There is no such thing as a can’t-miss baseball prospect. For years, Josh Hamilton served as living proof of this axiom. The first pick in the 1999 draft, he suffered a stunning decline that saw him squander his once-in-a-generation talent. Lost in a haze of alcohol and drugs, he tumbled from the top of the sports world to bottom of the barrel. After going years without picking up a bat and ball, Josh miraculously rediscovered the game—and, thankfully, it rediscovered him. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Joshua Holt Hamilton was born on May 21, 1981 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Linda and Tony, were both excellent athletes. Tony had been a baseball and football star in high school. Linda was a top amateur softball player. They met on a baseball diamond and were married six months later. They had two boys, Josh and his older brother, Jason.

Tony worked at a Ditch Witch dealership and spent every free moment grooming the careers of his wife and two sons. They ate more family meals at the concession stand than they care to remember. Tony was a demanding coach to his sons, doling out discipline hand-in-hand with advice.

As far back as Josh can remember, his life was focused on becoming a top draft choice and then a pro baseball star. His parents still have a scrap of paper from grade school, in which he scrawled out detailed plans for becoming a major leaguer. His teacher told him to follow his dreams. Support from friends, family and the community was never lacking.

Josh ran track and played football and soccer in addition to baseball. Eventually he would pare down to baseball exclusively. Tony would throw endless BP to his youngest son, with Linda shagging flies. Josh switched to wood bats when his teammates were using aluminum. He also worked out with a medicine ball to strengthen his hands and wrists.

Jason, meanwhile, was busy setting all kinds of records at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. Josh would go on to break just about all of them. As he filled out, Josh became a picture-perfect athlete for the Jaguars. Before long, Josh gave up on track—there weren't any shoes big enough to fit him.

Already, Josh was being compared to big league sluggers. Paul O’Neill was the name mentioned most often. Josh stood 6–4 and weighed a rock-solid 200 pounds. Like the New York Yankees All-Star, he had explosive power, great coordination, muscles on top of muscles, and large and supple hands. Josh’s feet grew so large that he needed custom-made cleats.

Josh played center field and pitched for Athens Drive. He ran the 60-yard dash in 6.7 second. As he matured, he did not lose this speed.

Josh came into his own in 1998 during his junior season. His fastball touched 96 mph on the radar, and no one had ever seen a high-schooler with a quicker bat. His teammates nicknamed him “Hammer.” His famous and funny pre-game ritual was to change into his uniform in his ’89 Camaro, blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Double Trouble” and “Brand New Key” by Melanie.

Josh didn’t get much to hit as a senior, but he made the most of what the strikes he saw. Josh batted .529 in 25 games with 13 homers, 20 steals, 35 RBIs and 34 runs scored. On the mound, he lost just once in eight decisions, fanning 91 batters in 56 innings. For the second season in a row, Josh was honored as North Carolina’s Player of the Year. He made the cover of Baseball America while he was still in school.

Heading into the June draft, Josh was a guaranteed Top 5 pick. A flawless player with a squeaky-clean off-field reputation, he kissed his grandmother before every game. How could a team go wrong drafting a kid like Josh?

ON THE RISE

With one season under their belt, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays owned the first pick in the 1999 draft and were shopping for a franchise player. High school pitching prospect Josh Beckett was a possibility, as were college stars Eric Munson and Barry Zito. The Devil Rays considered Josh in this group, as well. The team eventually picked him because of his great makeup.

Josh ended up signing for a then-record $3.96 million bonus. He had every reason to be confident at this point. He was a once-in-a-lifetime player. Josh predicted three years in the minors, 15 in the majors and then a five-year wait for the Hall of Fame. And as his first pro season unfolded, it looked like that timetable might be conservative.

Josh joined the Princeton Pirates of the Appalachian League. After missing a few days with food poisoning, he just tore it up. In his first game, he launched a 380-foot screamer into the night for a home run. Josh wound up belting nine more homers and knocking in 48 runs to go with 17 steals and a .347 average.

Josh’s teammates at Princeton included Carl Crawford and Doug Waechter, a couple of high school football stars who would soon reach the majors. Hard-throwing Seth McClung was also on that squad, which was managed by Bobby Ramos, who backed up Gary Carter at catcher for several years with the Montreal Expos.


 

 

 


Paul O'Neill, 1987 Fleer

     
 

The Rays bumped up Josh to Class-A Hudson Valley in August. He led the Renegades to the NY-Penn League title, hitting .429 with a pair of homers and eight RBIs in the postseason.

Josh’s parents were there for every game, having quit their jobs to travel through the minor leagues with their son. The Devil Rays were not crazy about this arrangement, but in the end, there was not much they could do about it. The Hamiltons followed behind the team bus, Linda cooked Josh's meals, and Tony went over each game’s performance with his son.

Josh opened the 2000 camapign with the Charleston River Dogs of the South Atlantic League. He batted an eye-popping .448 in April before cooling off and settling into a nice rhythm. In his first full professional season, Josh finished with a .302 batting average and 13 homers, 61 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. He was the youngest player invited to the Futures Game and collected three hits in four at-bats to lead Team USA’s 3–2 victory. Josh was also the top player in the Southern League’s All-Star Game.

On the last day of July, Josh felt a twinge in his right knee while chasing a fly ball. The injury was diagnosed as a torn lateral meniscus, which required season-ending arthroscopic surgery. Josh was nevertheless named the league’s co-MVP, sharing the honor with J.R. House. He was also voted Minor League Player of the Year by USA Today.

Josh went into the 2001 campaign rated as the game’s top prospect by Baseball America. That February, he and his parents were in an accident, their car rammed by a truck that had run a red light. Josh suffered back injuries, and his mother was badly hurt. Linda and Tony returned home to Raleigh where she could get medical treatment. Josh, meanwhile, started the year with Class-AA Orlando, but his back never felt right . After 23 games, he went on the DL.

At 20-years-old, Josh was alone for the first time in his life. With lots of time and money at his disposal, he fell in with a group that hung out at a tattoo shop in Bradenton, Florida. They weren’t bad guys, he has said, but they were into some bad things.

Eventually, Josh would be covered with tattoos, including tribal signs he didn’t understand and images of the devil and Jesus. He also began experimenting with drugs and alcohol for the first time in his life.

Tampa Bay's management sensed that something was seriously wrong and ordered Josh to see a sports psychologist. When he admitted he had tried drugs, he was shipped immediately to the Betty Ford Clinic. There, he says, doctors tried to convince him that his problems could be traced to his inability to sever ties with his parents and grow up independently. Josh got so angry he walked out of rehab.

Josh was sent back to Charleston when he came off the DL, and then tore a quadriceps muscle three games later and his season was over. A few months later, Tamba Bay assigned Josh to the Arizona Fall League. There, he hurt himself after just two games and went home. Meanwhile, his drinking and drug use continued.


Josh Hamilton, 2001 Stadium

     
 

In 2002, Josh found himself in Bakersfield playing Class-A ball again. His left shoulder and elbow were sore all year, and his back injury also kicked up. Limited primarily to DH duties, he hit .303 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs in 56 games. His season ended prematurely in July—the third straight year he failed to make it to the finish line. Tampa Bay set up a meeting with Dr. James Andrews, who later operated on Josh’s elbow and shoulder.

During spring training in 2003, Josh failed a drug test and was suspended. Unable to stay clean, he had his career officially put on hold. Every time he flunked a drug test, Major League Baseball tacked another 12 months onto his suspension. He returned to Raleigh but could not bring his life under control.

Finally, in 2004, Josh stopped taking drug tests altogether. At this point, he was out of baseball. Josh continued to drift in and out of rehab, wanting badly to kick his habits but unable to do so. Many a time he consumed enough cocaine and booze to kill a normal human being, but his amazing body pulled him through.

Josh’s greatest piece of luck came when he showed up at the home of Mike Chadwick, a businessman who lectured around the state on how he had beaten drugs and alcohol. Chadwick explained to Josh that he was in a life-and-death battle. Josh could either quit or die. Chadwick pointed out to Josh that he had advantages others like him did not. There was a group of good supportive people who cared about him and were not interested in baseball. This group eventually included Chadwick’s daughter, Katie, who had known Josh back in his high school days.

The relationship between Josh and Katie blossomed, and the two got married in the winter of '04. She had a daughter, Julia, from a previous marriage, and they decided to have a child of their own. Josh convinced Katie that he was clean, but soon he fell back into his old ways. Tony and Linda gave the couple the last $200,000 left from Josh’s bonus so they could buy a small house. Josh took the leftover cash and blew it on drugs.

Katie gave birth to a girl named Sierra in September of 2005. By then, Josh was smoking crack again. Katie had thrown him out of their house, and he had moved in with grandmother Mary. She was the only one left in the family willing to take him in.

On October 6, Josh vowed to give up drugs and alcohol. He had lost 50 pounds, and his complexion was ghostlike. Baseball was completely off his radar at this point. All that consumed Josh was his next high. Everything that was important to him was gone. He had hit rock bottom.

Josh always made for good copy in the media, and when word got out that he had cleaned up his act, articles began appearing in print and online. One of these stories reached the desk of Roy Silver, owner of The Winning Inning, a training academy that blends the fundamentals of baseball and Christianity. Silver invited Josh to join his staff and work his way back into the game.

Josh showed up at the The Winning Inning complex in Clearwater, Florida in January of 2006. He cleaned the restrooms and took care of the field. After his duties were completed, he was able to use the academy’s training facilities. Dead broke, he slept on an air mattress in an unused office.  College teams would often play at the complex, and the students had no idea that the guy in cargo shorts raking the infield was probably the best player on the diamond.

Once, when he was tidying up the bullpen, Josh asked the pitchers warming up if he could toss a few. It had been almost three years since he had thrown a ball in anger. The ball exploded into the catcher’s glove at 95 mph, and the college boys looked at Josh in slack-jawed awe. Impossible as it seemed, he still had it.

MAKING HIS MARK

Although Josh had been clean and sober for only eight months, Major League Baseball was impressed enough by his progress to allow him to get back on the field. Tampa Bay still held his contract. Josh played 15 games for one of his former clubs, Hudson Valley of the NY-Penn League. The Rays had to run Josh through waivers, where anyone could have claimed him for $20,000. There were no takers.

That made the next turn of events a little surprising. After the '06 season, Josh was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the Rule 5 Draft. Tampa Bay had decided to leave him off its 40-man roster, thinking no one would gamble on a player with his past. The team was wrong. Actually, Chicago's move was a pre-arranged deal with the Cincinnati Reds, who needed outfield depth. The Reds paid $100,000 to the Cubs for their third pick in the draft, which enabled Cincinnati to move up from #15, where the club might not have had a shot at Josh.


Josh Hamilton,
2002 Bowman Chrome
     
 

One of the first things the Reds did was to find Josh an around-the-clock companion to keep him out of trouble. Manager Jerry Narron suggested his brother John, a hitting instructor in the Milwaukee Brewers’ system. John had once coached Josh in youth-league basketball, and like Josh, he was deeply religious.

Josh made the Reds in 2007 as part of a power-packed outfield with Ken Griffey and Adam Dunn. As he prepared to take his long-awaited first major league at-bats, against the Cubs of all teams, the fans at Great American Ballpark gave him a long ovation. “Congratulations Josh,” said Chicago catcher Michael Barrett. “You deserve it. Take it all in."

Josh had his ups and downs during the year, and so did the Reds. By midseason, he had found his groove. After 298 at-bats Josh was hitting close to .300 and had 19 home runs. He was, by any measure, an unqualified success.

Josh’s great season was derailed by a wrist injury, and many worried that without baseball he would relapse. Narron actually moved in with Josh at this point, and they wiled away the hours watching movies and playing video games.

After the season, the Texas Rangers approached the Reds about Josh. The club had almost made him a Rule 5 pick the previous year, and it still needed a center fielder.

The Rangers had scouted Josh throughout '07. They were convinced that he had turned the corner. After much haggling, the Reds managed to extract Edinson Volquez, the club’s top pitching prospect, and Danny Herrera, another young hurler. Cincinnati needed pitching badly, and with young center fielder Jay Bruce on the cusp of stardom, Josh was expendable.

The only distressing part of Josh’s first year in the majors was grumbling from some Cincinnati teammates that he was getting too much media attention. His inspiring story made great headlines, and his locker was busy each time the team played in a new city. Sensitive to this situation when he moved onto the Rangers, Josh was incredibly touched when, during his introductory press conference, he noticed team leaders Michael Young, Hank Blalock and Ian Kinsler in the audience.

The 2008 Rangers did not have much in the pitching department, so they looked to their sluggers to win games. Josh quickly emerged as the best of the bunch. In spring training, he batted close to .500. Then, in the team’s first series of the regular season, Josh pulled a JJ Putz heater into the stands with a man on in the ninth inning to turn a 4–3 deficit into a 5–4 win over the Seattle Mariners. Earlier in the game, he had flashed some leather, sprinting to the track in left-center to make an over-the-shoulder basket catch on a drive off the bat of Brad Wilkerson.

After one month, Josh was crushing the ball at a .330 clip with six homers and 32 RBIs. Nonetheless, the baseball pundits were near unanimous in their analysis of him at this point: Josh had nowhere to go but down. All he did in May was win his second straight Player of the Month award. On June 1, he was leading the league with 15 homers and 63 RBIs, and was in the thick of the batting race.

Josh wasn’t just torturing enemy pitchers. He was getting it done in the outfield, too. In a May game against the Mariners, he made a wall-banging, game-saving catch in a 5–2 victory. In the club's next series against the Houston Astros, he had a 5-for-5 game with six RBIs. Josh was crushing the ball from foul pole to foul pole.

In July, Josh slammed a walk-off homer off Francisco Rodriguez of the Anaheim Angels. By the All-Star break, he had 95 RBIs. Next, he electrified the crowd at Yankee Stadium with a performance for the ages in the Home Run Derby. Fans felt like they were the second coming—they just weren't sure if it was of Mickey Mantle or Roy Hobbs.


Michael Barrett, 2006 Heritage
     
 

Josh continued to rake through August and September. He finished the season as the AL leader with 130 RBIs and also led the league with 331 total bases. He batted .304 and placed in the Top 5 with 190 hits. Although the Rangers finished a distant second in the AL West with a 79–83 record, Josh received a slew of MVP votes, finishing seventh in the balloting.

The 2009 Rangers were a much improved club. They went 87-75 and earned a second-place finish in the division—10 games behind the Angels and eight games shy of a Wild Card berth. It might hav e been an even better year had Josh been at 100 percent. He bruised his ribs in May, and a month later he was diagnosed with an abdominal tear. Josh underwent surgery for this injury and returned to the field in time to participate in the All-Star Game. He was voted into the starting lineup despite more than a month on the DL. Josh knocked in a run with a first-inning groundout. Later he watched from the bench as the AL scored a 4–3 comeback victory.

Living up to the hype he created with his breakout campaign in ’08 wasn’t easy. In fact, Josh’s numbers for 2009 pailed in comparison. He played in just over half the Rangers’ games, batting .268 with 10 homers and 54 RBIs. His injury showed up most noticeably in his slugging average, which dropped more than 100 points. Also creating a cloud over this lost season was the revelation that, earlier in the year, Josh had gotten drunk in an Arizona bar. When the news broke, he went public with an apology, adding that he had come clean about this slip in sobriety the next day. He passed a drug test by MLB two days after the incident.

For Texas fans, there were two big question entering 2010: Would the team go bankrupt? Would Josh stay clean and regain his previous form? The answers to both were affirmative.

The team’s financial woes remained a problem until midseason when a group headed by Nolan Ryan bought the team in a private auction. Their main compeition with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. If nothing else, his desire to own the Rangers pushed the club’s value significantly higher.

Josh also saw his value rise in 2010. It didn’t seem possible, but he was even better than he was in 2008. At the plate, in the field, on the bases and in the clubhouse, Josh was the embodiment of a winning player. He agreed to move from center to left to accommodate young star Julio Borbon, and he took on the responsibility of anchoring the team’s formidable batting order.

Heading into the All-Star Game—where he was voted a starter once again—Josh was neck-and-neck with Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers for the major league batting lead. In July and August, he boosted his average into the stratosphere and was among the league leaders in hits, runs, homers, slugging and on-base percentage, and RBIs.


Josh Hamilton, 2008 Upper Deck X
     
 

The Rangers, meanwhile, were on pace to win over 90 games in a division where everyone else was struggling to reach .500. Key additions to the club included a resurgent Vladimir Guerrero, converted reliever CJ Wilson and second-year starter Tommy Hunter. The midseason acquisition of Cliff Lee sent a message to the players that the cash-strapped club was aiming for a championship. However, there was no denying that the difference-maker for the Rangers was Josh. As the team headed for the stretch run, he was the front-runner for the AL MVP award.

Josh finished the year at .359 with 32 homers and 100 RBIs. He set the tone for the Rangers all season. If the team needed a big hit, he produced. In the outfield, he never gave up on a play. In fact, he fractured several ribs after a collision with a wall in Minnesota.

That injury put Josh’s status in doubt as Texas wrapped up the AL West and prepared for its ALDS matchup with the Rays. He vowed that nothing would keep him from the series with Tampa Bay. Josh struggled in his first postseason appearance. He didn’t complain about his ribs, but they were a problem. Against the Rays, he collected just two hits and drove in just one run. Fortunately, the Rangers didn’t need him. Lee was overpowering, limiting Tampa Bay to two runs in two starts. Texas won all three games on the road and advanced to the ALCS.

Josh was a different player against the Yankees. He homered in his first at-bat, hammering a hanging slider of CC Sabathia for a three-run jack. Even though New York came back to win Game 1, the Rangers and their fans were infused with confidence. Texas took four of the next five to go to the World Series for the first time in team history.

Josh was the catalyst, with a major assist from Lee and Colby Lewis. In six games, he hit four home runs and knocked in seven. Lee and Lewis, meanwhile, notched three victories between them. The Yankees had no clue how to pitch to Josh. They walked him eight times in the series but still couldn’t silence his bat in the clutch. Josh was the logical choice as the ALCS MVP.

Whatever fate awaits the Rangers in their quest for a championship (and fiscal solvency), Texas fans will likely never forget that what they have in Josh—the privilege of witnessing the greatness that the baseball world had all but given up on. Josh is clean, sober and back on track. The mountains that lie ahead of him will seem to small compared to those he has already ascended.

JOSH THE PLAYER

Josh has one of baseball’s most magnificent swings. It is smooth and powerful. Fans who get to the ballpark early can tell when he’s taking batting practice just by the sound the ball makes when it explodes off his bat. During games, they are amazed at how hard it is to tempt Josh to swing at bad pitches. His knowledge of the strike zone helps make him a great hitter. Josh uses the entire field and can clear any fence in the majors. in other words, he's a pitcher's worst nightmare.

Josh works on his approach at the plate constantly. During games, he has coaches check video of his at-bats and then quiz him on what he did right and wrong. Most of the time he knows the exact reason for success and failure.

Josh is fast in the outfield with a great first step and flawless instincts. He played a shallow center field, but he showed he could get to the wall to track down long drives. He has one of the strongest arms in the American League. He can throw 250-foot strikes to home plate—making him even more important now that he has taken up residence in left field.

A fan favorite, Josh is friendly and generous with his time before games. He also speaks to groups about his ordeal with drugs and alcohol. He will stay at these events until he has answered every question from the audience. Friends and teammates still worry about a relapse. Josh takes his life one day at a time, which is a perfect philosophy for the baseball diamond as well.


Josh Hamilton, 2010 Heritage
     

 

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