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Starting over, again

Plopped in an overstuffed baseball glove-colored leather chair in the estate home his family is selling, fiddling with the remote to keep the big-screen TV jumping, fidgeting like any other restless 22-year-old, Josh Hamilton insists he is ready to go.

He wouldn't say where he has been or what he has been through. He wouldn't say what the problem was _ the "private nonbaseball matter" _ that led to his seasonlong absence and put his can't-miss career in jeopardy. He wouldn't fill in the who, what, where, when or why.

But he made it very clear Thursday he is ready to get back on the baseball field, back in a Devil Rays uniform and back to work at becoming the star player everyone was sure he would be.

"Everything's good right now," Hamilton said. "Nothing's wavered as far as ability or talent. It's just being out there playing. That's the part I've missed."

An outfielder with a rifle arm and a powerful bat, Hamilton was supposed to be the next great thing, skills as good or better than contemporaries Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford and work ethic and desire that were off the charts. But injuries delayed his progress, and the undisclosed personal problems that surfaced last spring derailed his career.

Some issues remain unclear, such as whether he will be allowed to go to spring training next month, but Hamilton said Thursday he was confident he could be the impact player he was supposed to be and predicted he could be in the major leagues this season.

"I am that player," he said. "I always say that. I've just got to get back into it. The longer I stay out, the harder it will be to get back into it. I'm looking forward to getting back into it, seeing all the guys again, hitting some balls, showing (manager Lou) Piniella what I can really do."

The chance to be with a team and around baseball full time, he said, can only help him deal with his personal issues.

"That would be real good," Hamilton said. "That will be the best thing, for me to stay busy."

The answers Hamilton gave during a half-hour talk with the Times on Thursday were the first public comments he has made since May and the first confirmation that he plans to resume his career.

But, not unexpectedly, he left many questions unanswered.

He'll be there, maybe

Hamilton is planning to head to St. Petersburg next month to report early for spring training but said he doesn't know for sure if he will be allowed to participate.

First he said he would be in camp "if I don't hear differently, and I don't think I will." But later in the conversation he said the chances he'll be on the field for the opening of camp might be "50-50."

"I'm just waiting to hear," Hamilton said. "If it was up to me, I'd run down there right now. I'm on hold right now. That's a good way to put it."

Hamilton said he expects to know within a week, after his agent, Casey Close, talks with Major League Baseball chief lawyer Rob Manfred. But Hamilton said he didn't know exactly what permission has to be granted.

"I don't get all the details, I just hang out," he said. "That's the way it always is."

Since Hamilton was treated under the cloak of MLB's Employee Assistance Program, it may be that he has to successfully complete, or meet a condition of, a treatment program. Manfred did not return a telephone message Thursday.

The Devil Rays, as they have throughout this episode, declined comment but seem to be expecting him in camp. They made the procedural transaction of moving him from the restricted list back to the 40-man roster in November and have sent him a 2004 contract and spring training reporting information.

Leaving issues behind

When he resurfaced in May, working out with the Rays' Double-A Orlando team for about a week before disappearing again and taking the seasonlong leave, Hamilton said his absence was not related to drug, alcohol or legal problems but alluded to depression as a factor.

Thursday, he admitted depression was not the problem, but he was not ready to say what was or whether the issues have been fully resolved.

"Put it like this: There's things I've worked past and I'm still working on to keep in the past, and just leave it at that right now," he said.

As for the speculation that has become a common topic of conversation and Internet message board postings?

"I know there's a million rumors, but let's just leave it as rumors right now," he said.

When Hamilton came back in August to work out briefly with Triple-A Durham, the team said he would address the media in spring training 2004.

But Thursday, Hamilton said he didn't know if he would be willing to tell all.

"We'll see," he said. "I might want to keep it in the past."

Hamilton said he knows that some people recovering from certain problems find it therapeutic to tell their story and share the details, but he didn't know if that would be good for him.

"You're dealing with the fans every day, day in and day out, and you have to think about that," he said. "Everybody is different. It's going to be (a decision) on a personal basis."

Josh is living with his parents in a spectacular estate _ six bedrooms on 27{ acres _ on the outskirts of a Raleigh suburb. But that soon will change. Josh said Tony and Linda, who have no other children living at home, are looking to downsize and didn't want to say any more about their situation. Josh bought the house in January 2001 for $950,000 and has listed it at $1.2-million.

Hamilton also has been dealing with the issue of a canceled wedding and questions of fatherhood.

Hamilton said he had planned in December to marry a North Carolina woman who told him she was pregnant with his baby, but he called off the wedding when she refused to sign a prenuptial agreement. Hamilton said he hasn't heard from the woman and may pursue DNA testing if necessary.

"I haven't heard anything from her, so I don't know," he said.

Time to heal

Before the personal matter became a problem, Hamilton had trouble staying on the field because of injuries. So even if the off-field problems are resolved, there still is a challenge of making up for lost time.

Chosen ahead of pitcher Josh Beckett as the No. 1 overall pick of the 1999 draft, Hamilton made a successful pro debut but has yet to play a full season.

In 2000, he had surgery on his right knee and missed the final month at Class A Charleston. In 2001, after being involved in a spring training auto accident, he was limited to 27 games because of back, quadriceps and shoulder injuries. In 2002, he missed time because of back and rib cage injuries, then had season-ending left shoulder and elbow surgery.

The bright side of taking the 2003 season off was that it allowed his body time to heal. "It mends things up," he said.

He looked to be in shape Thursday: an attempt at a beard, the edges of some of his 26 tattoos peeking out the end of his sleeves and bottom of his pants.

He has been running and throwing, hitting at the local Grand Slam USA batting cages and working out regularly with his own Bowflex machine.

For the first time in years, he said, he feels good all-around.

"I'm healthy," he said.

He also has been keeping busy by working with his older brother, Jason, at Hamilton Services cutting down trees.

"He climbs them and cuts them down and I'm the mule," Josh said.

Rays' plans unknown

Coming out of nearby Athens Drive High School, Hamilton was considered as close to can't miss as there is, as a player and a person.

His parents were always close, and they traveled with him during his early days in the minors, making sure he ate well and his clothes were clean. But eventually, he broke away, the tattoos that cover his body the most obvious indication of change.

The signs of real trouble surfaced last spring. After impressing Piniella in early workouts, Hamilton was late for practice twice within a week, and without good explanations. He wasn't surprised to be reassigned to minor-league camp and about 10 days later mysteriously left camp and didn't resurface until six weeks later in Orlando. Nine days after that, he was gone for the season, a decision he said was his choice. "(The Rays) were good enough to let me do it, and I appreciate that," he said.

Hamilton said he spent most of his free time at home, watching Rays games on TV occasionally and keeping up enough to know that Baldelli and Crawford had big seasons. But he said he didn't know 2003 top draft pick Delmon Young was an outfielder and hasn't paid attention enough to the offseason moves to know the Rays signed Gold Glove outfielder Jose Cruz to a two-year contract.

It's enough to make him wonder if he's still in their plans.

"I don't know," Hamilton said. "I honestly don't know. I haven't heard anything from them. They might get rid of me, you never know."

He said he expected the Rays players to welcome him back but wasn't sure about the fans. "I have no clue," he said. "They might be like, "Josh who?' I don't know."

Before the injuries and personal troubles, Rays officials would talk lustily about their outfield of the future, with Crawford in left, Baldelli in center and Hamilton in right.

Hamilton thinks it could still work out.

"We still could be the best outfield there is with the three of us out there," he said.

He figures he'll start the season at Double-A Montgomery (Ala.) but is confident he could be in the major leagues this season.

Mainly, he said, he wants the chance to get back on the field and get back to being Josh Hamilton.

"That's," he said, "what I'm trying to do."

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