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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)

These days, Hamilton doesn't walk around with much money in his pocket. It's just better that way.

A few miles later, the freeway veers left into St. Petersburg, and directly in front of Hamilton's Tahoe stands the unmistakable tilted domed roof of Tropicana Field.

"Hey, honey," he says to Katie, suppressing a sly smile. "Who is it that plays there again?"

By now, Hamilton ought to be in his fourth or fifth big league season for the Devil Rays, sharing the Tropicana Field outfield with Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli. He should be a perennial all-star, an MVP candidate.

Instead, he is a Cincinnati Red, and a Hail Mary project at that. After investing eight years and millions of dollars in Hamilton, the Devil Rays decided to leave Hamilton unprotected for December's Rule 5 draft -- in which teams get to pluck away other teams' unprotected players, their leftovers -- figuring no one would take a chance on a 25-year-old outfielder who went four years without playing a game and whose last stop, last summer, was low Class A.

When the Reds snatched up Hamilton, Devil Rays executives expressed mild surprise but little remorse. But way back in June 1999 -- when the franchise had passed over Texas high school pitcher Josh Beckett and USC lefty Barry Zito, among others, to make Hamilton the first overall pick -- it was a far different story. To go back and read the press clippings now is to marvel at the juxtaposition of youth's sweet promise and life's dark reality.

"I think character may have been the final determining factor," Mark McKnight, the Devil Rays' regional scout, told local reporters at the time. "You read so many bad things about professional athletes these days, but I don't think you ever will about Josh."

Josh, just 18 at the time, himself sounded just as confident. "I'm thinking three years in the minors, then maybe 15 years in the majors," he told reporters. "Then I'll have to wait five years to get into the Hall of Fame."

Now, when those quotes are read back to Chuck LaMar, Tampa Bay's general manager at the time, he can still recall the giddiness he felt after seeing the strapping youngster who could throw a ball from the outfield wall to home plate, then pick it up and hit it 500 feet. Plus, it was obvious the kid came from good folks. He kissed his mama and his granny before every game, without fail.

"There was no question in anybody's mind that this was an outstanding person," says LaMar, now a special assistant for the Washington Nationals. "The things that happened off the field -- people will say that makes you a bad person. But . . . if you knew how to prevent a situation like Josh's, you would unlock one of the great mysteries of life."

During Hamilton's first couple of years in the minors, the Devil Rays grudgingly accepted the constant presence of his parents. But when the franchise promoted him from rookie ball to low Class A Hudson Valley in 1999, they prodded him to stay with a host family in New York as all the other players did. Still, Tony and Linda found a nearby hotel and traveled to every game.

"We disagreed with how they went about it, but it wasn't our place to say anything," says Al Stewart, who with his wife, Jane, served as Josh's host family. "We both thought one of these days he was going to break out. We didn't think it would be anything like this, but we knew there was going to be a backlash."

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