Five years after his four-homer game, Josh Hamilton's playing days may be finished

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Monday May 8th, 2017

On May 8, 2012, Josh Hamilton reached the apex of his major league career, becoming just the 16th player in major league history to homer four times in a single game. The Rangers' centerfielder set a career high with 43 homers that year, but between a disastrous contract with the Angels, a string of injuries, and a relapse in his ongoing battle with substance abuse, it's been downhill since. Five years after this historic night, it's entirely possible that the five-time All-Star, who turns 36 on May 21, has played his last major league game.

Hamilton is in the final year of the five-year, $125 million contract that he signed with the Angels in December 2012, but he hasn't been a member of their organization since April 27, 2015, when the Rangers reacquired him for what amounted to pennies on the dollar. Hamilton's relapse into cocaine use during the winter of 2014-15 had so enraged Angels owner Arte Moreno that he agreed to absorb around $68 million of the $80.2 million remaining on his deal in order to get rid of the troubled outfielder.

Hamilton’s homecoming wasn't a happy one, however. Despite homering twice in his fifth game back with the team for whom he starred from 2008–12, he played just 50 games for the Rangers in 2015 due to a hamstring strain and a pair of surgeries on his left knee. Inflammation in the same knee pushed him to the disabled list to start the 2016 season; he lasted just one game in a rehab assignment before returning to the DL and underwent another surgery in June 2016. The Rangers released him in August, a procedural move that allowed them to re-sign him to a minor league deal in January, but he wound up needing yet another surgery in February—his 11th, according to the Dallas Morning News' Evan Grant—and after injuring his right knee in April, for which he needed a 12th surgery, he was released yet again. He remains a free agent.

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Ever since he was chosen with the number one overall pick of the 1999 draft out of a Raleigh, N.C. high school—that after wowing scouts with talent that included the ability to throw 96 mph—Hamilton's professional career has been a dizzying series of starts and stops. After signing for a $3.96 million bonus, he tore up the low minors in 1999 and 2000 to the point that Baseball America anointed him the game's top prospect heading into the 2001 season. But before the ’01 season, he and his mother were injured in a car accident in Bradenton, Fla. When he had signed his contract, his parents had quit their jobs to go on the road with him, following the team bus; his mother would cook for him while his father would help break down his performances. The injury forced his parents back to North Carolina, and Hamilton, sidelined by a lower back strain, was on his own for the first time. Bored by inactivity, he began hanging out at a tattoo parlor. Twenty-six tattoos later, he had fallen in with a bad crowd. At a strip joint with his parlor pals, he had his first drink—he wasn't yet 21—and snorted his first line of cocaine.

Hamilton played in just 27 games in 2001, hitting .200/.250/.290 with one homer. He fell to number 18 on the Baseball America prospect list and progressed to "snort[ing] down enough cocaine to stop an elephant's heart, or guzzl[ing] a 750-ml bottle of Crown Royal each day," according to a 2007 profile by the Washington Post's Dave Sheinin. The Rays, concerned about his mental state, sent him to a sports psychologist, where Hamilton revealed he had begun experimenting with drugs, which led to a stay in the Betty Ford Clinic. He played in just 56 minor league games in 2002, making a strong showing at High-A Bakersfield (.303/.359/.507) before needing season-ending surgery on his left elbow in July.

Those were the last regular season games Hamilton played for four years. In the spring of 2003, he left the Devil Rays "to address some personal issues and problems" and after returning for just a brief time, went on "a personal leave" for similar, undisclosed issues. In February 2004, he was suspended for 30 days for violating MLB's drug policy, the first public confirmation that his issues were drug related. "The severity of the punishment indicates Hamilton has tested positive for at least one of baseball’s banned substances more than once," wrote Mark Topkin for Baseball America. In March of that year, he was suspended for the entire season, and the suspension eventually extended to June 1, 2006 due to additional violations.

Hamilton fell into a haze of crack, pills, suicide attempts. "His days were filled with booze and cocaine, his nights with more of the same. 'I'd go three or four days without sleeping, and then just pass out and hope I didn't die,'” he told Sheinin.

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Fortunately, after eight trips in and out of drug rehab centers and an embrace of Christianity, Hamilton was able to claw his way back into baseball. In January 2006, after being clean for 3 1/2 months, he began working out at a Christian baseball academy in Clearwater called Winning Inning. Reinstated in June, he was allowed to join the Devil Rays' Hudson Valley affiliate, though a knee injury limited him to just 15 games. In December, after Tampa Bay left him off their 40-man roster, the Cubs chose him with the third pick of the Rule 5 draft, then immediately flipped him to the Reds; Cincinnati manager Jerry Narron's brother Johnny had long ago coached Hamilton in North Carolina. The Reds hired Johnny as an assistant hitting coach, but more importantly, he became Hamilton's "accountability partner," shadowing the slugger off the field to the point that he carried Hamilton's cash, and shared adjoining hotel suites on the road.

As a Rule 5 pick, Hamilton had to be kept on the major league roster or offered back to Tampa Bay. He finally made his debut on April 2, 2007, and eight days later, collected his first hit, a home run off the Diamondbacks' Edgar Gonzalez. The next night, he homered again. He became a lineup regular, playing all three outfield spots. Though he made trips to the DL for gasteroenteritis and a wrist sprain, then missed additional time due to a September hamstring strain, the 26-year-old slugger hit .292/.368/.554 with 19 homers and 2.5 WAR in 90 games, a remarkable showing given the ups and downs of the previous eight years. In December, the Reds (who had fired Jerry Narron in July) traded Hamilton to the Rangers (whom Narron had managed in 2001-02) for Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera. Days later, the Rangers hired Johnny Narron as a coach.

In Texas, Hamilton emerged as a superstar. He hit .304/.371/.530 32 homers and led the AL with 130 RBIs and 331 total bases in 2008, making his first of five straight All-Star teams, though his 2009 season was a downer. Trips to the DL for a bruised rib cage, a sports hernia that required surgery and a lower back nerve issue limited him to 89 games and a .268/.315/.426 line with 10 home runs, while photographs of him drinking in an Arizona bar in January surfaced in August, though he had not failed a drug test (he was being tested three times a week). Hamilton apologized, acknowledged that the occurrence was part of his ongoing struggle to remain sober, and explained that he had already addressed the lapse with his wife, the team and the league.

Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

The 2010 season was Hamilton's best all-around campaign. Despite missing four weeks in September due to broken ribs sustained while crashing into an outfield wall, he hit .359/.411/.633 with 32 homers, leading the league in batting average, slugging percentage and WAR (8.7) while helping the Rangers reach the World Series for the first time. He hit four home runs in the ALCS against the Yankees en route to Series MVP honors, though the Giants held him to 2-for-20 with a homer in the World Series. Still, he won AL MVP honors in a landslide. While his 2011 season was not as successful, it was still a strong one (.298/.346/.536 with 25 homers and 3.7 WAR in 121 games, with five weeks missed due to a fractured humerus), though Hamilton was emotionally scarred by his inadvertent role in a heartbreaking tragedy. Fan Shannon Stone fell to his death attempting to catch a ball that the outfielder had tossed him as a souvenir for his six-year-old son.

Hamilton helped the Rangers to the World Series in 2011 and hit a potential championship-clinching two-run homer in the 10th inning of the epic Game 6 off the Cardinals' Jason Motte. Alas, the Rangers' bullpen couldn't hold the lead, and wound up losing both that game and Game 7.

Hamilton wound up suffered another alcohol relapse in February 2012, though whether it was keyed by the Stone tragedy, the World Series loss or the departure of Johnny Narron to reunite with his brother in Milwaukee (where he had become manager) is unknowable. The relapse stalled talks of a long-term deal with the Rangers, and despite his 43 homers and a .285/.354/.577 line in 148 games in a DL-free 2012, Hamilton's season—and it turns out, tenure in Texas—ended on a sour note. In late September, he missed five games due to ocular keratitis, a vision problem caused by too much caffeine. Though the Rangers, who led the A's the AL West by four games at the time, didn't lose ground during his absence, the two teams wound up tied heading into the final game of the regular season. Hamilton dropped a routine fly ball off the bat of Yoenis Cespedes, letting in the final two runs of a six-run come-from-behind rally that proved decisive. Hamilton went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts and a rally-snuffing double play groundout in Texas' wild card game loss to the Orioles.

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That winter, Hamilton signed with the Angels, but he hit just .255/.316/.426/110 OPS+ with 31 homers and 2.9 WAR in two seasons for them, compared to  .305/.363/.549/137 OPS+ in his five Texas seasons. He played in 151 games in 2013 but just 89 in 2014 due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb that required in-season surgery. Right shoulder and upper back issues played a part in limiting him to an 0-for-13 showing as the Royals swept the Angels in the Division Series, and he underwent surgery to repair his AC joint in February 2015. Before he could rejoin the team in spring training, he self-reported a relapse in his sobriety, this one involving cocaine as well as alcohol.

The complexity of Hamilton's case—which included a disagreement between MLB and the players' union over whether he was a first-time or repeat offender in the eyes of the Joint Drug Agreement—led to deadlocked four-member panel attempting to determine whether Hamilton violated the agreement. On April 3, arbitrator Roberta Golick ruled that Hamilton did not, and thus could not be suspended. The Angels were so displeased that Moreno explored voiding his contract. They traded him back to Texas, but he wasn't able to stay healthy and productive.

It's not clear what lies ahead for Hamilton, either in baseball or beyond. When he was released by the Rangers, he left the door open via a statement, "I am disappointed but not discouraged that my knee problems have not allowed me to play this season. I plan to have surgery on my right knee and then evaluate the situation." Perhaps he will resurface later this season or next spring to give playing another shot, but particularly given his history of finding trouble when unmoored from the game’s day-to-day structure, the greater concern should be for his well-being. Whether or not we’ve seen the last of him in uniform, here’s hoping for the best.

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