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Don’t Mess With Texas

The ecstatic booing of Josh Hamilton

Josh Hamilton knew he’d be booed. And he knew it would be bad. It would be a boo that would transform friendly, old Rangers Ballpark into the Colosseum, and angelic little fans who once pleaded “Hey, Josh, sign this!” into red-faced monsters. A boo that would bring back an epithet from Hamilton’s former life: Crackhead. Jesus. He mostly heard that in the Bronx.

Hamilton was at spring training in Tempe, Arizona, one warm morning in March. He’d just taken batting practice with his new Angels teammates, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. They’d muscled balls over the fence like Bash Brothers 2013. The Angels team shop was selling Hamilton’s no. 32 jersey. The team magazine had his picture on the cover (headline: “Hammer Time”). Hamilton was mugging, grinning, signing autographs.

But the boo was in the air. Or, I was determined to put it there. On April 5, Hamilton would return to Arlington, Texas, to play the Rangers, the team he’d spent five seasons with, led to two World Series, and occasionally driven to distraction. Hamilton would stand in front of 49,000 fans and … well, no one knew exactly what to expect. Hamilton just knew there would be a boo. And he knew it would be bad.

How much of your return to Arlington, I asked, would be a media thing and how much a Josh Hamilton thing?

“It’s 95 percent you guys,” Hamilton said.

Five percent Hamilton, 95 percent us guys. Remember the percentage.

Now, I’m a Rangers fan and happy to forcibly write the team into baseball history. But I believed that Hamilton’s boo would be important as an object of study. I thought it could be the most complex boo we’d ever seen. Dwight Howard got booed upon his return to Orlando. This was mostly because Howard said he’d rather play somewhere else. Hamilton, on the other hand, also played terribly at the end of his last season in Texas. He’d fallen off the wagon, adding a frown to his otherwise joyous story of redemption. After taking the Angels’ five-year, $125 million offer, Hamilton had charged that Dallas–Fort Worth wasn’t a “true baseball town.”

We talked a little about playing in Arlington. The heat there, Hamilton said, was so intense he sometimes couldn’t eat after taking BP. Then he’d lose weight, which was a bummer. Hamilton wouldn’t miss the famous jet stream that carries balls over the fence in right-center. “For a lefty, they’re not gonna pitch me inside and let me hit it out to right-center,” he said. “If they do, they made a mistake.”

Now, Hamilton tried to step on the homecoming story line, to get in the way of the boo he knew was coming. “I mean, I live in Texas,” he said.

Hamilton was still a Texan. If not in the baseball sense, then in the child-rearing, property-tax-paying, megachurch-attending sense. And you’re going to keep living in Texas even when you’re playing in Anaheim? I asked.

“Yeah, man,” Hamilton said incredulously. “Texas is home.”

See what I mean? This boo was going to have layers. It was a boo I needed to see. Hell, it was a boo I needed to join.

Los Angeles Angels' Josh Hamilton

BOOOOOOO!

Josh Hamilton had just stepped to the plate at Rangers Ballpark. Actually, he sneaked to the plate. Although Hamilton was leading off the top of the second inning, he didn’t take cuts in the on-deck circle. He waited in the dugout and then hurried to the box as soon as his name was called.

BOOOOOOO! It was a loud, soul-cleansing, turn-the-anger-up-to-11 boo. A boo that seemed to echo to Grand Prairie. If you listened, you could detect small hiccups, little stop-and-starts in which Rangers fans caught their collective breath. It sounded like a car that refuses to start: BOOOOOOOoooo … BOOOOOOOoooo … BOOOOOOOoooo.

Hamilton looked at a sinker for strike one. The crowd cheered. Then, as Rangers pitcher Derek Holland checked the sign: BOOOOOOO! Hamilton fouled off a slider for strike two. Breaking balls away were Hamilton’s Kryptonite last fall, as Rangers fans know better than anyone, with the possible exception of Orioles pitchers. BOOOOOOO! Holland threw another slider, but Hamilton managed to lay off it. BOOOOOOO! Hamilton missed the next pitch with a big, lunging swing, and the boo transformed into deranged cheers. Hamilton looked curiously into the stands on his way back to the dugout. After the game, he said, “Would you blame me for being a little anxious?”

From whence did this boo come? Let us consider. First, Hamilton left town. But it gets worse: Hamilton left town without a title. If his 10th-inning homer in the 2011 World Series held up, then Hamilton’s homecoming might have been more like Emmitt Smith’s return as an Arizona Cardinal.1 There might not even be a homecoming, since the Rangers would have been under huge pressure to top any offer. As it is, Hamilton left with unfinished business.

Hamilton is also booable because of the swipe he took at Dallas–Fort Worth. Is DFW a “true baseball town?” I think the answer is, we don’t know yet. It’s more of a football town, because the Cowboys have won playoff games semi-regularly for 50 years and the Rangers have not. Hamilton noted the Rangers only strung together sellouts when they started winning, but this isn’t much of an insight. This is how baseball towns are built. They’re not erected for Ed Correa and Jeff Kunkel.

After the game, Hamilton doubled down on his swipe. “Honestly, man, that was louder than any playoff game I’ve ever been to,” he said. Then Hamilton took credit for DFW’s newfound passion. “I’m glad I can help create spirit and fire in this town.”

In the bottom of the second, A.J. Pierzynski hit a liner to the wall in right. Hamilton said he remembered the ball used to ride that part of the wall, but his familiarity betrayed him — the ball took a strange carom and got away from him. Pierzynski wound up with the 22nd triple in his 16-year career. Hamilton came up to bat again in the top of the fourth, with Pujols on first. BOOOOOOO! He struck out swinging again, and the boos turned to cheers.

The third reason Hamilton was being booed is that his final days as a Ranger seemed like a sleepwalk. “When he threw out that I-don’t-care attitude, that half-swing, I was done,” Bryant Smith, a Rangers fan, told me before the game. Smith’s friends were playing parking-lot Jenga with big pieces of plywood, so I trusted him implicitly. When Hamilton’s 2012 swoon gets discussed, you often hear the word “quit.” I can’t quite believe he quit, if only because it’s the most self-destructive thing to do in a contract year. But the end was weird. Hamilton wound up blaming his struggles on too much Red Bull, too little tobacco, and having blue eyes. Against the Orioles in the wild-card playoff game, Hamilton went 0-4 with two strikeouts. The last one produced a mini-boo that could be seen as the warm-up for Friday.

Finally, Hamilton got booed because Rangers fans felt deceived. They, like the rest of baseball, had signed on to the Josh Hamilton Story. The ending of that story had Hamilton as a recovering addict who was teetering on the happy side of sobriety, like a bunted ball rolling just inside the foul line. But the upshot of the story was different. The upshot was that Hamilton was OK and he was going to hit home runs.

A local legend has built up around one night last January that is equaled only by the legend surrounding the Cowboys’ White House. What we know is that Hamilton went to dinner at Buca di Beppo and had three or four drinks. For some reason, he called Ian Kinsler and got the Rangers second baseman to join him. The pair went to a bar called Sherlock’s. (For the uninitiated, a Buca-Sherlock’s double play is a very Dallas thing to do.) Hamilton drank only orange juice in front of Kinsler, but returned to Sherlock’s later in the evening and drank alcohol again. Then — a priceless if sketchy detail — he escaped over a “small fence.” That’s the official story. There is a more colorful unofficial story involving what Hamilton would only call things “I’m not proud of.” At the tailgate on Friday, a bunch of Rangers fans were wearing T-shirts that said “Sherlock’s Bathroom Bangers.”

The booable thing here is not that Hamilton had a relapse. It’s more subtle. The key to the Josh Hamilton story was the fullness of the confession. We heard every detail, every indiscretion. When he walked into Sherlock’s, Hamilton no longer seemed like a man who’d bared his soul. He seemed like a man who still had secrets.

The boo became more than a boo. It mutated. Some of it was harmless. A fan jeered Hamilton when he arrived at the ballpark in a Nissan Altima.

But some of it got hairy. Hamilton’s wife, Katie, asked for extra security guards to stand with her and her daughters after fans began screaming. By game’s end, it made you wonder if the Hamiltons had more security than George W. Bush, who was sitting in a blue polo shirt in the front row.

When Hamilton was in right field, Rangers fans started a “Base-ball town!” chant. Which was fair enough — and egged on by a comedy bit on the scoreboard. Around the bottom of the seventh — “once the alcohol got flowing good,” Hamilton said later — the chant changed to “Crack-head!” and “Sher-lock’s!”

Hamilton observed later, “So it always makes you wonder and think, What are people thinking? Like, are they thinking? Are they not thinking? Do they have morals? Do they have values?”

“Even in my most high time, if I’d go to the game or something, I just never had it in me to do that to somebody.”

Josh Hamilton #32 of the Los Angeles Angels

There were a group of Rangers fans that didn’t want to boo Hamilton. They didn’t want to say anything. “I won’t boo him when he comes to Arlington in April,” Rangers blogger Jamey Newberg wrote. “But I won’t stand up and cheer his return, either. He’s just another Los Angeles Angel now.”

Brandon Holmes, 15, and his brother Brad, 24, were on local TV promoting the no-boo option. They’d created a website, Twitter account, and a Facebook page devoted to the concept of #silence4josh. They printed up red-and-blue T-shirts (“Baseball Town Since 1972″) that I saw outside the stadium on Friday. Bryant Smith was wearing one. He said he would not boo. Hamilton would get “just the silent treatment.”

The most well-known adherent of #silence4josh was Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former U.S. senator, whom I found trying to get inside the stadium. “I hope they don’t boo,” Hutchison said, “despite what he did.” Would the senator be booing? “Noooooo,” she said. She looked stricken, and her husband guided her through the gate.

The idea of silence was appealing. It meant forgiveness — shaking the dust off your feet and moving on, as Hamilton would say. It meant being a modern sports fan and not faulting a player for exercising the rights Marvin Miller won for him 40 years ago. The problem is that Hamilton’s five seasons in Texas had produced an enormous amount of emotion, both good and bad. You couldn’t just lock it away without a release. By Saturday, the @Silence4Josh account was asking, “What is a good chant we could use during ESPN game tomorrow to show our hate for Josh’s poor play when it mattered?”

BOOOOOOOO!

It didn’t stop. Hamilton was booed when he caught Adrian Beltre’s fly ball in the bottom of the fifth. He was booed when he declined to dive for Craig Gentry’s eighth-inning bloop single. Hamilton was worried about missing the ball and giving Gentry a triple. The score then was 2-2. Gentry stole second a few pitches later. Then Kinsler, the man who went to Sherlock’s, hit the ball in Hamilton’s direction.

Hamilton knew Gentry, his old teammate, would try to score from second: He’s “one of the fastest white guys around,” Hamilton said later. Hamilton wound up and threw to the plate. The throw felt good out of his hands and looked like it would nail the runner. But then the ball took a nasty hop in front of Angels catcher Chris Iannetta. Gentry scored the go-ahead run.

Thanks to fate, God, or whomever: Hamilton was due up in the ninth. BOOOOOOO! On the first pitch, Hamilton hit the ball as hard as he’d hit it all day. (About as hard as he’d hit it all weekend: He finished the series 3-for-13 with a double.) Gentry caught the ball in front of the warning track. The Angels made the last out of the game two batters later.

Hamilton is too big for gaggles in front of his locker, so afterward he sat in front of a bunch of Rangers logos in the press room. “Can you guys make this quick and painless?” he asked. He was smiling.

I encourage you to watch Hamilton give a press conference sometime. His range factor, emotionally speaking, is astounding. Hamilton can be serious or goofy, bracingly perceptive or blinkered by biblical allusion. He occasionally likes to launch into meta-commentary on the whole idea of reporters asking Josh Hamilton, for the umpteenth time, to reveal himself. When someone asked if the boo was louder than he’d expected, Hamilton smiled and said, “Do you want me to say yes? Would that work for your story?”

Hamilton’s story was this: The boo was about what he thought it would be. He’d actually gotten three cheers. “When I was on deck,” he said, “three little kids were like, ‘Hey, Josh, we miss you.'”

He had not relied on any particular Bible verses to get through the afternoon, “just constant talk with the man upstairs.” Someone — teammate? Security man? He wouldn’t say — told him that Jesus had once gotten a similar reception. “Where was Jesus got after the most?” Hamilton said. “His hometown … Obviously, in baseball this is my hometown.”

But the boo ate at him. “I’d lie to you if I said it didn’t bother me a little bit,” Hamilton said. He looked wounded. He continued, “It probably hurts a little more to know people would turn that quickly.”

A fan asks how a free agent could just leave, after all they’ve been through together. Here was Hamilton asking how the fans could treat him like David Freese. Everyone got a chance to recoil at perceived ingratitude. If Hamilton were being honest about that percentage a month ago, I’d bet he’d put it at 50-50.

Filed Under: Josh Hamilton, People, Teams, Texas, Texas Rangers

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast