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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)

Until the spring of 2001, Hamilton was that most beautiful and precious and frightening of sports creatures -- the can't-miss prospect. But even that tag doesn't convey the immensity of his talent. He was 6 feet 4, 210 pounds, left-handed, with size 19 feet. He could throw 96 mph but was even better as a hitter. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays had made him the first overall pick of the 1999 draft -- the first high school position player to be so honored since Alex Rodriguez six years earlier -- and paid him a record signing bonus of $3.96 million.

His parents, Linda and Tony, quit their jobs, going on the road with him as he began his pro career -- with stops in Princeton, W.Va., Fishkill, N.Y., and Charleston, S.C. They would follow behind the team bus in their truck and stay at the same hotels, Linda cooking Josh's meals, and Tony breaking down his performance after every game.

But on Feb. 28, 2001, two years into his pro career, Hamilton was riding in his family's pickup truck, with Linda driving, when it was slammed into by a dump truck that had run a red light in Bradenton. Josh's back was injured and Linda had to be pried out of the driver's seat by medical personnel.

With Josh unable to play, and Linda requiring frequent medical care, she and Tony returned home to Raleigh, N.C., leaving Josh alone in the world for the first time in his life -- flush with cash, naive about the ways of the world and bored to tears.

The first tattoo he got was tame enough: "HAMMER," his nickname, on his right arm. But then came the blue flames snaking down his forearms, then the tribal symbols whose meanings Josh didn't even know, then assorted demons, and the face of the Devil himself. The tattoo parlor became a hangout, and Josh would spend eight hours in the chair at a time, watching the needle squirt the ink under his skin. Afterward, they'd all go out, get drunk and score some blow.

"They weren't bad people," Josh says now. "They just did bad things."

When he went home to Raleigh for a visit, his mother greeted him at the front door and broke into tears. "What have you done to your beautiful body?" she asked him. "Tribal signs? What tribe are you from?"

One of the last tattoos he got was the one of Jesus's face superimposed on the cross, perhaps an odd choice for someone seemingly so ungodly.

"I don't even know why I got that one," he says. "See, I didn't realize it at the time, but I think it was like spiritual warfare -- the Devil, Christ. I have tattoos of demons with no eyes. And I didn't realize it at the time, but no eyes means 'no soul.'

"That's what I was at the time: a man with no soul."

Hall of Fame Projection

North of Bradenton, Hamilton steers his SUV onto I-275 North, crossing the majestic Sunshine Skyway Bridge that spans the choppy waters of Tampa Bay. Five-point-five miles later, he reaches land again on the other side and approaches the toll booth.

"Katie," he calls out to his wife in the backseat. "You got a dollar?"

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