Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
Way back in March, in Surprise, Ariz., Josh Hamilton knew all this was coming. "My goals for the season are all up here," he told me, one finger tapping on his temple. Any details, Josh? The Rangers outfielder squirmed. "Last year I had said .290 or .300 with 20 home runs." (Accurate enough: In only 90 games as a Reds rookie he hit .292 with 19 homers.) "So now," he continued, blue eyes searching the ceiling, "I'm facing pitchers for the first time again. But I'm thinking over 100 RBIs. I'd say 35 to 40 home runs, .290 to .300...."
Fast-forward seven months, and Hamilton's final stat line in his first year in the American League reads thusly: .304, 32 home runs, 130 RBIs.
While most ballplayers won't jinx themselves -- especially not during spring training, and certainly not to a reporter in the clubhouse -- Hamilton clearly isn't like most ballplayers. When combined with an AL-leading 331 total bases, along with a row of other top 10 peripherals (136 OPS+, 72 extra-base hits, .530 slugging percentage), his numbers alone warrant Sportsman of the Year consideration.
But with Hamilton -- as with this award -- context is everything. You may have heard his story by now: How as a 6-foot-4, 18-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., he had been the No. 1 overall-pick by Tampa Bay in '99, all natural grace and power in size-19 shoes. How he then developed a crippling drug addiction that sent him spiraling, wandering the earth, sleeping in cars and crack dens. How at 27, nine years later, this season wound up being just his second in the big leagues. How he is, in the end, the rare athlete who lived up to hype served cold, who rebuilt his life and family, who achieved redemption by genuinely devoting himself to something bigger than, well, himself.
"You know, I never said, 'I'm back,'" Hamilton said last spring. "I've said, 'I'm blessed to be back.' All of it, all of what happened, I think about it and it just kind of proved my purpose to me. It's not just about baseball."
A stickler may note that Hamilton slightly overshot when predicting his '08 home-run total. Here, I humbly argue, we ought to take the liberty of editing the ledger to acknowledge one historic summer night in the Bronx, when he peppered an electric, soon-to-be-extinct Yankee Stadium with a record 28 bombs in the first round of the Home Run Derby. And that he did it all by hitting off his 71-year-old volunteer youth coach from North Carolina, whom he had clearly brought along more out of sheer gratitude than gamesmanship. Hamilton didn't win the whole thing -- here's a trivia answer: Justin Morneau did --- but he was the story of the night and probably the baseball summer, endearing himself to a worldwide audience while stretching the parameters of belief.
Everyone's belief, that is, except his own. "Sure, there were times when I thought about giving up," Hamilton said. "But I had faith. I realized, 'Hey, I can still do it.'"
Of course he can. He's a guy who just sets his own goals and meets them, preserving some lofty numbers up there to go with his memories.