The first days of spring training spark an optimism where all things seem possible. Josh Hamilton's optimism comes from another source: "God's grace got me to where I am today." Hamilton today is at the Cincinnati Reds spring training camp. Hamilton 17 months ago was at a place from which few return.
Years ago, Josh Hamilton was the "can't miss" prospect-a high-schooler so talented the Tampa Bay Devil Rays spent the first pick in the entire 1999 draft to snatch him up over other highly touted prospects like Josh Beckett and Barry Zito. On the mound, Hamilton's 96 mph fastball made him an elite pitching prospect. But it was his bat that made scouts salivate. The Devil Rays eyed him as an outfield prospect for the ages.
When Hamilton hit the minor leagues, his smooth swing rocketed him up through the first few levels. He shared MVP honors in the South Atlantic league after hitting .302 with good power. But when a dump truck ran a red light and struck a car carrying Hamilton and his parents, his life changed. A back injury forced the 20-year-old to take time off from baseball. His parents, who had provided a support network by living with him in Bradenton, Fla., moved back to North Carolina to deal with his mother's injuries.
In the absence of parents and baseball, Hamilton began to wander in life. He eventually landed in a tattoo parlor where he would hang out and pass time between rehab stints. Then came binge drinking and strip clubs with his new friends. Then the cocaine. Finally, crack cocaine.
By the time Major League Baseball kicked him out of the game for drug abuse in early 2004, Hamilton hadn't played in a professional game since 2002. Shortly after, his wife left him. Cocaine and crack had wasted his 6-foot-4, 235-pound body down to 180 pounds. "It's a vicious cycle," said Hamilton. "When you're involved in drug use and alcohol abuse, you look for anything to set you off. I'd be fine for a month, and then something would happen and I'd go back to using again."
After squandering his $3.96 million signing bonus on drugs, he showed up at his grandmother's house in 2005 looking for help. "I lived there for the next couple of weeks and used a couple of times. One time she knew I was using and told me she couldn't take it anymore," he said. "That was the turning point." The last time he used drugs or drank alcohol was Oct. 6, 2005, a date he rattles off from memory.
Hamilton credits God for flipping off the addiction switch in his body. In the months after, Hamilton began seeking to repair his relationship with his wife, other family members, and God. Buoyed by the sort of faith developed in a long and horrific trial, Hamilton has set his sights on baseball again. "If I rely on my relationship with God, anything is possible," he told reporters at spring training with the Reds.
For all his living, Hamilton is still a young man. At 25, the young outfielder still has a shot to make it to the majors. Last year he dipped his toe back into baseball after his lengthy suspension ended. He batted just .260 in 15 games last July-four years after his last professional game experience.
His managers with the Reds say Hamilton still has the bat speed, arm, and running ability that made him the top pick in 1999. "Somebody with average talent probably would have no chance," said Reds manager Jerry Narron, whose brother coached Hamilton in high school. "But anybody who has ever seen Josh on a baseball field knows that he's a very, very special talent."
Early reviews have been positive. In his first 16 at-bats in spring training games, Hamilton has nine hits with a long home run. But even if he doesn't make the club, Hamilton says his life won't unravel. Not this time.