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New Life at the Plate
Hamilton Looks to Resurrect a Once-Promising Career Derailed by Drugs

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.

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."

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?"

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."

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."

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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