The Super Natural
Josh Hamilton is at peace now, at peace even when he sleeps. "I used to have dreams all the time," he says. "They were so real, I'd wake up and take a real deep breath in, like I was hitting the crack pipe."
During his darkest hours -- after he had been banished from baseball in 2004 and was doing coke, downing a bottle of Crown Royal a day and burning through his entire $4 million signing bonus -- Hamilton had recurring dreams that he was "fighting the devil, an awful-looking thing," with a stick or a bat, swinging but always missing. In his dreams he saw a SWAT team outside his window, about to storm his room; he saw demon faces; he saw his father on the other side of the door trying to save him. When Josh's wife, Katie, temporarily kicked him out of their house three years ago, he moved in with his maternal grandmother, Mary Holt, and there were nights he would wake up in a sweat, walk down the hall and crawl under the covers with her.
Even last year, when he played his first major league season, with the Reds, Hamilton says, "I had these dreams where I'm still going to get or use drugs, but then the pee-test guy starts showing up out of nowhere." Hamilton looks down, shakes his head and laughs. "He just stands there, haunting my dreams."
These days, says Hamilton, now the Rangers' centerfielder, if he does have a dream, he isn't aware of it when he awakens. "Every once in a while I'll have a dream about using, but I won't remember it until two or three days later. Now I go to sleep every night and wake up every morning, and everything's clear."
He is sitting in the video room at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, speaking in his soft North Carolina drawl, a plug of tobacco inside his left cheek. He's wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and the 26 tattoos he acquired during his years bingeing on booze and drugs are exposed. Satan's face gazes out from the crook of his left elbow, blue flames shoot down both his forearms; he now regrets getting every one of them.
Hamilton rubs his eyes and half yawns. The previous night's game, a 13-12 win over the Mariners, had lasted more than four hours; in the third inning he bludgeoned a 447-foot home run that landed a few feet from a couple's table in the ballpark's outfield dining area. Later on this mid-May day, in the eighth inning against Seattle, Hamilton will crash into the centerfield wall to make a spectacular running catch, preventing the tying run from scoring in a 5-2 Rangers victory. Three days later, against the Astros, Hamilton will go 5 for 5, including his ninth and 10th homers of the season, and drive in six runs. It's during stretches like this that Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler can say with a straight face, "Josh Hamilton is the best baseball player to ever walk the planet," and you almost believe it.
Though he enjoyed a remarkable comeback in Cincinnati after spending a total of three years out of baseball (2003 through '05), Hamilton is only now fulfilling the promise he revealed as a Raleigh high school star 10 years ago. ("It's amazing how many veteran scouts say he's the best player they've ever seen," says Rangers general manager Jon Daniels.) After his son deposited a home run into the upper deck of Rangers Ballpark in April, Tony Hamilton told a friend, "O.K., now the boy is starting to get the hang of it."
After their eighth win in 10 games, on May 16 -- the one in which Hamilton had five hits -- a group of teammates, as they often do, went to a steak house to celebrate. But the hero of the game didn't join them. Since Oct. 6, 2005, the day his grandmother sat him down in her living room and confronted him about his addiction, Hamilton has been sober and drug-free, he says, and the 27-year-old follows strict self-imposed guidelines to stay that way. He rarely carries more than $10 in his wallet, and never more than $20. His friend Johnny Narron, hired by the Rangers, must always know his whereabouts. He never goes out alone at night, and never goes out with teammates after games. "In San Francisco, I went to Morton's steak house two nights in a row," he says, bringing this up as if it were a major step for him. Some teammates were there, too, but at a table on the other side of the room. Hamilton, who was dining with Narron, says, "I walked over to the guys and said hello."
Every third day Hamilton provides a urine sample to a lab technician at the ballpark. "If I miss a third day, I'm tested two days in a row," says Hamilton. "I'll do it until MLB says I don't have to anymore. It reassures the people who made the decision to let me back in the game that things are good." Hamilton says that he can't remember the last time he consciously thought about using or drinking. Says his father-in-law, Michael Dean Chadwick, with whom Hamilton speaks at least once a week, "I seriously doubt that he wakes up and thinks about it most mornings. But he knows he has to be humble and strong. Trust me: He knows the devil isn't far away."
When did he hit rock bottom? Hamilton thinks about this for a moment. So many low points to choose from. No, it wasn't the time the check he made out to a crack dealer bounced and he had to ask his father-in-law to go and give the dealer $2,000 cash. No, it wasn't the time after a party when he ripped the rearview mirror off a friend's truck, punched out the windshield and was thrown in jail. No, rock bottom, he says, was the night in the late summer of 2005 when he awoke from a crack binge in a trailer with a half-dozen strangers around him; with nowhere else to go, he appeared like a ghost at his grandmother's door -- his sunken face as white as snow, his 6' 4" frame shrunk from 230 pounds to 180. "He'd be at the lowest of lows," says Chadwick, "and he'd sink lower."
No one foresaw the sudden downward spiral -- certainly not the Devil Rays, who had drafted him No. 1 out of Raleigh's Athens Drive High in 1999 and enriched him with a then record $3.96 million signing bonus. Josh Hamilton was a once-in-a-generation talent with a golden left arm (as a schoolboy pitcher he consistently hit 96 mph) and a vicious home run swing (his bat speed was once clocked at a ridiculous 110 mph). He was a true five-tool wonder, but what ultimately compelled Tampa Bay to choose Hamilton over another high school phenom, righthander Josh Beckett, was, ironically, Hamilton's sixth tool -- what scouts call his "makeup." Said a Devil Rays scout on the day Hamilton was drafted, "I think character may have been the final determining factor. You read so many bad things about professional athletes, but I don't think you ever will about Josh."
The churchgoing teenager who kissed his grandmother before every one of his high school games says he had never dabbled in drugs or even had a sip of alcohol until the spring of 2001, soon after a car that his mother, Linda, was driving, and in which he was a passenger, was rammed by a dump truck that had run a red light. Then 19, he suffered a lower-back injury that would sideline him for a month and suddenly leave him with an abundance of free time.
After their son had begun his professional career, Tony and Linda Hamilton quit their jobs to follow Josh around the minors. However, after the car accident, his parents returned to Raleigh so that Linda could rehab her injuries. For the first time in his life, Hamilton was alone. He fell in with the crowd at a tattoo parlor in Bradenton, Fla., which was near the Rays' spring training site. There, he met the people who introduced him to cocaine. "When I first got into drinking and using drugs," he says, "it was because of where I was hanging out, it was who I was hanging out with. You might not do it at first, but eventually, if you keep hanging around long enough, you're going to start doing what they're doing."
A rash of injuries and repeated trips to the disabled list meant more time off the field than on it, and more time with the wrong crowd. He failed at least four drug tests, made eight trips to rehab. He was suspended by Major League Baseball for a year in March 2004, and after he reportedly failed to appear for a drug test in August '04, he was slapped with another suspension. In June '06, only after Hamilton had been sober for eight months did MLB allow him to return to the Tampa Bay organization; that summer he played 15 games for Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League. That December he was the third player chosen in the Rule 5 draft, by the Cubs, who in a prearranged deal sold him to the Reds the same day. Picks in the Rule 5 draft -- in which prospects who are not protected on teams' 40-man rosters can be had for $50,000 (with the condition that the player has to be kept on the new team's 25-man roster for that entire season) -- rarely make much of a ripple. But when Cincinnati went after Hamilton, executives throughout baseball were, as Texas assistant general manager Thad Levine says, "taken aback. It was a significant blip on the radar screen."
The Reds' roll of the dice paid off: Hamilton hit .292 with 19 home runs and 47 RBIs in 90 games. All season the Rangers kept an eye on Hamilton. "[After Cincinnati picked him up,] we kicked ourselves that we didn't do the same thing," says Daniels. "Tampa Bay ran him through waivers during the  season, and anyone could have had him for $20,000. We considered it then. We needed a centerfielder."
Six Texas scouts filed a total of 15 reports on Hamilton during the '07 season. All raved about him. In late October the Rangers put in a call to Cincinnati to gauge Hamilton's availability. "They acknowledged a glut of outfielders on their part, but Hamilton wasn't their top candidate to move," says Levine. "From Day One they wanted Edinson Volquez in return." Volquez was the top pitching prospect in the organization, and Texas had no intention of giving him up; instead, they offered 15 different player combinations that didn't include the 24-year-old righthander.
In the meantime the Rangers were checking out Hamilton from all angles. They talked to his high school and minor league coaches and to family acquaintances. They spoke to doctors about addiction and recovering addicts. They asked MLB how it would discipline Hamilton if he relapsed. (It is up to the commissioner's discretion.) They even dispatched scouts -- without Hamilton's knowledge -- to listen to him speak twice about addiction to community groups in North Carolina last November. "When someone sort of mentioned it to me [later]," says Hamilton, "I was like, Really? Wow, they're really doing their homework."
The deal was finally struck in late December: Hamilton for Volquez and lefthanded pitching prospect Danny Ray Herrera. After welcoming Hamilton to the Rangers, one of the first things Daniels asked Hamilton was, "What if we brought Johnny Narron here?"
"From that moment," recalls Hamilton, "I knew I'd be home here."
The 56-year-old Narron, solemn-faced and deeply religious, is a former first baseman whose older brother Jerry was the Cincinnati manager last year. In the spring of 2007, when the Reds first discussed how they could offer support for Hamilton, Jerry suggested bringing in Johnny, who at the time was a Rookie League hitting coach in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization. The Narrons are from Goldsburg, N.C., just outside Raleigh, and Johnny had coached Hamilton in his son's basketball league when Hamilton was eight. Reunited in Cincinnati, the two quickly bonded over their faith and soon were inseparable, with Narron becoming Hamilton's baseball mentor, personal confidant and chaperone. Last July, when Hamilton landed on the DL with a wrist injury, and many people, as Hamilton says, "were waiting to see if I'd relapse," Narron moved in with Hamilton, and they spent their days watching hunting DVDs, playing video games, killing time at the movie theater. "We watched
Officially a special-assignment coach on manager Ron Washington's staff, Narron says, "I'd do what I do for Josh for any of the players," and he works with other hitters in the batting cages before games. If Katie; stepdaughter Julia, 7; and daughter Sierra, 2, are away while Texas has a homestand, Narron stays at the Hamiltons' Grand Prairie apartment. When the team's on the road, Hamilton and Narron stay in adjoining hotel rooms and often have Bible study while other players and coaches are out at restaurants and bars. When meal money is distributed before road trips, the Rangers give Hamilton's $80 per diem to Narron. "Look, he's not my babysitter," says Hamilton. "He's a coach. He's a friend. I trust myself, but you just never know. Having Johnny there is a precaution, and it puts my wife at ease. I put her through absolute hell for a long time."
Says Narron, "I'm there for Josh, always. When he gets antsy, he'll come up to me and say, 'Johnny, let's do a devotional.' Last year he would come talk to me about his struggles. This year he hasn't brought it up once."
During the 2007 season Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips grumbled to a reporter that there was more focus on Hamilton than on winning. Hamilton acknowledges that he sensed some resentment in the locker room from three or four players and says, "I didn't care. I went about my business, spending time with the fans, doing stuff that I was supposed to be doing and getting some [media] attention. They blamed what they were pissed off about on [Narron]. I think they were just jealous they weren't getting the attention."
To avoid a similar occurrence in Texas, Daniels asked a few clubhouse leaders, including Kinsler, shortstop Michael Young and third baseman Hank Blalock how they thought players would react to having Narron around. "Basically what we told J.D. was, 'If this guy is going to help us win baseball games,' " says Kinsler, " 'we don't care.' " The day after the trade the Rangers held a press conference to introduce Hamilton to Dallas-area reporters. For an hour he spoke candidly about his journey back to baseball and his renewed commitment to his family and his faith. But it wasn't until Hamilton noticed Kinsler, Young and Blalock sitting in the back row that tears began to well in his eyes. "It's the support group that I have here that makes staying clean easy," he says. "And I always refer back to the media too. If I did something stupid, something I shouldn't be doing, it would be all over the nation. I would be such a hypocrite, I'd let everyone down. That's why I go to the ballpark, and I go home. Park. Home. Park. Home."
Three hours before game time at Rangers Ballpark, fans are already gathering in the stands to watch the home team take batting practice, but the show doesn't really start until it's Hamilton's turn to step to the plate. "I remember seeing him taking BP with the Devil Rays in 2000 during spring training, and I was like, Who's that?" says Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey. "He was 18 years old and hitting balls farther than anyone else. I went up and introduced myself, and I said, 'That's one of the greatest swings I've ever seen.' I don't think I've ever done that [with anyone else] my whole career." On this mid-May afternoon, to the fans' delight, Hamilton hits four consecutive shots into the upper deck in rightfield. "Oh," Kinsler would say later, "today's show was nothing."
Watch Hamilton out on the field, and even though he says he's not a fan of the game ("I think it's boring," he says. "I never check box scores; I never watch ESPN"), it's clear he wouldn't want to be anywhere else. In between his turns during BP, he sprints around the bases, slaps teammates on the head as he passes them, hides Young's bat under the tarp and sings along to Texas Time Travelin' as it blares over the P.A. system. After warmups he walks to the stands and hands a broken bat to one fan, his batting gloves to another.
Already Hamilton is a fan favorite. "He is, by far, the nicest, friendliest player," says Gary Spraggins, a 27-year-old season-ticket holder. "The first week of spring training in Arizona, he's coming out onto the field with the music on the stadium speakers, and he stops in front of the fans in the outfield and leads them in singing."
Most of the faithful know Hamilton's story, and so too do some of the fans in other ballparks -- only they yell, "Crackhead" or "Josh Hamilton is a drug addict." But Hamilton keeps his sense of humor. After one fan yelled, "Don't trip on the white line," Hamilton looked up into the stands and shouted back, "Dude, tell me one I haven't heard."
Opponents root for him as well. Before his first major league at bat, on Opening Day last year in Cincinnati, Hamilton received a rousing standing ovation from the crowd at Great American Ballpark. Hamilton stood back near the on-deck circle, and Cubs catcher Michael Barrett yelled, "Congratulations, Josh. You deserve it. Take it all in."
During another game, against the Astros, Hamilton was on base when Houston second baseman Craig Biggio, whom he'd never met, approached him. "I knew Ken Caminiti," Biggio said, referring to his former teammate who died of a drug overdose in 2004. "I know how hard it is, but you're headed in the right direction. Good going."
"The ball just sounds different coming off his bat, almost like a gunshot," says A's lefthander Greg Smith. "You watch him track down a ball, you watch him throw a guy out at third. Then he hits a ball down the line and gets a triple, and it's like, The guy can run too?"
Even though he was new to the American League this season, even though he had only 298 major league at bats entering this year, Hamilton is slicing up pitchers like no other hitter in the league: At week's end he led the AL in RBIs (53), was second in homers (12) and was tied for second in batting average (.333). He's been just as proficient in the field. "He plays the shallowest centerfield I've ever seen," says Mariners leftfielder Raul Ibañez, "and he can still go and get the ball like nobody's business."
However, his most surprising stat of the season may be this one: Hamilton played all but three innings of the Rangers' first 32 games. "After four years of putting my body through hell," he says, "I'm amazed how well it's held up. I was amazed last year that I even played 90 games."
After following a rigorous off-season regimen two winters ago -- he worked out six hours a day in the gym and took 300 to 500 swings to, as he puts it, "make up for all that lost time" -- Hamilton scaled back his training last winter to 21/2 hours in the gym, 25 to 30 swings in the cage and Pilates sessions every other day. He also spoke at community centers, churches and high schools throughout North Carolina, some 20 events in all. Josh and Katie are putting together a schedule for next winter with visits to more cities around the country.
Hamilton's speeches last for more than an hour, and he tells the crowds that, yes, he could have died and, yes, he was ready to give up baseball if that's what it took to get back with his wife and kids. He always recites the scripture that got him through last year, James 4:7.
The Josh Hamilton Story never gets old, even for Josh Hamilton.