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The fall and rise of Josh Hamilton

The new Angel is a high-risk investment: a recovering addict in a tumultuous, ongoing struggle to come back from a very dark place. The potential reward? A superstar who can help end a playoff drought.

February 04, 2013|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Recovering drug addict Josh Hamilton signed a five-year, $125-million deal to be the Angels' new right fielder and cleanup batter.
Recovering drug addict Josh Hamilton signed a five-year, $125-million… (Victor Decolongon / Getty…)

"Drugs had destroyed my body and my mind and my spirit. I could no longer experience happiness or surprise. I couldn't remember the last time I felt spontaneous joy. Why was I even alive?"

Josh Hamilton in his autobiography, "Beyond Belief"

WESTLAKE, Texas -- It was 2 a.m. when Josh Hamilton, strung out on crack cocaine, his once-robust 6-foot-4, 230-pound body withered to 180 pounds, most of his $3.96-million signing bonus squandered on booze and drugs, staggered up the steps to his grandmother's house in Raleigh, N.C.

Homeless, dirty and barely coherent, Hamilton was a few days removed from a suicide attempt -- an overdose of pills -- and in the fourth year of a harrowing drug addiction that caused the former can't-miss prospect to be banned from baseball for three full seasons.

It was Oct. 1, 2005, and Hamilton was a ghost of the player who would become a five-time all-star and 2010 American League most valuable player with the Texas Rangers.

In December, Hamilton signed a five-year, $125-million deal to be the Angels' new right fielder and cleanup batter. Now 31, he is a high-risk, high-reward investment -- and not just because he tends to be a streaky hitter.

He is a recovering addict who has had two alcohol relapses, one in 2009 and another in January 2012; who is tested three times a week for drugs; and who travels with an "accountability partner" whose primary job is to help Hamilton resist the temptations that can derail his career and embarrass his team.

The Angels have assumed the risk because they believe Hamilton's rare blend of power, speed and defense could help them end a three-year playoff drought.

But it was clear on that autumn night in North Carolina seven years ago that Hamilton was throwing his talent away.

"There were a lot of bottoms -- they just keep going deeper and deeper," Hamilton recalled of his struggle, which included stints at eight rehabilitation centers. "It's a cycle. You think, 'OK, you've reached bottom,' but actually, you haven't. You can always go lower, to the point of death."

Hamilton came close to that point before he was reborn.

Mary Holt, then 72, gave her grandson shelter and food. Hamilton went on smoking crack. Holt wasn't going to let him die under her roof. After a few days, she issued an ultimatum: Do drugs again, you're out.

Hamilton went to his room, his face burning with shame. He thumbed through his Bible and came across James 4:7: "Humble yourself before God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you."

As he read that passage over and over, "[i]t grabbed my insides, my eyes watered up, I got on my knees and started talking to the Lord," Hamilton said. "Emotionally, spiritually, physically, I felt hopeless. Using drugs behind my grandma's back and being confronted by her, that was my lowest point.

"But when you feel the most hopeless, you're the most willing to do whatever it takes. That was my moment of surrender."

---

Hamilton pokes at a bowl of vegetable soup as he sits in the dining room of a country club set amid the lush, rolling hills of a tony Dallas-Fort Worth suburb. The jacket of his warm-up suit is zipped up his neck, concealing many of the 26 tattoos that are a reminder of his troubled past.

Blue flames run up Hamilton's forearms. A devil is on the inside of his left elbow. An eyeless demon -- no eyes symbolizes a soulless being -- is on his right leg. Most were inked in the early days of his addiction.

It's cold, gray and drizzly, but there are sweeping views of the private golf course and stately brick-and-stone mansions of the exclusive gated community where Hamilton resides with his wife, Katie, and four daughters, Julia (11), Sierra (7), Michaela Grace (4) and Stella (16 months).

It's a far cry from the dirty trailer of a crack dealer where Hamilton once passed out, and those hazy, drug-addled moments in which he would, as he wrote in his 2008 autobiography, "wake up in the cab of my pickup truck, or in places I didn't recognize with people I didn't know."

The details of his life can be ugly -- he once pawned Katie's wedding ring for cocaine and burned through $100,000 on crack in six weeks -- but Hamilton doesn't shrink from them. Telling his story, even for the umpteenth time, is a form of therapy.

"It helps me to talk about things," Hamilton said. "It's a reminder of how good God's grace and mercy are, of where I was to where I am today. It keeps me humble."

There was no history of addiction in Hamilton's immediate family, which included working-class parents, Tony and Linda, and an older brother, Jason.

At Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, where he was named Baseball America's national player of the year in 1999, "I never had a sip of alcohol, never tried tobacco," Hamilton said. "I wasn't a normal high school guy. I was focused on what I wanted to do, play baseball."

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