MLB should treat Josh Hamilton with compassion, not punishment

Josh Hamilton deserves compassion and treatment, and not punishment, from commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB for his drug relapse.
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According to Mike DiGiovanna and Bill Shaikin of the Los Angels Times, the four-person panel charged with determining whether Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton should be suspended or enrolled in a rehabilitation program is deadlocked. As a result, the fate of the former American League Most Valuable Player—who self-reported a relapse that reportedly involved cocaine and alcohol this offseason—will be placed in the hands of a single arbitrator, who will be charged with breaking the tie. If the arbitrator decides that a suspension is in order, it would then be up to commissioner Rob Manfred to determine the length of that ban.

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What makes this decision so complicated is that Hamilton failed at least six drug tests as a minor leaguer in the Rays' system in 2003 and '04, earning a suspension that ultimately lasted more than a full season. But since coming back to baseball in '06, he has passed every drug test he has had despite the more frequent testing that was one of the conditions of his return. That record of sobriety is a significant factor in the response to his most recent relapse, which, as far as we know, marked his first use of an illegal drug since his return to the game (he had previously relapsed with alcohol in '09 and '12, though only briefly in each case).

By the letter of MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, Hamilton, having used a drug of abuse after six positive tests for the same, could be considered to be beyond a fourth failure to comply with the program and thus merit a one-year suspension. As the agreement states, "any subsequent failure to comply ... shall result in the Commissioner imposing further discipline on the Player ... determined consistent with the concept of progressive discipline." That would suggest a suspension of at least one full season.

However, that same paragraph states: "If the Treatment Board concludes that a Player had demonstrated flagrant disregard for his Treatment Program ... the Player shall be subjected to discipline for just cause by the Commissioner without regard to the limitations on discipline contained in this Section."

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Hamilton has not shown anything close to flagrant disregard for the program, which, it should be pointed out, wasn't adopted until 2006, after Hamilton's initial batch of positive tests. In fact, throughout his major league career, which dates back to '07, Hamilton has been outspoken about the importance of his sobriety, has presented himself as a role model for sobriety, and has been forthcoming about his occasional struggles with that sobriety, be it his two minor alcohol-related relapses or even his struggles with quitting chewing tobacco in '12. Furthermore, one could argue that by confessing his relapse this offseason, Hamilton was attempting to remain in compliance with the program.

There are two different ways to view Josh Hamilton today. The first is as a drug user whose confession of his relapse may have been timed to preempt a positive test in camp. The second is as a man with a chronic illness which he has fought valiantly and successfully for most of the past decade and who had a minor relapse about which he confessed without a positive test. The former view is one which could lead to a suspension. The latter view, however, would seem to be the more accurate one, and that one requires not punishment, but compassion.

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That latter view also requires the arbitrator to view this not as a discipline issue but a health concern. Given that his relapses have all occurred during the offseason, is suspending Hamilton for a season or more going to make him better or worse? It's interesting to note that the panel that wound up split on that decision consisted of two physicians and two attorneys—the former, one assumes, concerned with health, and the latter with punishment and precedent.

Speaking of precedent, Manfred also needs to consider the public face of this decision. What message does it send to hand down a severe punishment to a player who self-reported a relapse after a generally successful decade-long struggle to remain sober? What message does it send to treat that player as a criminal rather than as someone who is sick and in need of help—who is, in fact, asking for help?

As it is, a rehabilitation program could take a large chunk out of Hamilton's season. The Los Angeles Times report speaks of a 60-day program during which Hamilton would be paid his full salary for the first 30 days and half of his salary for the next 30 days. Given MLB's difficulty in arriving at a decision regarding Hamilton, those two months could keep Hamilton out through late May if not longer, not counting whatever baseball rehab he would need in order to be ready to rejoin the Angels.

This is a pivotal moment, not so much for the Angels' season or Hamilton's career, but for Hamilton's future as a human being, a husband and a father. It is also a pivotal moment for MLB to lead by example by considering drug addiction as an illness that needs to be treated as such, and by viewing drug addicts not as criminals who need to be punished, but as victims of their own bad choices who need to be shown compassion and helped back to health. MLB's focus in this case should not be on what Hamilton deserves, but on what he needs.