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180 Degrees Of Separation In 1999 Josh Hamilton and Josh Beckett were so close in talent and potential that they were drafted 1 and 2. Now they're worlds apart

April 12, 2004
April 12, 2004

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April 12, 2004

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180 Degrees Of Separation In 1999 Josh Hamilton and Josh Beckett were so close in talent and potential that they were drafted 1 and 2. Now they're worlds apart

They are opposites now, yet five years ago genetic cloning could
not have produced two more similar ballplayers. Both were 18
years old with close-cropped hair, well over six feet tall. Both
were Southern outdoorsmen with soft twangs, classic good looks
and swaggers reminiscent of John Wayne. Both possessed
magnificent baseball skills, the likes of which come along maybe
once or twice a decade. One, a tobacco-chewing righthanded
flamethrower off a ranch in Spring, Texas, was named Josh
Beckett. The other, a five-tool lefthanded outfielder from
Raleigh, was named Josh Hamilton. And, boy, could they play.

This is an article from the April 12, 2004 issue Original Layout

Throughout the winter and spring of 1999, the brain trusts of the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Florida Marlins--the clubs that had
finished with the two worst records in the major leagues in '98
and thus had the first two picks in the June 2 draft--internally
debated the merits of the two Joshes, weighing every conceivable
attribute. They pored over scouting reports. They interviewed
friends and foes, parents and coaches. The pressure was on the
Devil Rays, who had the No. 1 pick; whichever Josh was not picked
first would surely be grabbed by the Marlins.

In the 34-year history of baseball's amateur draft, many a team
had dramatically influenced its future course with a good or bad
No. 1 pick. Imagine, for example, if the New York Mets, holding
the top choice in 1966, had taken Arizona State outfielder Reggie
Jackson instead of California high school catcher Steve Chilcott.
Or what if in '87 the Seattle Mariners, picking first, had
followed the advice of numerous scouts and taken Mark Merchant, a
switch-hitting outfielder from Oviedo (Fla.) High, instead of
18-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.?

In this case, it seemed, Tampa Bay couldn't go wrong. "Both
Joshes were just fantastic baseball players, as equal as you
could find," says Dan Jennings, the Devil Rays' director of
scouting at the time. "Josh Hamilton was one of the two best high
school position players I'd ever seen, and the other was Alex
Rodriguez. But Josh Beckett was an incredibly poised, polished
pitcher who was destined for great things. It was heads or tails,
odds or evens. You pick one, and the other is just as good."

Tampa Bay picked Josh Hamilton.

Florida took Josh Beckett.

How could Chuck LaMar have known? True, little has gone right for
the Devil Rays in his eight-year tenure as general manager, and
yes, you can blame him for some horrendous decisions (trading
Bobby Abreu for Kevin Stocker, signing over-the-hill free agent
Greg Vaughn). But do not fault him for picking Hamilton over
Beckett.

In some respects it was an easy decision. No righthanded high
school pitcher had ever been taken with the first pick of the
draft. Aside from the inherent risk of arm injuries to pitchers,
there are always plenty of hard-throwing righties available later
in the draft. Sure, the 6'5" Beckett, who had gone 10-1 with a
0.46 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings as a senior at
Spring High, was special. He had a J.R. Richard-caliber fastball
and a knee-melting curve. But there would be others down the
line--others who weren't, like Beckett, demanding a $9 million
major league contract.

Plus, Hamilton was a 6'4" statue of perfection, who threw the
ball 96 mph and batted .529 with 13 home runs in 25 games as a
senior pitcher-outfielder at Athens Drive High. (He also went 7-1
with a 2.50 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 56 innings.) This was not by
accident. Hamilton, the younger of two brothers, was raised by
doting parents who put the baseball needs of their prodigious son
above all other family priorities. From the time Josh was five
his father, Tony, coached his teams, often leaving his job at a
construction company early and driving upwards of 200 miles to
arrive at a game before the first pitch. Josh's mother, Linda, a
former amateur softball player, missed only one of his games in
12 years (because of the flu). As she told Sports Illustrated in
2002, "Wherever Josh has been, whatever he's had to do, we've
made sure to show support."

Jennings, now the Marlins' vice president of player personnel,
glowingly recalls one of his first trips to watch Hamilton play.
It was a home game at Athens Drive in the spring of '99, and 60
scouts surrounded the backstop. In his first at bat Hamilton
blasted a home run that seemed as if it would never come down.
"But that wasn't the amazing thing," Jennings says. "After he
returns to the dugout, he comes back out and serves as the batboy
for his teammates. And there was this little mentally challenged
kid, and Josh was treating him like his best friend.

"You know what else? Before walking out of the dugout to start
the game, Josh walked up to his grandmother, who was sitting on a
lawn chair, and kissed her on the cheek. I mean, if there's a
dictionary with the phrase too good, the picture is Josh
Hamilton."

So how could LaMar have known that, five years later, Beckett
would be named the MVP of the World Series, while Hamilton would
be failing multiple drug tests, his career on the verge of
flatlining?

"If I had to do it all over again, we'd still pick Josh
Hamilton," LaMar says. "He was the right guy." Truth be told, if
anyone had been forced in '99 to choose which one of the two
Joshes might be a potential problem child down the road, a player
who might wind up struggling to keep his career afloat, the
choice would've been Beckett. Yes, scouts loved his eat-nails
toughness. But was it confidence or insufferable arrogance?
During his senior year Beckett was throwing a no-hitter against
rival Cypress-Fairbanks High when the father of an opposing
player started shouting out pitch locations to Cypress-Fairbanks
hitters. For example, if Spring High catcher Stephen Ghutzman set
up outside, the man would yell, "Outside!" Most high school kids
would've been annoyed but unlikely to retaliate. Not Beckett. He
reared back and threw a 97-mph fastball 20 feet wide of home
plate, in the direction of the guy's head. The backstop was the
only thing that prevented a mashed cranium.

Two days after the draft Hamilton, represented by IMG agent Casey
Close, accepted a record $3.96 million signing bonus without
kicking up a storm, as the 1997 top pick, J.D. Drew, had done in
demanding a $10 million contract from the Phillies. "I just
wanted to be fair," Hamilton told SI in 2002, "not take
advantage." Beckett, represented by agent Michael Moye, got a
$3.6 million bonus plus a four-year major league contract that
guaranteed him a total of $7 million. At his press conference,
nearly three months after Hamilton's, Beckett was anything but
humble. As scouting director Al Avila was trying to place an
adjustable Marlins cap on the young pitcher's head, Beckett
looked at it and chortled, "Where'd you get that, Albertson's?"
This was not long after he had boldly stated that he was ready to
pitch in the majors and predicted he'd pitch in the All-Star Game
in two years.

"Was I cocky?" Beckett says. "Sure. But to be a winner, I think
you have to be."

Hamilton wasn't cocky. He was perfect.

They have met only once, on a day when the sun was shining and
the fans were screaming and everything seemed right in the world.
On July 9, 2000, Beckett and Hamilton stood shoulder to shoulder
in the outfield of Atlanta's Turner Field, briefly chatting
during batting practice for the Futures All-Star Game. Although
most observers saw the moment as a summit between soon-to-be
superstars, neither Beckett nor Hamilton even brought up the
draft. "Just friendly chatter," Beckett says. "He was a real nice
guy. Loaded with talent."

That afternoon neither player disappointed anyone. In his one
inning of work Beckett struck out the side. In four at bats
Hamilton had three hits. Though bothered by tendinitis in his
right shoulder that season at Class A Kane County, Beckett went
2-3 with a 2.12 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings. At
Class A Charleston, Hamilton batted .301 with 13 homers, 61 RBIs
and 14 steals in 96 games. Despite missing the final month with a
torn lateral meniscus in his right knee, Hamilton was named the
South Atlantic League's co-MVP. "That guy was a man among boys,"
says Delvin James, a former Devil Rays prospect now pitching for
Triple A Albuquerque in the Marlins' system. "Some guys, you hear
the hype and know it's just hype. But I'll tell you, you'll never
see a more gifted, more skilled player than Josh Hamilton."

The following spring the 19-year-old Hamilton reported to Tampa
Bay's training complex in St. Petersburg with an outside shot at
making the big club. He was swinging a hot bat and chasing down
balls in the outfield with the same grace as the Minnesota Twins'
Torii Hunter. Then, on March 3, 2001, there was an auto accident,
and Hamilton's fast track to the majors took a horrible turn.

"It was just like any other drive home," Hamilton told SI in
2002. "A normal day." Josh and his parents were in the family's
1999 Chevy Silverado pickup, returning to their Bradenton, Fla.,
home after an exhibition game. Linda was behind the wheel waiting
for the traffic light to change at the intersection of Victory
Road and U.S. 301. After the light turned green Linda pulled into
the intersection. Josh, half asleep in the passenger seat, looked
out his mother's window and saw a yellow dump truck bearing down
on them. "Oh s---!" yelled Josh, as he pulled his mother toward
him. According to witnesses, the dump truck, traveling 35 to 40
mph, ran the red light and smashed into the left front corner of
the pickup, sending it spinning approximately 100 feet.

The three Hamiltons were taken to nearby Memorial Hospital, where
Tony was treated for a skull fracture and Linda for neck pain.
Apparently unharmed, Josh was not treated and rejoined the Devil
Rays the next day. But over the next few days he began
experiencing back pain that he described as "someone stabbing you
in the lower back with a knife." The Devil Rays assigned Hamilton
to Double A Orlando, where he hit .180 in 23 games. "I started
getting mad at him because he refused to tell the Devil Rays how
he was feeling," Tony told SI in 2002. "He looked terrible, and
he felt terrible." It was exasperating for Josh.

"Even in batting practice you could see that [he'd lost] his
confidence," says Tony Pigott, a former Devil Rays prospect who
played with Hamilton in Orlando. "He had every coach in the
organization trying to tell him what to do, to change this and
that, but it wasn't about his mechanics. It was his confidence. I
have never seen a pro athlete struggle like he struggled."

Around the same time Beckett was being carefully groomed by the
Marlins. He started the season at Class A Brevard County and was
never permitted to throw more than 100 pitches in a start. (He
was even removed in the seventh inning of a no-hitter.) Only when
the weather warmed up was he promoted to Double A Portland, where
his 8-1 record, 1.82 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings
solidified his status as baseball's top pitching prospect. "He's
a lot like Nolan Ryan, but far more advanced than Nolan was with
his breaking ball," Stan Cliburn, the manager of Double A New
Britain, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel at the time.
"Nolan would bounce his breaking ball. Beckett can throw his for
strikes."

On Sept. 4, 2001, Beckett made his major league debut, against
the Chicago Cubs, holding them to one hit over six innings in an
8-1 victory at Pro Player Stadium. On that day Hamilton was home
in North Carolina, on the disabled list with a strained left
quadriceps and, for the first time in his life, having doubts
about his future.

This headline appeared on the Devil Rays' official website in
February, a blast of hope to kick off the 2004 season: rays boast
young, talented outfield.

Who could argue? Tampa Bay might well finish last in the American
League East for a seventh straight year, but no other team has
developed a better collection of up-and-coming outfielders. In
center there's Rocco Baldelli, a budding Joe DiMaggio who was
third in last year's AL Rookie of the Year vote. In left there's
Carl Crawford, the leadoff hitter who stole an American
League-high 55 bases last year and who was the club's
second-round pick, following Hamilton, in '99. And in right,
there's ... Jose Cruz Jr.?

Um....

"This is the strength of our organization," LaMar says. "Baldelli
and Crawford are young guys with immense upsides. [Minor leaguer]
Joey Gathright has great speed and a feel for the game. And our
most recent first-round pick, Delmon Young, can be a
middle-of-the-order bat."

And Josh Hamilton?

"Well," LaMar says, "you still have to include him in any
discussion."

The funny thing is, LaMar doesn't include him, not until he's
specifically asked, and not without a painful grimace. It is an
understandably touchy subject for the man and the organization.
That's probably why finding anyone affiliated with the Devil
Rays--players, coaches, front office personnel--who will comment
on the details of Hamilton's decline is nearly impossible.
Officially or unofficially, a gag order is in effect.

Although many cite the accident as the beginning of Hamilton's
downfall, no one is certain. (None of the Hamiltons would talk to
SI last month for this story.) It is a mystery, chock-full of
clues and theories but lacking hard evidence. There are those who
recall him arriving at spring training in 2001 with six tattoos
adorning his body, strange for such a clean-cut kid. "I didn't
understand it," Jennings says, "but maybe that's because I'm not
a tattoo guy." (Since then Hamilton has added 20 more, turning
his body into a multicolored maze of tribal seals and funkadelic
designs.) Others in the organization quietly expressed concern
that Tony and Linda seemed unwilling to let their son sprout into
manhood on his own. When Hamilton signed with the Devil Rays, he
paid off his parents' debts, allowing them to retire. From that
point the couple followed their son everywhere, even trailing the
team bus from town to town. Linda cooked all of Josh's meals and
did his laundry.

"His parents played a big role in everything he did," Pigott
says. "He could never say he wanted to go have a beer with the
guys or go hang out at a club. I wouldn't say [parental
involvement] caused what has happened, but it could have made him
want to change his life."

Were the tattoos a form of rebellion? Tony Hamilton has long
disputed this claim, telling SI in 2002, "We're raising him the
best way we know how. Josh knows it's the best way."

In 2002 Hamilton spent the season with Class A Bakersfield, where
he hit .303 with nine homers in 56 games. But for the third time
in four years his season was cut short by injuries, this time to
his left shoulder, lower back and rib cage.

When he reported to spring training in 2003--his parents were in
St. Petersburg as usual but not living with him--his decline
accelerated. Though new manager Lou Piniella was wowed by
Hamilton's quick bat and was considering him for the club's
every-day rightfield job, the skipper became enraged after the
21-year-old Hamilton was late for practice a second time. His
first excuse was car trouble, his second oversleeping. He missed
at least two more workouts for unspecified reasons and was
reassigned to the minor league camp. Several Devil Rays told the
local beat writers that Hamilton had developed an affinity for
the nightlife.

"Josh hadn't had the freedom he needed," says Cedrick Bowers, a
former Tampa Bay prospect, of the constant presence of Hamilton's
parents. "So when he finally got it, he didn't know what to do
with it."

Then came the announcement, late that March, that Hamilton was
leaving the team for "personal reasons." For more than a month
after that, no one--including the Devil Rays' staff--could find
him. Hamilton then reappeared from time to time but sat out the
entire season. The speculation was that he was suffering from
depression, perhaps caused by his multiple injuries or an illness
in the family. Last January he spoke for a half hour with St.
Petersburg Times sportswriter Marc Topkin, who had arrived at
Hamilton's house outside Raleigh unannounced. During the
discussion, Hamilton was vague about his absence from the game,
saying his problems related to "things I've worked past and I'm
still working on to keep in the past." He also revealed that one
month earlier he had planned to marry a North Carolina woman who
said she was pregnant with his child. When the woman refused to
sign a prenuptial agreement, Hamilton said, he called off the
wedding and hadn't heard from her since. It was his second broken
engagement in a year.

While Beckett has spent much of his two full major league seasons
plagued by injuries--a recurring blister on his right middle
finger in 2002 and a sprained right elbow last year--everything
came together last October when the kid with a 17-17 career
record almost single-handedly pitched the Marlins past the Cubs
in the NLCS, then dominated the New York Yankees in Florida's
shocking World Series triumph. In his five-hitter that beat New
York 2-0 in the Game 6 clincher at Yankee Stadium, Beckett became
the first pitcher since Minnesota's Jack Morris, in 1991, to
clinch the World Series with a complete-game shutout. That he was
throwing on three days' rest made the feat even more remarkable.
"He's unbelievable," says catcher Pudge Rodriguez, who starred
for Florida last season before moving on to Detroit as a free
agent this winter. "If he stays healthy and keeps doing what he's
doing, he's going to be one of the best pitchers in the game."

After the World Series, Beckett embraced his newfound celebrity.
He began dating Frederick's of Hollywood model Leeann Tweeden and
agreed to appear in advertisements for the National Rife
Association, of which he is a card-carrying member. He flew to
New York to shoot a commercial with Derek Jeter and Alex
Rodriguez. "Fame is good, and fame is bad," he says. "It'd be
nice to eat a meal without being interrupted sometimes, but on
the other hand, you never have to wait to get seated. And the
discounts! I was in the Hugo Boss store, just looking around.
This guy comes up and says, 'Josh, you know we have discounts for
Marlins players.' I said, 'Who shops here?' He was like, 'No one
yet. But we'll give discounts.'

"It's weird. You go all your life not having money. Then you've
got it, and people want to give you everything. I guess that
comes with success."

Of all the things his suddenly elevated status has brought, the
one he could do most without is the media. Beckett freely agrees
to meet with reporters but cringes at the questions about life as
a Series hero that he is asked every day. "I'd like to be asked
something different," he says. "Anything."

Here's one: Do you know what happened to Josh Hamilton?

Beckett rubs his chin. "Hmm," he says. "I know he's had some
buzzard's luck but nothing specific. Why? Is there something I
should know?"

rumors of Josh Hamilton's drug use have spread throughout Tampa
over the past year. Some said Hamilton was hooked on cocaine. "I
would never [have believed] it," Jennings told SI in late
February when asked about Hamilton's possible drug use. "Not that
kid."

Believe it. On Feb. 17, Major League Baseball suspended Hamilton
for 30 days and fined him an undisclosed amount for multiple
violations of its drug policy. (Under the terms of the treatment
and prevention program, a player who is suspended for 25 or more
days has failed at least two drug tests. A player cannot be
suspended for using marijuana.)

"He was getting a crapload of cortisone shots [for his injuries
at Bakersfield in 2002]," says Justin Schuda, a former teammate.
"And I'm pretty sure he was taking a lot of painkillers too. When
I heard about the drugs, I was kind of surprised by it. But in
one sense, I wasn't."

Like the Hamilton family, the Devil Rays aren't talking. Close,
Josh's agent, says all matters regarding Josh are "private." Upon
signing with Tampa Bay, Josh bought himself a six-bedroom house
on 27 1/2 acres outside Raleigh. The place was up for sale this
winter. "There are a lot of rumors and speculation," says Cameron
Mitchell, one of Hamilton's high school teammates. "But no one
knows for sure."

On March 19 Hamilton was eligible to return to organized
baseball. However, on that day Major League Baseball announced
that he was suspended without pay for the entire 2004 season,
becoming the first player to be banned a full year for drug use
since Darryl Strawberry in 2000. Under MLB's substance-abuse
bylaws, the banishment meant Hamilton had failed at least two
additional drug tests, for a substance deemed more severe than
marijuana. "All we can do," says a stunned LaMar, "is hope that
Josh Hamilton will be ready to participate in 2005 spring
training."

Who knows what Hamilton's baseball future holds--if, indeed, he
has one. He told Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times that he,
Baldelli and Crawford could "still be the best outfield there
is." Even if Hamilton were to return next spring, it will have
been 2 1/2 seasons since he last played. Five years after being
touted as can't-miss, Josh Hamilton just might join Steve
Chilcott and Mark Merchant in the annals of baseball busts.

One thing seems certain: The Devil Rays chose the wrong Josh.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON JOSH THE TROUBLED Hamilton, in Devil Rays camp in '03, had a shot at the big club until personal problems derailed him.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON JOSH THE EXALTED When last season started, Beckett was a sub-.500 pitcher; when it was over, he was a Series MVP.COLOR PHOTO: KERWIN PLEVKA/HOUSTON CHRONICLE/AP POWER BOY Beckett's stats as a high school senior were staggering: 10-1, 0.46 ERA and 155 Ks in 75 1/3 innings.COLOR PHOTO: BOB JORDAN/AP GOLDEN CHILD As a schoolboy, Hamilton could throw 96 mph, hit .500-plus and blast astonishingly long homers.COLOR PHOTO: DENIS BANCROFT/MLB PHOTOS CASHED IN The Devil Rays were put off by Beckett's contract demands, but the Marlins gave him $7 million.COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN NEWTON/ST. PETERSBURG TIMES/AP NO REGRETS? "If I had to do it all over again, we'd still pick Josh Hamilton," LaMar says. "He was the right guy."COLOR PHOTO: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES TOP OF THE WORLD Beckett became the first pitcher since '91 to clinch the Series with a shutout.COLOR PHOTO: WALT UNKS/THE HERALD-SUN BOTTOMED OUT Suspended until at least next spring, Hamilton will not have played for 2 1/2 seasons.

Scouts loved Beckett's EAT-NAILS TOUGHNESS. But was it confidence
or insufferable arrogance?

"That guy was A MAN AMONG BOYS," James says. "You'll never see a
more gifted player than Josh Hamilton."

Says Beckett, "TO BE A WINNER, you have to be
cocky."

"There are A LOT OF RUMORS," Mitchell says of Hamilton.