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Angels' Josh Hamilton faces first game in Texas since leaving Rangers

The slugger had a love affair with Rangers fans — until last season ended with boos. On Friday in Arlington, he would prefer cheers but would tell fans to 'follow your heart.'

April 05, 2013
  • Josh Hamilton faced his former team the Texas Rangers for the first time in spring training. This weekend he'll see them three more times in Arlington.
Josh Hamilton faced his former team the Texas Rangers for the first time… (Gregory Bull / Associated…)

ARLINGTON, Texas — Among the dozens of framed photos in the offices of the Texas Rangers are action shots of Josh Hamilton, one of the former Rangers slugger, arms thrust skyward and a "Can you believe this?" grin on his face, from that memorable 2008 home run derby in Yankee Stadium.

But Jon Daniels' favorite image of Hamilton, one that sits on the desk of the Rangers' general manager, is a plain 3-by-5 print of a shot taken by a friend in Seattle's Safeco Field.

In it, Hamilton, who Friday will play his first game in Texas since signing a five-year, $125-million deal with the Angels, has his back to the camera and is leaning down to talk to a boy in a wheelchair next to the dugout. It was taken minutes before a game.

"This picture is symbolic," Daniels said in an interview at the Ballpark in Arlington. "I saw it hundreds of times, his desire to have those moments. They're natural for him. Josh is not looking for the camera. He's genuinely drawn to those moments and is so good, so charismatic in those settings."

Sometimes too good for his own good.

"He'll be signing autographs, taking pictures with fans before games, and I've had to send security guys out to bring him in," Daniels said. "It's literally 6:58 p.m., we have a 7:05 game, and he hasn't changed, hasn't eaten, hasn't gotten taped."

Hamilton did not just shine on the field during his five years in Texas, where he made five All-Star teams, won the 2010 American League most-valuable-player award, helped the Rangers reach the 2010 and 2011 World Series and filled highlight reels with dramatic home runs and spectacular catches.

He connected with people here, touched their hearts, made them smile, made a mark. "Lovin' on people," Hamilton calls it. And most of the time, Texas loved him right back, even when Hamilton, who survived a harrowing four-year addiction to drugs and alcohol, suffered embarrassing alcohol relapses in 2009 and 2012.

But there was no happy ending. Though Hamilton hit .285 with 43 homers and 128 runs batted in last season, he had a career-high 162 strikeouts and hit .259 in the second half. The Rangers blew a five-game lead with nine to play, and Hamilton dropped a fly ball for a key two-run error that helped Oakland win the AL West on the final day of the season.

The outfielder was booed by his home crowd after going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts in a wild-card loss to Baltimore.

"I wish it would have turned out differently," Hamilton said. "I wish we would have won."

Now, Hamilton returns for the Rangers' home opener, his familiar No. 32 on the back of an enemy jersey, and his reception could be a lot more chilly than the 72-degree temperature expected for Friday's game.

"Cheers are always good," Hamilton said, when asked what advice he'd give to Rangers fans, "but follow your heart — you can't go wrong with that."

Said GM Daniels: "It's tough for fans to cheer for the guy coming in with the black cape. But he was the cornerstone of the most productive teams in the history of the franchise, he did great things for our team and community, and I think in the end fans will recognize that."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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