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Josh Hamilton's Valuable Comeback

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Josh Hamilton's Valuable Comeback

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Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers.

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Josh Hamilton was putting on an impressive show, even hitting some balls more than 500 feet.

Except that was long before the slugger's spectacular display in the All-Star Home Run Derby at old Yankee Stadium, playing in the World Series or becoming the American League MVP.

Way before there was the inspiring comeback story of a former No. 1 overall draft pick who fell into the devastating depths of cocaine and alcohol addictions. Well before the problems that could have kept him from ever playing again, ills that did keep him out of baseball for four prime development years.

The only person to see all those homers five years ago was the pitcher in the empty stadium at the baseball academy where Hamilton had to rake infields and clean toilets just to earn time on the field. When they were done, Hamilton and Roy Silver walked the outfield and beyond the fences picking up balls.

"I talked to him about what he could do if he could stay clean," said Silver, who shares Hamilton's Christian faith. "Him being an All-Star and doing the things that he has done physically are not the things that I'm most impressed with. What I'm most impressed with is his growth as a man."

The MVP trophy from last season, when he led the majors with a .359 batting average along with 32 homers and 100 RBIs, is still in the box on a desk at Hamilton's home. He will soon get his AL championship ring from the Texas Rangers after the first World Series in their 50-season history.

Yet those aren't the most valuable prizes for Hamilton in his comeback. Nor is the $24 million, two-year contract the outfielder got from the Rangers this winter.

Hamilton got something much more personal and eternal out of his horrid journey from clean-cut teenage baseball phenom to a drug addict with his life spiraling downward out of control.

"If none of that stuff would have happened, I wouldn't have had a relationship with Christ like I do now. I wouldn't see things like I do now, I wouldn't want to," the 29-year-old Hamilton said. "I was always a good person, but that doesn't get you where you want to be all the time, and ultimately doesn't get you where you need to be."

His priorities now are God, humility, family, sobriety and baseball -- in that order.

Hamilton was still suspended from baseball, had been estranged from his family and gone through at least eight stints in drug rehab by early 2006 when he arrived in Clearwater, Fla., at the old spring training complex of the Philadelphia Phillies where Silver and Randy Holland run their academy.

The nearly $4 million record signing bonus Hamilton got when Tampa Bay drafted him No. 1 overall in 1999 was long gone.

"At that point in his life, he had no identity beyond the field. And that's not a good place to be," Silver said. "Just dealing with reality like a man, using his reality for maturity purposes, getting back with Katie and being a husband, being a father, that allowed him to maximize his potential at work."

Since making his major league debut with Cincinnati in 2007, eight years after being drafted, Hamilton has hit .311 with 93 homers and 331 RBIs in 468 games. He has been an All-Star starter in each of his three seasons since being traded to the Rangers.

While he is doing the kind of things on the field that were expected when the can't-miss prospect was drafted, he is really just now getting into the routine of major league baseball. He played only 23 games above the Class A level before going to the Reds.

"I missed some valuable years, and those were supposed to be my learning years," Hamilton said. "Now I'm having to play catch-up. ... I feel like I've obviously grown as a player."

Hamilton went four years without even playing a game, beginning in July 2002 when he went on the disabled list in the minor leagues after surgery on his left elbow and shoulder. By then, the tattooed slugger was already caught up in the drugs that would contribute to being off the field three full seasons.

It wasn't until July 2006, months after his time as a groundskeeper at The Winning Inning baseball academy, that Hamilton was allowed by Major League Baseball to play in minor league games. He hit .260 with no homers in 15 games at Hudson Valley, a short-season Class A team for Tampa Bay.

When the Rays left him unprotected off their 40-man roster that winter, Hamilton was acquired by the Reds through the Rule 5 draft.

Hamilton went to Sarasota, Fla., about a month before spring training, and was working out one day with a group that included Joey Votto, then a Reds minor leaguer who was the NL MVP last season.

"They're taking batting practice and Josh is making Joey Votto look like a high schooler with the display he's putting on," said Wayne Krivsky, then the Reds' general manager. "He's hitting balls where no one's ever hit balls before. ... He's just wearing it out."

Krivsky, now a special assistant to New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson, still laughs recalling the report he got that day from the Reds scout who was watching the workout: "I just watched Herman Munster take batting practice."

Hamilton hit .292 with 19 homers in 90 games for the Reds, a breakthrough season despite two stints on the disabled list.

"You saw the ability, and the raw ability. It was scary what the guy could do in batting practice, the displays of power, and his throwing arm and everything else," Krivsky said. "You saw a guy that was a little rusty, but at the same time, you could visualize this guy really being good in a matter of a year or two."

Yet, pitching-desperate Cincinnati traded Hamilton that winter for young starter Edinson Volquez and left-handed reliever Danny Herrera.

Krivsky, speaking by phone recently from the Sarasota stadium where four years earlier he was part of an introductory news conference with Hamilton, said the Reds "agonized" over that deal and were not looking to trade him. But they had several young talented outfielders and needed pitching.

Volquez went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA that first season with Cincinnati and was an All-Star like Hamilton, who wowed everyone in New York in the first round of the Home Run Derby with 28 homers. Hamilton hit .300 and led the AL with 130 RBIs.

In 2009, Hamilton was limited to 89 games primarily because of an abdominal muscle strain. It was also that year before spring training that he went into an Arizona bar to have dinner and ended up drinking for the first time in 3½ years.

Hamilton immediately called his wife and his support network that included team officials. That was months before Deadspin.com posted a dozen pictures showing him taking shots off the bar, and dancing and hugging several young women. He then publicly apologized.

"The difference is when Josh had that setback, he didn't fall all the way into the bottom of the pit," Silver said. "The first time through, he was this young kid that had all the talent and he was, other than being on the field, out of his element."

Hamilton and his wife speak to countless groups and are involved in many ministries, among them helping feed kids and assisting single mothers. He still openly shares his testimony and his story, and it never gets old to him because of the impact his experiences can have for people who are struggling.

"It's easy. Anytime you get to just talk about yourself and struggles you've gone through and what God has done to bring you through those, it's pretty simple," he said.

"When you get to the point where you understand that you can't do this on your own, and even if you do do it on your own you're going to be miserable doing it, you stay humble," he said. "And if you don't stay humble, you'll be humbled very quickly."

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