This past week, Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers was awarded the Most Valuable Player for the American League. This week, the best baseball player I have ever seen in person was named MVP.
It is a story of redemption, trials and tribulations. It is a story of glory and of hell. Josh Hamilton was a first round pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and first pick overall in the 1999 MLB amateur draft. What started as a lucrative and promising career was quickly shattered due to alcohol and drug addiction. His recovery and struggle to get back into baseball has been well chronicled by others and is well known by mainstream baseball fans. But earlier this week he stood alone, with the demons behind him, as the best player in baseball.
I'd like to share a story as to why this makes me very happy. In 2000, I was a relief pitcher for the Asheville Tourists baseball club in Asheville, NC. At that time, we were the Single A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. We had an upcoming homestand against the Charleston River Dogs from Charleston, SC of which Josh Hamilton was the big prospect. We all knew of the hype, we saw Josh on multiple covers of Baseball America and many other sports magazines in America. We all knew that he'd been chosen to be the next Mickey Mantle. What we didn't know is that we were about to witness an 18 year old kid hit and throw like no one had seen before.
What started as an ordinary everyday batting practice soon turned into a spectacle of none other. Before I get into that, let me remind you of the unmatched home run display Josh Hamilton put on in the 2008 Home Run Derby where he proceed to launch 28 home runs in a row consistently over 400 feet in length. Now with that in mind, imagine watching an 18 year old kid out of high school do the same. I remember much of our team staying on the field to witness the hype and he did not disappoint. I remember the quickness and grace of his left-handed swing. I remember the sound of the ball coming off his bat, like the crack of a shotgun. I remember the majestic flight of the balls as they flew farther and father over the fences. To that point in my career I had not seen such effortless power from a hitter and I have not seen it matched since. The only thought in my mind while observing this was hoping that I didn't have to face him on the mound. The doubts of his hype quickly dissipated as the reality of what we were witnessing set in.
Not only is Josh Hamilton a rare talent as a hitter but defensively he is as well. He had been known to throw 95mph as a pitcher in high school and to steal bases at his own will. During the series of which I had first witnessed Josh Hamilton, one of our hitters hit a ball into the gap between the right and center fielder. Josh was in center that day and chased down the ball as it one-hopped the wall. Our hitter, now base runner, had rounded first and was on his way to second with what was thought as an easy double. Josh grabbed the ball on the hop, turned and fired a missile to the shortstop covering second base. The easy double had turned into being thrown out by ten feet. The ball was thrown on a line and probably was never higher than six feet off the ground. I had seen strong arms before but not like that. This was a Randy Johnson fastball at a distance of 225 feet. Suffice to say, it was very impressive.
As the series against Charleston ended, I was left with the feeling that I had seen the next great Major League Baseball player. This kid was a slam dunk to be a perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer. As the years went on, Josh Hamilton's skills and chances for greatness surely eroded due to drugs and alcohol. What had been such a promising talent was now a complete waste. It was disheartening to think that we would not be witness to such greatness on the baseball diamond. I couldn't believe that that talent would not be used to its potential. Luckily, he turned his life around. He found something to break the cycle of abuse whether it was his faith and family or the love of the game, probably both. Anyhow, whatever it was, it has allowed us as baseball fans to witness a special player. He is the type of the player that comes around once in a few generations. I hated to see the waste of such talent, as a former player it ate me up inside. But, I'm glad to see that it will not be wasted and we will be able observe this baseball rarity. I will enjoy Texas Rangers games for years to come because of him. And now, in the backyard when my sons and I are playing ball they want to be Josh Hamilton, and that's just fine by me.