John Donovan
Thursday June 21st, 2007

CINCINNATI -- The cap comes off, the hand runs through a thick head of curls, the face turns upward to take in everything -- the faces in the crowd, the sounds of the ballpark, the smells, the thick summer air. This is what it looks like when Josh Hamilton is conducting a life check, something he's doing a lot of these days.

The man with the most unlikely comeback story in baseball has just finished another round of early batting practice on the field at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. It's still hours before the Reds will host the Angels in a June interleague game. Most of his teammates won't hit the field to practice for another hour or more.

But here's Hamilton, in a T-shirt and shorts and sneakers, tattooed flames running up his forearms, the tattooed face of Jesus Christ over a huge cross on the back of his calf. It's been almost 10 weeks since Hamilton took his first, belated steps into a Major League game. It's been years since he should have been here.

Still, Hamilton is smiling, his blue eyes bright. More than most, he appreciates where he is because of where he's been. And he reminds himself of it every chance he gets.

"All the time. If you ever see me on TV, when I tip my hat up and do this number here," Hamilton says, rubbing a big hand through his hair, "and kind of look around ... especially in a new park, somewhere I haven't been before. Or I'll be in certain situations in the game where I'm kind of focused in. Almost overfocused, you know, when you get a little tunnel vision. I'll step back and take a deep breath and just look around."

Just to remember. Just to take stock. Just to feel it all.

"Just thinking how blessed I am. Absolutely," he says. "I thank God every day, bro."

By now, Josh Hamilton's backstory has been laid out for everyone to examine. He's told it himself, of course, a few times a week for years. Still, people want so much to know about Hamilton and what he's been through that when he first arrived in Sarasota, Fla., in February for spring training, the Reds held a news conference so that he could share his past -- and, maybe, cut down on the re-telling of it a bit. The team held another one on Opening Day in April in Cincinnati.

Telling his story is cathartic for Hamilton, and he hopes that, in doing it, he can help others, too.

The quick version goes like this:

Drafted by the Devil Rays with the first overall pick of the June draft in 1999, Hamilton was a can't-miss kid, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder with speed, power, an arm that could throw a ball 96 mph and a bat that rifled line drives all over the field. He was raised by two hyper-protective parents to be a player. Every team coveted him.

Hamilton hurt his back in a traffic accident in Florida in February 2001, which sidelined him for awhile. His parents, who had quit their jobs to be with Josh in his trip through the minor leagues, decided to return to their North Carolina home. Alone for the first time in his life and with a pocketful of cash thanks to his nearly $4 million signing bonus, Hamilton started drinking and using drugs. Cocaine. Other stuff. Just about anything he could get his hands on. He became an addict.

He ran into trouble with the law. In March 2003, then-Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella kicked him out of camp. Hamilton kept using. Suspensions followed. He didn't pick up a bat or a ball for months at a time. He considered suicide.

Faced with the disintegration of everything he worked for, he entered rehab and got clean. He married an old girlfriend. He had a daughter. And then he fell into drugs again. He separated from his wife and newborn child. He hit bottom. He stayed there for awhile. He went in and out of more rehab centers.

Then, through the help of friends and family, the proverbial light bulb came on. Under advice from doctors that playing would help his recovery, baseball lifted its suspension, allowing him to work out with the Rays again. He started swinging a bat. He started playing. He says he has been drug-free since October 6, 2005.

The Devil Rays, burned for years by their one-time savior-to-be, left him available in last winter's Rule 5 Draft and the Reds, after paying the Cubs to select him, took their chances and traded for him. Some people liked the gamble. Everybody wondered, though. How could they not?

And then Hamilton hit .403 in 21 games for the Reds in the spring. He made the team.

"There's no reason that I can explain why I was able to do it, other than it was a 'God thing,'" Hamilton says. "For some reason, while I was doing what I was doing those four years, it didn't go away."

It's the top of the 12th at Great American Ball Park on June 10, and the Reds are playing the Indians. There's one out, and Cleveland's Jason Michaels is on third. Franklin Gutierrez lifts a fly ball to center field. It's not very deep, but it's deep enough that Michaels has to try to score.

Hamilton takes a deep breath. He will say later that he senses the anticipation of the crowd. He lives, at least in a baseball sense, for moments like these.

He settles under the ball, grabs it and, with that thunderous left arm that scouts raved about, unleashes a sizzling one-hop lightbeam to the plate. The throw is a little up the line, but it easily beats Michaels to home that the runner is called out. Reliever Marcus McBeth, backing up the play, shouts and pumps his fist. The Reds win the game in the bottom of the inning.

"Right man, right spot, right time," McBeth said afterward.

Just a passing glance at Hamilton reveals a supremely talented athlete. His left-handed stroke is smooth and powerful. He can hit to all fields. He will strike out some, but he has a keen batting eye, as his on-base percentage suggests.

With the glove, he is not one of those outfielders who, when the ball is hit their way, scrambles madly to get under it, leaving fans to wonder whether the catch will be made until the very moment the ball settles into the mitt. From the first step or two, Hamilton shifts into the steady lope of an outfielder that has a bead on the ball off the bat. His arm? Well, his arm is as good as advertised, and then some.

In the most unfeeling of terms, though, this is where Hamilton is now: He is batting .263 in 52 games. He has 10 home runs. He's driven in 22 runs, hitting mostly sixth in the Reds' batting order. He has eight doubles and a triple. He has a .347 on-base percentage.

Hamilton hasn't played as much as some other rookies in the National League, but his .850 OPS, his .503 slugging percentage and his .347 on-base percentage ranks second behind Houston's Hunter Pence among rookies in each of those categories. His 10 homers tie him with Arizona's Chris Young for the rookie lead. Among all players, Hamilton's five outfield assists from center put him three behind Philadelphia's Aaron Rowand, who has started twice as many games.

Considering his backstory, the fact that he missed most of four years -- and that he is still just a rookie -- Hamilton's numbers are remarkable. A second half like that will undoubtedly put him in NL Rookie of the Year conversations.

It's strange, even to Hamilton, but everything seems to have come back so easily. It's as if, at least between the lines, those four lost years never existed.

"The baserunning thing came back last," Hamilton says. "Getting my confidence back on the bases. Getting leads. Trying not to get picked off. Tagging up. What situations to run in, and what counts. Don't make the last out or the first out at third base. That was the hardest for me."

And the easiest, Hamilton says now, was the rest of it. All of it.

"Just baseball. Throwing, running, catching. Making contact with the ball," he says. "I've been doing it my whole life. It's like my grandma said; 'You might not drive for awhile, but you don't forget how to drive.'"

The Reds are cautiously ecstatic with how Hamilton is progressing. Manager Jerry Narron, who has known his new centerfielder since he was a teen, has given him a chance almost from the start. Hamilton missed time early battling the flu, and he missed more time in late May and early June with a stomach ailment. But with Ryan Freel on the disabled list and longtime centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. now in right, Hamilton has played every game in center but one since June 5.

The biggest question with Hamilton -- and it might be even a slight fear in Cincinnati -- is his durability. People around the team wonder whether years of abuse have sapped his body's ability to fight off sickness. And then there's the question of whether he's ready to withstand the all-around rigors of a long season. General manager Wayne Krivsky, who made the decision to pluck Hamilton off the Rule 5 wire, even without knowing Narron's connection with the player, wonders how the 26-year-old Hamilton will fare.

The GM doesn't doubt his player, necessarily. He just doesn't know.

"It's a long season," Krivsky says, watching the Reds take batting practice. "You've got to be mentally tough."

For his part, Hamilton's confidence grows every day. Beyond the ballpark, he leans heavily on his faith ("It's a God thing," he'll say often), his wife, Katie, their two daughters (ages 6 and 21 months) and other friends and family for support. Narron, his teammates and the game back him up while he's at the park.

And it helps that nobody has expected a lot from Hamilton this year. Certainly, the pressures aren't nearly what they were when he was that can't-miss No. 1 draft pick in 1999.

"This is kind of like a get-back-into-it year for me. There's really no pressure there," he says with a distinctive Carolina twang. "Of course, I'd like to see my numbers start climbing, But, then again, everybody's happy where they're at.

Before many games, after batting practice, Hamilton will talk with fans and sign autographs. The fact that he says anything to the fans separates him from most players. But, of course, Hamilton has a lot to talk about. And many of the fans do, too.

"The first time it happened to me was in Arizona," Hamilton says. "A guy called me over. I was thinking he wants me to sign something. He was like, 'I just want you to know, you doing what you're doing means a lot to me. I've got a son that's going through what you went through. He's in a treatment center now. I just want him to get better.' He teared up and almost started crying.

"It's happened to me in almost every city. Somebody has either got it in their family, people are going through it -- or they know somebody that's going through it. It's everywhere. I think it helps. It gives them a little hope that, no matter how low they get, they can get through it."

All the talking, to fans and to the press and to anyone else who asks, helps Hamilton. He says it holds him accountable. It helps him realize what slipping away from sobriety would mean.

Hamilton still fights the urges. He says he has no desire to drink any longer but, in his dreams, is still haunted by his years of drug use. And then he wakes, he plays with his daughters, and then his wife drives him to the park. There, Hamilton talks some more, he plays ball, and then he gets up again the next day and does it all over again.

"The best part of my day is just when I get to the park," Hamilton says. "Well, there's a lot of good parts to my day. Seeing my family after the game. Seeing them in the morning when I wake up. Seeing the kids."

He smiles and looks down at his feet propped on the bench. He runs his hand through his hair. He pulls on his cap.

"I don't see where I have a worst part of the day. Even when things aren't going good out here," he says, pointing to the field, "it's still not a bad day."

With that, Hamilton falls silent. He offers a big hand to shake. And then he walks back into the clubhouse, moving another day away from the lost years of his life and another step closer to the life that he was supposed to be leading all along.

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