He has been The Best Prospect Ever, the can't-miss No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft. The Greatest Waste of Talent, as drugs interrupted his career and nearly ended his life. The Most Compelling Comeback Story, as he rebounded from those depths all the way to the big leagues. ¶ Josh Hamilton on Monday comes to Tropicana Field to finally play his first game there. He comes in as the American League's best offensive player, leading the majors in RBIs and the AL in nearly a dozen other categories. And he comes in as a visitor, a Texas Ranger a few degrees removed from the Rays' now-regrettable December 2006 decision to leave him exposed for the Rule 5 draft. ¶ But before also calling him The Biggest Mistake They've Made, know that Hamilton's not so sure they made the wrong choice, given what they knew then.
"They didn't know what to expect," he said. "Nobody did. They didn't ever think I'd do what I did."
Not even Hamilton.
• • •
From the downward spiral that started with the spring 2001 truck accident that led him to the Bradenton tattoo parlor that led him to the drugs that nearly cost him his life and career, Hamilton sat out (injured, inactive, restricted, suspended) nearly four full years before the Rays, under new boss Andrew Friedman, championed the effort to get him reinstated in June 2006.
He played only briefly (15 games) for their low-level Hudson Valley farm team before requiring surgery on his left knee, and the Rays didn't see the need to put him back on the 40-man roster to protect him for the annual draft of minor-leaguers (who then have to be kept in the majors the entire next season).
But the Reds were willing to take a chance, got 19 homers in 90 games (and two stints on the DL) out of him, then got primo pitching prospect Edinson Volquez in a trade with Texas. The Rays got the $50,000 draft fee.
"In retrospect, clearly we made a mistake," Friedman said Saturday. "His success is really incredible. It's a testament to Josh and his determination. It's an amazing story. A number of people in our organization helped him on his path, and except when we're playing against the Rangers, we're all rooting for his continued success."
Hamilton, who turned 27 last week, said he'll always be grateful to the Rays for his first chance, and specifically to Friedman for his second. He doesn't accuse them of giving up on him, but he doesn't absolve them, either.
"I don't know what to think about the situation," he said. "I think what was supposed to happen, happened. Oh well, I'm doing all right."
The Rays made an error in judgment, magnified because shortly after the draft they dumped some bit players off the 40-man roster, middle reliever Travis Harper and extra outfielder Damon Hollins.
The way Hamilton has played — hitting .337 with 12 homers and 53 RBIs — has made it look worse.
Opposing players are staying in the dugout to watch him take batting practice. ("He's just a freak of nature," Baltimore's Aubrey Huff said.) Teammates rave about him as a player and a person. ("He's our guy," infielder Ian Kinsler said.) The Rangers have been so impressed they are considering signing him to a long-term deal. ("After seeing him for a while, nothing Josh does surprises me," manager Ron Washington said.)
Even some of the Rays, seeing the highlights and checking his stats, admit to wondering, What if he were in rightfield?
"How could you not?" pitcher James Shields said. "I can just imagine what it would be like."
"You think about it all the time," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "But it was just one of those things. You just didn't know that (his amazing play) was going to happen. You knew he could do it, but you didn't know if it ever would happen. It's good to see him doing well. It would have been nice to have him over here, though."
• • •
Sitting in the lobby of the Rangers hotel for an hour after Friday's game, talking about old times (like when he threw out the first pitch at the Trop after being drafted) and old names (former managing general partner Vince Naimoli, who wrote him letters of encouragement), Hamilton makes a startling revelation about the upcoming three-game series.
"I'll probably be nervous," he said.
And he has questions, asking several times, "You think I'll get booed down there?" then shrugging and adding the gentle jab, "It wasn't my choice to leave."
He wonders if the Trop heckler will be on him. He asks about Crawford and the health of Rocco Baldelli, whom he was projected to join in the team's dream outfield. He inquires about long-time staffers such as now-farm director Mitch Lukevics, trainer Ron Porterfield and the coaches.
Hamilton has already told Washington he wants to play in all three games and wants to know who's pitching (Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine and Matt Garza). "I can't wait to see how they think they're going to pitch me," he said, flashing the old grin and cockiness that make him special.
Hamilton says his life — still steeped deeply in faith and family — is good off the field, too. His wife, Katie, is expecting a third daughter in August, and they're moving into a new house in North Carolina. He has been sober — no drugs or alcohol — since Oct. 5, 2005, and is tested three times a week year-round. He says Katie, who was a driving force in his recovery, "trusts me now" to handle more situations.
A book, with so much detail Katie has been shocked, is expected by the spring, and it would be a surprise if a movie didn't follow.
The Rangers, like the Reds, made provisions for extra care, hiring Johnny Narron as a "special assignment" coach with Hamilton, whom he has known since childhood, as his primary responsibility.
"I make sure Josh is okay away from the field," Narron said.
When the team is home, Narron, who had the same job with the Reds, will stay at Hamilton's house (when his family isn't there). On the road, Narron doesn't shadow him, but Hamilton is required to let him know where he is at all times. "He's not my babysitter," Hamilton said. "It's about having someone hold you accountable."
Typically? He watches TV in his room (Discovery Channel or National Geographic and rarely ESPN), plays video games with teammates or hosts a bible study or devotional.
Hamilton says routinely that the two most important things in his life are his relationship with God and his family. As a distant third, baseball's working out pretty well, too.
Seeing the staggering numbers Hamilton has put up, people tend to ask how he's doing it. But in reality, he's just doing what he used to do in Princeton and Charleston and what he expected to do at the Trop — for the home team.
"It's just fun," he said. "It's the way it was when I was in the minor leagues with the Rays. It feels exactly the same; if I'm in the lineup, staying healthy, the numbers are going to be there."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org