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Former Tampa Bay Rays prospect Josh Hamilton achieves superstar status with World Series-bound Texas Rangers

Josh Hamilton high-fives Mitch Moreland after scoring during Game 6 of the AL Championship Series, when Hamilton won MVP honors. He’s likely to add the regular-season trophy as well.

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Josh Hamilton high-fives Mitch Moreland after scoring during Game 6 of the AL Championship Series, when Hamilton won MVP honors. He’s likely to add the regular-season trophy as well.

SAN FRANCISCO — Josh Hamilton's story was already Hollywood good.

The rise, as one of the most can't-miss prospects baseball had ever seen who was to be a foundation of the Rays franchise. The fall, as first his career then his life were imperiled by major drug abuse. And the resurrection, as he remarkably recovered, after the Rays gave him a final chance then gave up on him, finally with the Rangers fulfilling the promise.

And then he had to go all get-me-rewrite.

This latest chapter is good stuff, too: a regular season that, despite missing the final month with injury, will likely result in the American League MVP award, an AL Championship Series performance worthy of MVP honors and now a starring role, starting Wednesday night, on the World Series stage.

"It's truly a miracle," Hamilton said, "that I'm here in this situation."

Hamilton had showed during his 2008 All-Star season that he still could be the impact player the Rays had envisioned after making him the first pick of the 1999 draft and invested so much time, money and emotion in.

And in the process, how much of a mistake it was for them to leave him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and lose him for the $50,000 claiming fee. (And, to a lesser degree, for the Reds, who looked so savvy in acquiring him from the Rays, to turn around a year later and flip him in a trade for pitching prospects Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera.)

But it was what Hamilton did on the field this season — highlighted by a three-month stretch in which he hit .400 — that was truly awe-inspiring, prompting statistical references and conversational comparisons to some of the game's greatest.

"He's the most gifted athlete I've seen since (former Astros All-Star) Cesar Cedeno," Rangers president and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan said. "And as far as natural talent, he rates up there with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and those kinds of guys."

"I don't know if he's the most talented guy in the game," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels added, "but he's certainly in the discussion."

Maturity, personally and professionally, is mentioned often as a reason for this season's accomplishments, as Hamilton led the majors with a .359 average while hitting 40 doubles and 32 home runs and knocking in 100 runs — the first AL player to amass those totals since Lou Gehrig in 1934 — while playing only 133 games.

Hamilton is 29 now, with a wife and three daughters, and somewhat settled into a routine (carrying no cash, checking in daily with special assignment coach Johnny Narron) that has kept him out of trouble. He has learned more about playing big-league baseball, from making the requisite adjustments to how he's being pitched to managing the aches of a long season to understanding that his value in helping the team win extends beyond getting hits.

"I can't say enough about his maturity," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

Health is obviously key to his success, and improved technique, as new hitting coach Clint Hurdle made an adjustment to Hamilton's timing that boosted his batting average.

So, too, is experience. Hamilton went nearly four full years, due to injuries and drug-related suspensions, without playing a single game until the Rays got him back on the field for a 15-game midsummer 2006 stint at rookie-level Hudson Valley before he was sidelined by a minor knee injury. Even now, he has played barely a month's more games than Evan Longoria.

"He had to learn the game, not only the physical part, but he had to learn the mental part," Washington said. "And he had to learn the grind of the game."

The culmination came Friday as Hamilton stood in centerfield, and on center stage, as the Rangers were about to clinch.

Faith has become the predominant theme in Hamilton's life and a major part of his story. He tells it so often — in interviews, at churches and other assemblies, during arranged and even random meetings with people who've gone through similar situations or know someone who has — that you'd think he might be a bit numb to the emotions of it.

But as the game wound down, he had tears in his eyes. "Thinking about where I was, and everything I went through," he said, "and how God was just faithful to bring me out of it."

Whether Hamilton could have gotten there if he were still in a Rays uniform will remain an unanswered question.

Hamilton doesn't know, saying, "You'd like to think that way, that you know how it's going to be and how it's going to turn out, but you don't."

Nor will the Rays ever know, though it would have been less likely. Whereas the Reds had to bring Hamilton right to the big leagues in 2007 under the Rule 5 provisions — and prospered for it — the Rays had planned to restart his comeback at Class A in 2007, requiring him to climb several levels. They might have lost him on waivers after that season anyway because he would have been out of options.

Hurdle believes the change of scenery was necessary.

"This is what they thought he'd be, and they were right," Hurdle said. "And as hard as they would have worked, it wasn't going to happen there. And not to anybody's fault. One thing we like to do in this game is find out whose fault it was. It was Josh's fault. And now Josh is making good on some things."

Another question to ponder is whether it was a shame it didn't work out for Hamilton with the Rays as originally scripted or a blessing it worked out as it did.

"I'm going to answer that the way Josh would — a blessing," Washington said. "That's the way Josh's life went. Maybe if it went another way, it wouldn't be so beautiful for him now."

"His story is a phenomenal story," Ryan said. "It's so rare to see somebody experience what he's experienced in his life and come back and accomplish what he's accomplished."

To think, there's more to come.

Former Tampa Bay Rays prospect Josh Hamilton achieves superstar status with World Series-bound Texas Rangers 10/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 8:33am]

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