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The Prisoner of Redemption

What happened to Josh Hamilton?

Josh Hamilton ran under a fly ball Wednesday. He wasn’t running particularly fast. To Ron Washington’s eye, it might have looked like he was loafing. But no matter: Hamilton got under the ball just fine. He stuck out his gloved right hand. Again, perhaps nonchalantly. Opinions will differ. The ball fell to the ground. “I just missed it, man,” Hamilton said.

That botched fly is unlikely to qualify as a chapter in the Josh Hamilton Story. Which is to say, no arc will be traced from the bouncing ball to Hamilton’s youthful substance abuse, and the fact that the Rangers lost the AL West title to Oakland that day will not become the launch pad for a larger parable.

But Hamilton’s error — and the boos that rained down on him when Texas lost the wild-card playoff game to the Orioles two days later — perfectly captures the strangeness of his final days in Texas. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the Rangers don’t want the free agent back “even if he wants to play here for free.” This is a remarkable turnaround. When Hamilton arrived in 2007, he was a figure of Staubachian — read: noble, Christian, and muscularly Christian — character. He brought what he called “my story” — which became, in its retellings in documentaries and books and at places like First Baptist Dallas, The Story.

By now, you and I could recite the outlines of The Story: Hamilton, baseball’s no. 1 overall draft pick in 1999, falls under the sway of crack and cocaine; abandons his wife and daughters; gets clean; gets acquainted with God; and in a semi-damaged, heavily tattooed state, leads Texas to the franchise’s first two World Series appearances.

While Texas fans still love Hamilton’s “story of redemption,” ESPN’s Jean-Jacques Taylor noted the other day, Hamilton “has abused that goodwill.” Not by having a bad season: Hamilton hit 43 homers, just one fewer than Miguel Cabrera, and posted a .930 OPS. No, Hamilton abused it by hitting into a first-pitch double-play ball against the Orioles and looking at just eight pitches in four at-bats and, with a frequency that seemed to accelerate when the Rangers needed it least, behaving like a flake.

Before we dive into how Texas fell out of love with Josh Hamilton, I want to be clear that I’m not making fun of Hamilton’s religion. I’m not questioning the events of The Story. What I’m suggesting is that Hamilton has become a prisoner of it.

It’s worth pausing right here to review why the Josh Hamilton Story was so powerful, so mesmerizing, to begin with.

First, it was a really good story! It was divided into three acts: Youthful Promise, Fall From Grace, and Big Comeback. It starred Hamilton’s pretty wife, Katie. It had a saintly grandma, Mary, next to whom Hamilton knelt when he finally began to turn his life around. It’s no wonder Casey Affleck is turning The Story into his version of The Blind Side.

Second — and speaking of The Blind Side — The Story was an amazing Christian redemption narrative.

Third, that Christian redemption narrative turned out to be an amazing sportswriting redemption narrative, too. Interesting how that works, isn’t it? Both parables require a man — preferably strong and on top of the world — who has been felled by what Bob Lipsyte called the termites of the soul. Both need a vivid description of the descent into hell. (In his book, Hamilton says he remembers seeing Satan’s grinning face in a cloud formation.) Both require a man who, in his post-hell, partially rebuilt state, is very humble. There’s something beguiling about an athlete who’s at our level — who might even be, we think in a low moment, beneath us. As Hamilton once put it: “Nobody can insult me as much as I’ve insulted myself.”

Fourth, The Story was mesmerizing because it had no gray areas. Old Josh: selfish, unholy, crack house. New Josh: devoted, godly, home run. Even though Hamilton was quick to admit he was still an addict who couldn’t even carry around lunch money, there was no question about which Josh we should root for.

Fifth — and this is crucial to all of the above — Josh Hamilton was willing to tell The Story again and again and again.

Josh Hamilton

When I met Hamilton last year at spring training, I was surprised by how enormous he was. His body started with huge legs, which held up a giant chest and a giant pair of shoulders, and ended somewhat incongruously with Ian Ziering curls. Hamilton wore a polite-but-exhausted look, like a politician who had worked his way to the end of the rope line only to find one more baby to kiss. By that point, he’d been telling his story nonstop for more than three years, often climbing into the stands to testify after games. He saw me approaching and his eyes said, Gotta tell it one more time.

I didn’t want to hear The Story. I just wanted to know how Hamilton was bearing its weight. In those days, it’s worth remembering, Rangers fans feared Hamilton was playing too hard — that his eagerness to please made him run headfirst into outfield walls. “I feel like God gave me the ability and talent to play the game,” Hamilton told me in a quiet voice, “and I don’t want to shortchange anybody who’s never seen me play before.”

The Story had gained international power. Hamilton’s minister, a televangelist named James Robison, told me that even his wife, Betty, had gotten into it. Whenever Hamilton came up to bat, Betty spoke to him through the TV screen like Robison’s parishioners spoke to their evangelist. “Josh, peace on your feet,” she would say. “Joy in your heart. A smile on your face. And patience.”

It seemed like a lot for someone as fragile as Hamilton. Indeed, a few months before we met, Hamilton had gone to Chicago and, in the course of telling The Story four times, caught pneumonia. He wound up in the hospital. But then the darndest thing happened, Hamilton told me. One night, he awoke and found a “girl nurse” — a phrase I love — praying over him. The nurse had no idea Hamilton was at the hospital, but she said God had called to her and told her to be with him. Hamilton looked at me and smiled, genuinely amazed. The nurse, the pneumonia — they were now part of The Story.

The problem with The Story wasn’t that Hamilton was telling it too much. The problem was that The Story was too perfect. Its happy ending left no room for a fourth act. Which is to say, the improbable, occasionally strange life that Hamilton was continuing to live and the odd turns of fate that would occur over the course of a baseball season. Here, we come to the 2012 Texas Rangers.

In February, Hamilton went out in Dallas and started drinking. At some point during the night, he called Ian Kinsler. Hamilton committed no crime, and a relapse is about the most predictable thing that can happen to an addict. But drinking didn’t jibe with The Story. For if faith had helped Josh ward off Satan’s stench, why was Satan back? The incident also caused the Rangers and Hamilton to break off contract-extension talks, introducing a whiff of unromantic Moneyball into The Blind Side.

Hamilton tried to rescue the narrative. He went on Glenn Beck’s web show and declared he was opening up to his family. “I was looking at my girls and thinking how beautiful they are and how much I love them, but it wouldn’t come out,” he said. “I was looking at my wife and thinking that she’s awesome and I love her so much and she’s so beautiful and it wouldn’t come out. But it comes out to everybody else — strangers on the street, people at the ballpark, people on my team.”

There was something heartbreaking there: It had become easier for Hamilton to tell The Story to strangers than to make small talk with his wife.

By summer, Hamilton had gotten a record-breaking 11 million votes to play in the All-Star Game. But in June, he suddenly couldn’t hit. His OPS dipped more than 200 points. Rangers fans — who are as attuned to clubhouse angst as Red Sox fans, and just as eager to call a radio show and talk about it — went to Defcon 2: Had Hamilton had a secret relapse? Was he getting a divorce from Katie? What secrets did he carry?

Finally, Hamilton confessed. “Professionally, it’s been plate discipline,” he said in a statement. “Personally, it’s been being obedient to the Lord in quitting chewing tobacco.”

Chewing tobacco — really? Only with Josh Hamilton could a pinch of chaw become the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Hamilton’s statement concluded with quotes from the books John and Hebrews. Around this time, he was seen wearing a Roy Hobbs jersey from The Natural.

On September 17, Hamilton did a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The next day, he complained of a sinus headache and pulled himself from a game against the Angels. The headache turned out to be ocular keratitis, which Hamilton said was caused by chocolate and energy drinks. “I was loading up on caffeine, and I’m out there in the bright lights,” he said. “I can’t control my eyes. They are stuck.”

He delivered a quote that will probably be printed on his tombstone: “Guys, it’s me. It’s Josh. It’s going to be something weird.”

A week later, on a bright day in Oakland, Hamilton dropped a can of corn.

Rangers fans and writers pulled out their knives. Hamilton, it was said, was high-maintenance. Of course, he’d always been high-maintenance — a celebrated part of The Story was that Hamilton had an “accountability partner,” Johnny Narron, who stayed one hotel room over; that he had to be sprayed with ginger ale while his teammates were sprayed with champagne. Hamilton, it was said, created clubhouse “drama.” Well, yeah. This is the guy who said he saw Satan in the clouds. This is the guy who came to Arlington with the most pharmacologically adventurous past this side of Hollywood Henderson. That we thought his drama ended with Act 3 — at the conclusion of the book or DVD or testimonial — showed we were as beguiled by The Story as Hamilton was.

It’s not defending Josh Hamilton to say that he became despised this year for many of the things that, in the confines of a redemption narrative, once made him beloved. The Story swallowed the man. Hamilton seems like a reasonably friendly, occasionally defensive guy who is teetering on the edge of sobriety, who is prone to inconvenient bouts of detachment, and who gets hurt a lot. When he goes to his next team, I hope a new story will start there. But I have a sinking feeling that every time he loses a fly ball, Hamilton will again be a prisoner of redemption, trapped in a tale too flawless for any man.

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

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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