioned to become the division's answer to Roger Clemens-versus-Boston narrative that reigned in the Bronx more than a decade ago. So long as the two teams remain AL West powerhouses — which, given their massive television revenue streams, they figure to do for a good long time — his presence will be a sticking point no matter which way the balance of power tilts. At least with the first game out of the way, the focus should be on the baseball going forward, not on the water under the bridge.
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