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New Life at the Plate

josh hamilton - cincinnati reds
Josh Hamilton, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound chiseled prospect with a 96 mph fastball and a swing that made scouts and coaches drool, was the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft and the first position player since Alex Rodriguez to be so honored. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)

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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

SARASOTA, Fla.

The Devil and the Son of God are waging war from opposite corners of Josh Hamilton's body.

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As he guides his Chevy Tahoe out of the driveway of his rental house and onto Interstate 75, for a 45-minute drive that just so happens to weave through a minefield of ugly memories, Hamilton, the Cincinnati Reds' newest outfielder, rests his once-prized left arm on the door, and suddenly the Devil's menacing face appears, etched in dark ink into the skin in the crook of Hamilton's elbow.

As the truck speeds north on a chilly morning toward Clearwater, where Hamilton will spend another day working out in preparation for the best and possibly last opportunity of his baseball career, the tattoo devil peers out the windshield. Below the freeway sit some of the very tattoo parlors and crack houses where Hamilton years ago defiled his body and squandered his enormous potential. A few miles ahead, in St. Petersburg, the big league stadium where Hamilton was supposed to have been a star rises from the horizon to mock him.

The tattoo devil, having long ago survived a bloody, failed attempt at removal, stares intently, gently prodding Hamilton to pull over and have some wild, wicked fun. Like in the old days.

But on the back of Hamilton's right leg, the beatific face of Jesus Christ, superimposed over an enormous cross -- one of the last of the 26 tattoos Hamilton got during his dark period, that nearly four-year stretch when he was out of the game -- pushes Hamilton's foot down on the accelerator, and the Tahoe rushes on toward Clearwater, toward goodness.

"Out of sight, out of mind," Hamilton says with a deep Piedmont drawl, smiling confidently, never taking his eyes off the highway. He tugs on the left sleeve of his shirt, pulling it down below the elbow, and the Devil disappears.

On this day, God is winning the battle. Matter of fact, He's been unbeaten now for 16 months. Sixteen months and counting.

The First Time

Before the Reds plucked Hamilton from the baseball scrap heap in December with the intent of putting him in the big leagues for the first time, before he and his family left their North Carolina home and rented a house in Sarasota last month to get a jump-start on his first spring training in four years, and before the clock on his sobriety began its uninterrupted march on Oct. 6, 2005 -- before all those good things happened, Josh Hamilton was a junkie.

Here, in the sport-utility vehicle cruising toward Clearwater, Hamilton peers into his rearview mirror, waiting until his wife, Katie, sitting in back, secures the headphones over the ears of daughter Julia, 5, her child from a previous relationship, and makes sure Sierra, 17 months, is occupied with some animal crackers. Only then does he begin to tell his story.

It is early February, and Josh has already been drug-tested this morning, as he is three times a week. As he heads north out of Sarasota on I-75, the green exit signs beckon toward Bradenton. It's a good place to start the story, because this is where it all started to go bad.

"My first drink -- my first drink ever -- was at a strip club down there, with the tattoo guys," Hamilton says. "Pretty soon, I started using. First the powder. Then crack. I was 20. I wasn't playing. I was hurt. My parents left and went back home. I was by myself for the first time."


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