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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)

Tony and Linda Hamilton, whom Josh describes as "not wanting to relive" the painful past, did not return a phone message seeking comment for this story. But Josh flatly rejects any notion that his subsequent problems had anything to do with his parents' involvement.

"If something like that happens to your child, of course you'd think you did something wrong," he says. "We had that conversation many a time. They'd say, 'What did we do wrong to make you do this?' And it was nothing they did. It was a choice I made. Who can say it wouldn't have happened sooner if they weren't there?"

Rehabs and Relapses

On the other side of St. Petersburg, Hamilton exits the freeway and pulls into a Chick-fil-A, where the Hamilton clan piles out of the SUV and gets ready to tear into some breaded, fried chicken cutlets, waffle fries and sweet tea. Every head in the place turns when Josh, tall and tan, built like a Greek god, covered in tattoos, handsome as the day is long, carries the tray of food to his family's table.

This body is what saved his life, more than likely, when Hamilton snorted down enough cocaine to stop an elephant's heart, or guzzled a 750-ml bottle of Crown Royal each day. Even on those handful of occasions when his sole purpose was to overdose and end the suffering, he couldn't kill this body.

"There's no reason I shouldn't be dead or crippled," he says. "The fact I still have all my brain function [is amazing]. I did things to where I shouldn't be right today. It just lets me know there are bigger things out there for me to do."

Hamilton's long and topsy-turvy battle against drug addiction began in 2001, when the Devil Rays, concerned that Josh's frustrating back injury was beginning to affect his mental state, sent him to a sports psychologist.

"Before I left," Hamilton says, "the guy asked me, 'Is there anything else you want to talk about?' I was naive."

Hamilton told the psychologist he had been experimenting with drugs for the last couple of weeks.

"The next day," Hamilton says, "I was on a plane to Betty Ford. But they tried to make me believe the reason I did what I did was because of my family. It pissed me off. So I left after eight days."

So began a four-year pattern of rehabs and relapses, interspersed with short bursts of baseball -- until more injuries (he has had eight surgeries since 1999) led to more free time, which led to more drugs, which eventually led to a suspension from baseball that grew by another 12 months with every failed test. For a long while, after moving back home to Raleigh, he quit the fight, and stopped taking the tests altogether. From spring training of 2003 until July 2006, Hamilton did not play an inning of organized baseball and barely even lifted a bat to his shoulder.

"With what I was going through, I wasn't thinking about anything but using," he says. "Baseball, life in general, it wasn't a priority," he says. "It was basically getting high. I'd go six, seven, eight months without even swinging a bat. I honestly thought I might never play baseball again."

His days were filled with booze and cocaine, his nights with more of the same. "I'd go three or four days without sleeping, and then just pass out and hope I didn't die," he says. His nightmares and hallucinations were indistinguishable. "I was always paranoid. One time, I thought I saw a SWAT team outside my window, getting ready to storm in. I saw demon faces. I saw my dad outside my door. None of it was real."

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