On the night of Oct. 22, 2010, Josh Hamilton stood outside the Texas Rangers clubhouse, drenched in sticky ginger ale and clutching the American League Championship Series MVP trophy. He would not walk inside a locker room full of Korbel-spraying teammates. The stinging-hot smell of alcohol wafted into the hallway. “Oh, no,” Hamilton said. “I smell champagne.”
His eyes bulged. He shook his head. Even at the apex of his baseball career, Hamilton remained wary of his worst impulses. He was still afraid of himself.
Did he allow himself to relax and release those fears? Did the fear overwhelm him? How Hamilton lost this round of the fight within him, only he could say. But back then, when he reached the World Series to cap an MVP season, Hamilton clearly knew his battle with addiction would last the rest of his life. He could not ever declare victory.
Hamilton faces Major League Baseball discipline, a development the Los Angeles Times first made public Monday afternoon. Later, CBS Sports reported Hamilton had tested positive for using cocaine. The Los Angeles Angels did not provide Hamilton a locker in their spring training clubhouse, because they knew he would not be available.
It remains unclear how much time Hamilton could miss. An MLB spokesman declined comment through an email. Hamilton’s agent, Michael Moye, did not respond to a phone message. The league may be deciding how to handle a failed drug test of a player who once needed to be reinstated after three years of drug-related suspensions. When MLB reinstated him in 2006, it came with a stipulation he would be drug tested three times a week. The league will also need to weigh addiction, and whether that sickness can be dealt with under the Joint Drug Agreement.
“We’ll be saying our prayers and hope things work out,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia told reporters in Arizona. “There’s not enough information now to know exactly what’s going on and where Josh is.”
The absence of information leads only to worry and speculation. Hamilton underwent shoulder surgery in February, which created circumstances similar to what initially sucked him into depression. A back injury at age 20 left with him free time, and without baseball he descended into drug abuse. Did the monotony and boredom of shoulder rehab lead him back, even briefly?
Hamilton has lost before. In August 2009, Deadspin published photographs from a one-night alcohol binge Hamilton committed in January of that year. Hamilton immediately addressed the incident and admitted he had made a mistake. Momentarily, he told himself he could have a beer. As he came clean, Hamilton espoused a lesson he learned in Alcoholics Anonymous. “One drink is too many,” he said. “And 1,000 is never enough.”
In 2012, he relapsed again, telling reporters he had “three or four” drinks at a restaurant, by himself, on a Monday night.
From a competitive standpoint, Hamilton’s episode should have minimal impact on the Angels’ chances. Hamilton was likely going to be sidelined until May, anyway, after undergoing shoulder surgery in February. Hamilton played in just 89 games last season because of injury, and he hit .263/.331/.414 with 10 home runs, solid but replaceable production. The Angels still won 98 games, most in the major leagues. The five-year, $125 million contract he signed prior to 2013 has become a nightmare, but the Angels have shown they can succeed without Hamilton.
Hamilton’s apparent relapse, though, is not about baseball. It’s about the power of addiction. Hamilton held his demons at bay long enough, and with enough strength, to rise to the absolute peak of the sport. His success raised the stakes, and it may prompt some observers to wonder how he could throw away all he gained for drugs.
It happened because Josh Hamilton is still fighting today, just as he was outside that locker room in 2010. He has lost that fight before and knows he can again. His ascent was a storybook without the ending. Because for Hamilton’s fight, there is none.