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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)

Late one night in September 2003, for reasons he still doesn't understand, Hamilton found himself on the doorstep of Michael Dean Chadwick, a Raleigh homebuilder who frequently spoke to Christian groups about his successful battle against drug addiction. Chadwick also had a daughter, Katie, whom Hamilton had dated a few times years ago.

"I took one look at him," Chadwick says now about that night, "and I knew exactly what I was looking at."

Though it was the middle of the night, Chadwick took Hamilton out to his back porch, where they sat and talked for hours. "I told him: 'There is no middle ground. You either die or you get well,' " Chadwick says. "I would say Josh was very close to the former. Fortunately, he got surrounded by some people who didn't care at all about baseball but who loved him. And one of them was my daughter."

Hamilton started dating Katie again, and started trying to beat addiction. But it would take years before he completely won either. Eventually, he persuaded Katie to marry him, and they were wed in November 2004. At the time, he was clean. "I thought [his drug problem] was over," she says. "I thought when he said, 'It's over,' that meant it's over. But when he had his first relapse, I knew it was going to be a long road."

Upon their marriage, Josh and Katie collected what was left of the $3.96 million signing bonus -- around $200,000 -- which his parents had been holding for him, trying to keep it from winding up in the pockets of drug dealers. Josh and Katie managed to buy a house with some of the money before he squandered the rest on drugs.

"I went through about $70,000," he says, "in a month and a half."

Within six months of being married, Josh and Katie were separated. And when Katie Hamilton brought Sierra home from the hospital in September 2005, Josh was out getting high.

"That was the worst of the worst," Katie says. "Bringing your baby home is supposed to be such a joyous time -- and it wasn't that way. Just to know he was out using drugs and missing those precious moments -- it was just so hard and so sad. I was devastated."

One day, Hamilton wrote a check to a crack dealer -- "A couple grand," he says -- when he knew he didn't have the funds in the bank to cover it. He begged Katie to put some money in their account, but she refused.

When the check bounced and Josh started to feel the singular heat of a vengeful crack dealer, it was Mike Chadwick who asked Josh for the guy's name and phone number.

"I called to tell the guy I was coming," Chadwick says. "He said, 'Are you going to be packing heat?' I said, 'Do I need to?' When I got there, I told him, 'Look, I understand, business is business. Here's your money. But if you ever sell Josh crack again, I'll be back here, and it won't be pretty. I'm not scared or intimidated by you or your pals. And I'm just a little bit crazy.'

"There is no question that on multiple occasions Josh banged on the Devil's door. And why it never got opened -- well, I think God spared his life, because He had something in store for him."

The Last Time

Beyond the ranch houses and palm trees in a quiet neighborhood in Clearwater, stadium lights rise into the blue sky, and Hamilton guides his SUV into the parking lot of old Jack Russell Memorial Stadium -- former spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, now the site of a Christian baseball academy called Winning Inning. It's the kind of place where instructors hit fungoes in the morning and provide spiritual counseling in the afternoon, the kind of place where "J. Christ" has His own locker.

On this day, with less than two weeks until the opening of the Reds' spring training camp, Hamilton has come here to work out, and also to visit some old friends.

It was here, back in January 2006, where Hamilton -- having been clean by that time for more than three months -- had journeyed to begin reclaiming his baseball career. The morning he left Raleigh, he gathered his belongings from his grandmother's house, where he had been staying for the previous few months, and loaded up his truck, leaving behind a letter on the kitchen table.

"Thank you, Granny," he wrote. "You didn't show me tough love. You showed me true love."

His grandmother, Mary Holt, still remembers the night when Josh showed up on her doorstep, having wasted away to 180 pounds, gaunt and weak, with nowhere else to go.

"It was 2 or 3 a.m.," she says. "I saw the lights from his truck in my window. He could barely make it to the door. He said, 'Granny, can I stay here for a while?' I said, 'Come on in here and let me fix you something to eat.' But really, I felt like crying, he looked so bad."

She says family members had warned her not to take Josh in if he came calling.

"But I said: 'I can't do that. Somebody's got to help that boy,' " she says. "I gave him my credit cards, and if he used them, he'd bring me the receipt and the card back. And then, when I was sick for a week myself, do you know that he never left this house? He stayed right by my side. He cooked my meals."

But eventually, even Holt's faith in him began to run out, and it was in her house, on Oct. 6, 2005, when Josh Hamilton got drunk and got high for the last time.

"I all of a sudden realized I had nothing in my life," Hamilton says. "Baseball wasn't in my life. I had Katie and the kids, but they weren't in my life, because of the drugs. My parents weren't in my life, because of the drugs. Right then, I quit. I started going to meetings again, started working out. But this time it felt different."

Two months later, Roy Silver, one of Winning Inning's owners, read an article in one of the local papers about Josh's battles to stay clean and get back into the game.

"In the story, I remember Josh said, 'I wish I had someone to talk to,' " says Silver, who spent 16 years as a minor league coach and manager. "I took that to mean: 'Maybe that someone is me.' "

He tracked down a number for Josh and offered him a deal: Come work here cleaning bathrooms and raking the infield, and you can have free rein over the facilities at the end of each day. He showed up on Jan. 17, 2006 -- clean for 3 1/2 months at that point -- taking up residence on an air mattress in one of the Phillies' old executive offices, overlooking the playing field.

"It was hard to look out at that field," he says. "Out there was what I was born to do, but because of decisions I made, I couldn't do it."

When college teams would play exhibition games against each other at Winning Inning, few people realized that the best ballplayer on the field was the guy in the Timberlands and cargo shorts, raking the infield dirt.

One time, a college team had its pitchers throwing in the bullpen when Hamilton asked if he could throw a couple. It was clear at that moment that Josh Hamilton still had the ability to cause the jaws of baseball men to drop off their hinges.

"Everyone was just like, 'Oh my gosh,' " he says. "Man, that felt good."

A Major Opportunity

Back in the Hamiltons' rental house in Sarasota, with the small pond out back where Josh has landed an eight-pound bass, he sits at the kitchen table and describes his changing dreams.

"I used to have dreams about using drugs," he says. "But now, I'm not actually using them in my dreams anymore. People around me will be using them. But I always have the drug-test guy there with me now. No lie. He's there. So I have the choice. I always take the test."

Last June, Major League Baseball reinstated Hamilton after more than three years of suspensions. Letters on Hamilton's behalf from the Devil Rays and from Mike Chadwick, as well as one from Hamilton himself, helped convince the league that he deserved it, despite having only been clean for eight months -- or four months short of the mandatory period.

Eager to begin getting a return on their original investment, the Devil Rays got Hamilton ready quickly and shipped him back to Hudson Valley -- where he had last played as an 18-year-old seven years before. Before playing his first game in four years, Hamilton walked barefoot through the outfield grass -- "Just taking it all in," he says -- and when the national anthem was played, he choked back tears.

Katie cried, too, when Josh went to the plate for the first time, because she realized: "I'd never seen him play before that."

Now, at the kitchen table, Hamilton toggles through some text messages saved on his cellphone until he finds the one he was looking for: Dated Dec. 6, 2006, at 1:42 a.m., it reads: "Jesus never fails. Send this message to nine people except me and you will get good news tomorrow. Don't take this as a joke." As soon as he got it, he did as instructed.

The next morning, in a hotel ballroom at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, baseball held its annual Rule 5 draft. Hamilton got a call later that day from a scout he knows. "Hey," the voice said, "you got taken by the Cubs." A little while later, another call: "Check that. The Cubs just traded you to the Reds."

It turns out the Reds had made a deal with the Cubs whereby the latter would draft Hamilton with the third pick -- thus keeping away from other teams rumored to be interested -- and trade him to the Reds for cash. The whole thing cost the Reds only $100,000, but by rule, they must now keep Hamilton -- who has only 89 career at-bats above Class A -- on their 25-man active roster all year, or else lose him.

"The amazing thing to me is, the night before the draft [Reds GM] Wayne Krivsky asked me what I thought about Josh Hamilton," said Reds Manager Jerry Narron, a North Carolina native who, unbeknownst to Krivsky, has known Hamilton since the latter was a teenager. "He said, 'We're thinking about drafting him.' My jaw just dropped. I was so excited about it, knowing his history and knowing him personally. It just killed me to see the difficulties he had. But I want to give him every chance in the world to be successful and get his life back on track."

Still only 25 and no longer guided by youthful whim, Hamilton has a plan for everything now -- from the handling of social situations in which teammates might be drinking around him, to the home-schooling of Julia and Sierra so that Katie can go on the road with him, to the planned launching of a ministries foundation by the end of this year.

"I think Josh is going to do unbelievable things in baseball," Chadwick says. "I think he's going to change lives across this country for many years to come."

Just before leaving North Carolina to come to Sarasota, where the Reds train, Josh, Katie and the girls drove to Gypsy Divers, a dive shop in Raleigh. The Hamiltons' church, too new to have its own chapel, let alone a baptism pool, had paid $25 to rent a pool for the purposes of baptizing Joshua Holt Hamilton in the name of the Lord.

Some 70 church members, who knew Josh less as a onetime baseball prodigy than as a God-fearing family man about to leave town for a new job, gathered to watch Pastor Jimmy Carroll place his hand on Hamilton's head and pray.

"There wasn't a dry eye," Carroll says, "in the whole building."

And then the holy water rushed over him, and the congregation sang, and Josh Hamilton stayed in the water up to his neck for a few more moments, arms at his side, drowning the Devil himself.

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