During the past 11 years, Josh Hamilton has been known for a number of things-from "can't miss" prospect to druggie to major leaguer to drunkard to the Most Valuable Player of the 2010 American League Championship Series. But along the way he found the one thing he could reliably call himself: a child of God.
Friday night, the Hamilton-led Texas Rangers defeated the New York Yankees 6-1, winning the ALCS in six games, with their next stop the World Series against either the Philadelphia Phillies or the San Francisco Giants. The Rangers are AL champs for the first time in their 38 years in Texas and their 50 years as a big league franchise.
"I'm so excited for this team, for this city," Hamilton said. "To be part of something like that means the world. It's something that nobody can take away from you."
Once before Hamilton had the world at his feet, but lost it all before regaining it for the glory of God.
Fresh out of high school in 1999, the Raleigh, N.C., native was major league baseball's overall No. 1 draft pick. Shortly thereafter, he quickly moved up the minor league baseball ladder and was named Most Valuable Player in the Class A South Atlantic League.
Then a dump truck ran a red light and hit the car Hamilton and his parents were riding in, and things dramatically changed. He suffered a severe back injury and had to step away from baseball. With all his newfound free time, he traded shagging flies and taking batting practice for other pursuits-such as hanging out in a tattoo parlor and a strip club, drinking heavily, and then moving on to cocaine and eventually crack.
In the eyes of Major League Baseball, Josh Hamilton was a drug abuser and was summarily tossed out of the game he loved. Shortly after that, the woman he loved, his wife, Katie, left him, as had his $3.96 million signing bonus, now squandered on drugs.
He had hit rock bottom. His next stop was his grandmother's house, and she wasn't going to put up with his addictive behavior. "I lived there for the next couple of weeks and used a couple of times," Hamilton told WORLD's John Dawson back in 2007. "One time she knew I was using and told me she couldn't take it anymore. That was the turning point."
Hamilton realized then that he couldn't reclaim his life alone and needed someone stronger than he ever was. Turning to God, he quit drugs and alcohol in the fall of 2005. That began his long road back and the repairing of his body and his relationships with the ones he loved, including Katie. Seventeen months later, in the spring of 2007, he was at spring training with the Cincinnati Reds, where he told reporters, "If I rely on my relationship with God, anything is possible."
After that first full year of major league ball, he, with help from Katie, decided to step out in faith and beyond the playing field by starting Triple Play Ministries. "I have a bigger purpose to serve than just baseball," Hamilton said at the time. "The main focus is to spread the word of God."
That same off-season he was traded to the Texas Rangers, where he earned the starting center-field job, was selected by the fans to play in the 2008 All-Star Game, and nearly won that event's Home Run Derby after slamming a record 28 dingers in the first round.
Then in January 2009, Hamilton's roller-coaster ride hit a major dip after a night of heavy drinking at a bar in Arizona, where he had been in town to work out prior to spring training. Rumors began to swirl that he had totally fallen off the wagon, as photos from that evening surfaced during the season. But his family, the Rangers, and Major League Baseball were already aware of the incident, as Hamilton had notified them immediately of his transgression. In fact, he was tested for drugs two days after the incident and was found clean.
"Maybe this will show people that if they are recovering and make a mistake, it's not the end of the world," Hamilton told an MLB.com reporter when the news became public that summer. "You can get back on the right track. Hopefully I can use God's glory to show that I do have struggles. This just lets me know that I need Christ more than ever."
Adding to the turmoil, his 2009 season was a tough one on the field. Hamilton was still an All-Star outfielder, but injuries limited his play and diminished his performance.
But this year, despite more injuries, he has been at the top of his game: leading the league in hitting with a .359 average, slugging 32 homers, and knocking in 100 runs.
After missing 24 games in September because of fractured ribs, Hamilton struggled in the division series against the Tampa Bay Rays, going only 2 for 18 with one RBI. But his teammates came through in the series, winning three games to two.
Then came the championship series against the mighty Yanks, where his bat suddenly came alive. Hamilton hit four homers and reached base in 15 of his 28 plate appearances (seven hits and eight walks-five intentional, an ALCS record).
On Friday night, as the Yankees' powerful Alex Rodriguez struck out to end the game and the series, Hamilton put the evening into perspective: "All throughout the game I was tearing up-is this going to be it tonight?-and thinking about where I was, and everything I went through, and how God was just faithful . . . to bring me out of it."
Traditionally, baseball teams celebrate winning a pennant with a champagne bath. Because they know the struggles of their brother, his Ranger teammates chose to douse him and each other with ginger ale.
"I love my teammates, I love them so much," Hamilton said as he accepted his MVP award. "I don't want to talk about myself. I want to talk about them. We are here as a group. This group is here because they don't know how to fail."
John Dawson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.