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Deciding Josh Hamilton's fate a big test for new commissioner

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was a day when the career of Josh Hamilton never belonged more to the past tense. To summon his name was to remember the player he was and, more poignantly, the player he could have been.

As the Los Angeles Angels went about the business of baseball on Thursday without him or so much as a locker with his nameplate -- a clue that a select few in the organization knew this day was coming -- Hamilton was in New York as the beginning of the rest of his career, however bleak that already looks, fell into the hands of commissioner Rob Manfred.

The Angels said Hamilton was summoned there for a disciplinary hearing, after what reports say was a self-reported violation of baseball’s drug policy. The discipline of Hamilton is uncertain because of conditions then commissioner Bud Selig attached to his reinstatement from a drug suspension in 2006, which included up to three drug tests per week and placing future discipline under the commissioner’s powers.

Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson, who has known Hamilton since they were teammates in Texas, said he texted Hamilton but had not talked to him since he saw Hamilton working out in January in Anaheim, just before Hamilton underwent shoulder surgery Feb. 4.

First baseman Albert Pujols, when asked if he had spoken to Hamilton, said, “No, because this is a private matter. He needs to take care of his private business first. But we’re a family here, and all of us want what’s best for him as a person right now. That’s all the matters.”

Manfred, who has talked a good game about modernizing baseball, suddenly found out how difficult his new job is. What does he do about Hamilton? And will it be 2016 before we see Hamilton on the field again? It’s entirely up to Manfred.

Hamilton already has been suspended three times for violating drug policy, though each occurred in the minor leagues: once for 30 days in 2004, then, a month later, for the entire season that year; and in 2005 for the full 2006 season.

Does Manfred, recognizing Hamilton’s acknowledgement of a problem, allow him to play this season by imposing a lighter sentence than Selig gave him in 2006? Keep in mind that Hamilton, who had been rehabbing his shoulder in Houston, where the surgery was done, is not physically able to play until late May at the earliest. So a 50-game suspension puts him out until August; a 100-game suspension effectively puts him out for the year.

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So do the math: Hamilton turns 34 in May, he played only 89 games last year -- which was followed by an 0-for-13 postseason -- and the last time he was healthy for a full season, in 2013, he hit .250/.307/.432, easily the worst year of his career. So what kind of hitter can he be again with a year off, or even most of this year off?

Hamilton had been one of the most ferocious hitters in baseball when the Angels signed him after the 2012 season to a five-year, $125 million contract. The idea was that Los Angeles would bully teams with a lineup featuring Mike Trout, Pujols and Hamilton -- all of them now with MVP awards and playing under contracts worth a combined half a billion dollars. But those three have never been injury-free and productive at the same extended time: They've yet to be all be healthy and hit at least .269 in any one month.

“It just never seemed to happen,” Pujols said, “for a lot of different reasons.”

Josh Hamilton relapse story top

Now you begin to understand Hamilton’s career being framed in the past tense. Whenever he does play again, considering his inactivity, his personal demons and what his body has gone through -- not only the drugs and alcohol, but the pounding of playing baseball for many years in centerfield at 250 pounds and at a breakneck pace -- does anybody believe Hamilton can be anything close to an impact hitter again?

“What’s amazing,” said one former associate of Hamilton’s, “is that the guy made $150 million in baseball even after what he did to his body. That tells you how talented he was. Crazy talent. So you never know.”

Hamilton was the first overall pick of the 1999 draft by the then Devil Rays. He was a kid from North Carolina who never took a sip of alcohol or tried tobacco. He grew up in a loving house with both parents. Scouts were amazed at the kid’s power and speed. He was a once-in-a-generation talent.

“You have to remember what he was,” said one baseball man who saw much of Hamilton then. “He was the closest I’d ever seen to a [Mickey] Mantle -- at 17 [years old]. You have Griffey and A-Rod at that age, and now people say Mike Trout, but Josh was Mantle because he was a 40- to 50-home run guy and he was going to steal 20 to 25 bases and he was left-handed and he had a 75 throwing arm [on an 80 scale].”

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His parents traveled with Hamilton for his first two minor league seasons. And then the spiral began one day with a car accident in spring training in Florida before the 2001 season. The Hamiltons were riding in the family pickup truck when a dump truck ran a red light and rammed their vehicle. Hamilton injured his back. His mother was more seriously hurt and returned with her husband to North Carolina for recovery.

Suddenly, Josh Hamilton, then 20, had neither of the two constants in his life: baseball and his parents. What he had plenty of were down time and money, having received a $3.96 million bonus from the Devil Rays. One day he walked into a tattoo parlor in Bradenton, Fla., and down the rabbit hole he went. He fell into a crowd there that introduced him to strip clubs, alcohol and cocaine. He has been fighting the demons ever since. The spiral began with poor choices, but Hamilton, as the clinicians would define addicts, became diseased.

This is the third time since Selig paved his way back to baseball that Hamilton has relapsed. The other occasions involved alcohol, which did not subject him to discipline. All three relapses occurred in the off-season, at very similar times of the year: January of 2009, January of 2012 and this latest relapse, which according to one source occurred several weeks ago, before the surgery. It makes you wonder what happens to Hamilton without baseball, or at the very least, the structure of it.

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Hamilton is a husband and father to four daughters. He has been an inspiration to addicts and there is no reason why he still cannot be. There are lessons in the failures as well as the triumphs.

His baseball career, at least in the short term, is in the hands of Manfred. The commissioner must be compassionate and punitive. This is nothing similar to cases involving performance-enhancing drugs, in which players calculate in covert ways to cheat the game and gain an edge over the clean players. Hamilton did more harm to himself than the game. He needs help.

When Hamilton was suspended from baseball in 2006, the Devil Rays petitioned Selig to allow him back, arguing that not only was Hamilton clean but also that he needed baseball to succeed in life. Maybe that’s still true, but Hamilton cannot play this game forever, as his diminishing skills and health attest. Success now is not about getting back to the lineup quickly and finding that MVP power in his bat again. It’s about keeping the demons at bay, whether baseball is there or not.