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Dramatic swings

Sports | Amid tragedy, Josh Hamilton has offered hope born of grace

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

For Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton, swinging from dramatic highs to crushing lows and back again is nothing new. Over the last dozen years, the 30-year-old slugger has gone from first overall pick in the Major League draft to a drug-addicted junkie whose baseball career appeared over to an American League all-star and MVP. But what is new for Hamilton is his uncanny steadiness amid such swings.

On July 7 at Rangers Ballpark, a fan sitting with his 6-year-old son just beyond the left field fence hollered out to Hamilton in the second inning with a simple and ordinary request: Would he toss the next foul ball he collected into the stands rather than to the team's ball girl? Hamilton turned and made a mental note: "The first person I saw was the dad and the boy. And it looked like somebody who would love to have a baseball."

Several pitches later, an Oakland batter smacked a ball foul down the left field line that bounced off the wall toward Hamilton. The Gold Glove caliber outfielder scooped up the ball and flipped it to the expectant father. But in his excitement to make the catch, Shannon Stone lost his balance, fell over the railing to a concrete walkway 20 feet below, and was pronounced dead at the hospital less than an hour later.

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The incident stunned the baseball world. Reporters struggled to avoid the indecency of describing a game in stories that also included details of a man's death. Stone was a firefighter and, more importantly, a father taking his young son to his first ball game. The pair had driven three hours from Brownwood and bought young Cooper a new glove. They had sat in left field behind Cooper's favorite player-and might have gone home with a baseball tossed from his very hand. Tragedy intervened.

Amid the heartache, Hamilton directed his thoughts and words toward the family: "I can't imagine what they're going through right now. I can't imagine. All I can think about is praying for them and knowing that God has a plan. You don't always know what that plan is when those things happen, but you will. And you go on."

Hamilton's confidence in the plans of God is born of loss and redemption in his own life. A decade ago, he responded to hardship very differently, doubting the hand of God after suffering injuries in a car accident. He turned to alcohol and cocaine as replacements for the high baseball could not provide during rehabilitation. Within three years, he was completely out of the game with little hope of return. In his autobiography Beyond Belief (FaithWords, 2008), Hamilton describes his road back, not just to baseball but to faith. It began with a simple prayer for rescue and has culminated in a new life of family, baseball success, and regular public statements about the kindness of Jesus, even amid pain.

Perhaps no player in Major League Baseball today was better equipped to handle such proximity to Shannon Stone's tragic death. Two days after the incident, Hamilton lifted the Rangers to victory with a game-ending two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. And on the high of yet another swing, Hamilton said: "It's been so up and down, been a very emotional weekend. I'm still thinking about everything that happened to Mr. Stone and the Stone family. I'm still grieving about the whole situation. This takes you from one extreme to the other pretty quickly. I'm just glad I had the opportunity. I just feel blessed."


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