Josh Hamilton, Bargain Hero

Talented, inspirational and moderately priced, Josh Hamilton is just what baseball needed.

Baseball needs a hero.

This situation is not unprecedented. When the players-strike cancelled the 1994 MLB season, World Series and all, fans and writers wondered aloud if baseball would ever recover. Then, on cue, comes a gray-haired hero in the form of Cal Ripken, Jr.
 
Ripken shatters a seemingly unbreakable record and the eyes of America turn away from labor disputes and petty bickering to gaze at a legitimate hero, symbolically walking around the warning track, reaching out to the every man. If he had wanted to, Ripken would have been voted mayor of Baltimore in a landslide. He probably still could, for that matter.

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A mere three years after Ripken regained the trust of fans, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went on a Herculean tear to capture the nation’s imagination completely. When the dust settled in 1998, Roger Maris was third on the single-season home run list, beneath two guys who looked more like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin than Stan Musial.
 
As it turns out (in all likelihood), their dual achievement was tainted, propelled not by the hopes and dreams of bright-eyed youngsters, but rather, by syringes and vials of curious, milky substances. The joy of 1998 was soon thereafter transmogrified into a steaming heap of suspicion and hearsay and grand juries; so much so, in fact, that when Barry Bonds broke the single-season record in 2001, half (probably more) of America had already convicted him of cheating—and with good reason.
 
Thus began the so-called steroid era of baseball, during which heroes became villains and innocent bystanders were sucked into the fray for no other reason than, well, bad timing.
 
Steroids are gone from baseball, for the most part, we’re told, and I guess that would make this a new era. And with the myriad allegations, America’s trust in baseball is at its lowest point in fifteen years.
 
Read: Baseball needs a hero.
 
Enter Josh Hamilton. Hamilton’s story is well known; there’s no need to rehash it here, nor is there need to go over the amazing comeback he started in Cincinnati and continued in Texas last year. The word “great” gets tossed around a lot these days, so calling Hamilton great would be obvious and banal. Hamilton is miraculous.
 
Ian Kinsler has said, “Josh Hamilton is the best baseball player to ever walk the planet.” And he was serious. Now, he may or may not be right; he’s probably not, but then, that’s a loaded, can of worms of a debate. For our purposes here, let’s just say that Hamilton is a great baseball player, and not in any passing, lighthearted sense. He is, like Ripken, a legitimate hero, a much needed one at that.
 
And if a miraculous comeback from drug use and alcoholism, outrageous talent and a highly touted work ethic isn’t enough, here’s the cherry on top: Hamilton is the biggest steal in baseball. He will make $550,000 in 2009, $600,000 if he meets all the performance-related incentives.
 
In 2008, Hamilton hit .304 with 32 home runs and 130 RBIs. Given, these are good numbers, certainly numbers that warrant a larger paycheck.
 
But Josh Hamilton isn’t content; he spent six weeks at the world-renowned Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz., prior to spring training, citing his late-year struggles in 2008, his first full season in the league. "I did wear down a little physically and mentally," Hamilton said last December. "I want to be able to better deal with that."
 
This means that Josh Hamilton is far from done and far from content. In all likelihood, he will put up monster numbers in 2009; he will charm, inspire, and blast home runs with a furious vengeance.
 
And like all legitimate heroes, he will change clothes, take his (relatively) modest paycheck and go home.
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