When I visited with Josh Hamilton a little more than four years ago — just as he was emerging from a three-year battle with drug addiction, and just as he was about to begin his major league career — he spoke of one of his biggest fears: that the abuse he inflicted upon his body for all those years would come back to haunt him on the baseball field, making him feel like a 35-year-old in what was then a 25-year-old’s body, and leaving him susceptible to injury.
Four years later, that fear seems prescient. Now in his fifth season, Hamilton, 29, has developed a reputation for being injury-prone. He has played more than 135 games only once (2008), and once the Texas Rangers make the formal move of placing Hamilton on the 15-day disabled list, after he suffered a non-displaced fracture of his humerus bone on Tuesday, that will make five trips to the DL in just over four years.
But on further inspection, Hamilton, the reigning American League MVP, seems more a victim of bad luck and overaggressiveness than a victim of his past indulgences. His problem isn’t so much that his body is fragile; it’s that he can’t bring himself to tone down his all-out style of play. He missed nearly all of last September after crashing into the wall and bruising his ribs. And Tuesday’s injury — which is expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks — was suffered when, at the prompting of his third-base coach, Hamilton dashed for home and made an ill-advised headfirst slide into the plate.
When you’re 6-foot-4 and weigh 240 pounds, you shouldn’t try to play like someone half a foot shorter and 50 pounds lighter. Although Hamilton was the prototypical “five-tool” player, some of his tools, namely his power, are far more valuable than others, namely his speed. Whatever he might gain for the Rangers by making a running catch near the wall, or by barreling into home plate head-first, isn’t worth the danger of being lost to his team for weeks or months at a time.
“The combination of size and athleticism,” Rangers GM Jon Daniels told reporters in a conference call Tuesday night, “does put him at risk.”
The headfirst slide, in particular, ought to be outlawed by forward-thinking teams. The list of players who have suffered significant injuries on that play in recent years includes Derek Jeter, Chase Utley, Nyjer Morgan and — just one day before Hamilton’s injury — Rafael Furcal.
Hamilton’s latest injury carries heavy consequences both for himself and the Rangers — who hold the best record in baseball, but who now must live without their best player for up to two months. As for Hamilton, as he nears 30, and with a contract that expires after the 2012 season, he might be a candidate for a lucrative, long-term extension — except the Rangers, with justification, must have serious questions about his durability.
Hamilton would be much better off, and so would the Rangers, if he would stop acting as if his 2007 fears were a self-fulfilling prophecy.