NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas — The whole crowd was rooting for Josh Hamilton on Sunday even though nobody shouted his name and nobody showed up in a Rangers jersey.
That's because this crowd had come to Gateway Church, where one of the better known members is the Rangers star centerfielder and former top prospect of the Rays.
Not everyone in this megachurch located in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, knows Hamilton and his family, but just about everyone here seems to know his story: Ballplayer gets $4 million signing bonus, falls to cocaine addiction, is suspended by Major League Baseball, embraces Christianity and returns to the game with gusto.
His story lets church members know they "can find help here and they really, really do believe that God can work miracles," said Bruce Huckins, a food broker who greets people as they walk in on Sunday mornings.
Although Hamilton, 29, and his wife, Katie, maintain a somewhat low profile at the church — hoping to keep the experience as normal as possible for them and their three daughters — the couple previously appeared with pastor Robert Morris in a half-hour interview about their faith that was played for church members and posted on the Internet.
Church member Misty Warren saw it and thought it proved, "You can overcome anything through God. It was very inspirational."
Warren shared the Hamiltons' story with friends at work.
"God bless him for standing up through the good and bad and all," she said.
In the video, Hamilton tells the story of being so addicted to drugs that he got high while visiting his grandmother in North Carolina. It wasn't the first time his addiction hurt his family, but this time, he could see how it anguished her.
He retreated to a back room in her house and picked up a Bible.
"The first verse I read was James 4:7: 'Humble yourself before God and resist the Devil and he'll flee from you,' " Hamilton said. "And at that moment, I recommitted my life to Christ. 'Father,' I said, 'my way is not working. I need your help.' "
Hamilton's story resonates in the Tampa Bay area because he was the first great, lost hope for baseball fans who wanted to see a struggling young team get better.
But at the North Richland Hills campus of the nondenominational Gateway Church, the campus the Hamiltons attend most often, it's the tale of faith and redemption people find inspiring.
"He could have just been a janitor working for the Rangers and had the same story," and it still would have been uplifting, said John Mangus, a sales consultant who came to services Sunday.
Not that there aren't a few baseball fans in the pews. Huckins, the church greeter, zipped over to Rangers Ballpark after the service to root for the home team. Tom Lane, senior executive pastor, says every time Hamilton steps to the plate, he's thinking, "Come on, Josh, you can do it."
With 20,000 members and 70 ministries on four campuses, Gateway almost resembles a midsized college. At services at North Richland Hills on Sunday, churchgoers strolled around the Barnes & Noble-style lobby, ordering coffees from the cafe and browsing through the bookstore. One of the books on the shelf is Beyond Belief, Hamilton's life story.
The Hamiltons weren't present at the 9 a.m. service on Sunday. But when they come, they tend to sit in an overflow room rather than the large church auditorium, which holds about 850. In general, the church wants the Hamiltons to be "treated like friends and not the athletic superstar," the Rev. Lane said.
And friends back friends.
Hamilton suffered a setback in January 2009 when he got drunk and was photographed consorting with three women at a bar. The photos hit the Internet but long after he had confessed and apologized to his wife and team.
"The church responded with support," the Rev. Lane said. "The criterion for any of us is not perfection but sincerity."