Watching Josh Hamilton at the 2008 State Farm Home Run Derby was like watching Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl, or Reggie Jackson in the 1977 World Series, he was a man among boys. Even though Hamilton lost out to the steady Justin Morneau in the finals of the contest, Hamilton had clearly won over New York City that night, and every baseball fan for matter of fact. What made that night of July 14th, 2008 so remarkable and sacred was not solely that Josh had clobbered twenty-right homers, a new single round record, in the first round of the contest, it was the story behind the story. Just five years prior to that majestic night, Hamilton was living with not just failed expectations, but living on that with a heroin addiction. That is not even the beginning his story.
If you asked any baseball expert back in 1999 if they could see Hamilton put on a similar display at a Home Run Derby as he did on July 14th, they would say yes, but they would say that it would come on a much earlier date than July 14th, 2008. If you asked the expert if Josh Hamilton was going to be an immortal major league baseball player, many of those experts would say yes. Josh Hamilton was the ultimate phenom when he tore up high school baseball while attending Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. His potential really showed when the newly formed Tampa Bay Devil Rays chose Hamilton with the first overall pcik in the 1999 Major League Baseball Draft. His performance in high school did not just earn him the privileges of being the first overall pick, but he was showered with award after award like being North Carolina's Gatorade Player of the Year twice, being named High School Player of the Year by Baseball America, and Amateur Player of the Year by USA Baseball following his senior year. Hamilton was a legend in the making in not just the outfield, but on the pitching mound as well, where this southpaw could light batters up with his blazing upper 90's fastball. His high school coach at Athens Drive High School, John Thomas said, He's better at this game than anyone else I've seen in high school or college."
Hamilton signed with Tampa Bay receiving a $3.96 million signing bonus, and then started his journey through Tampa Bay's minor league system. 1999 and 2000 turned out to be extremely successful years for Josh Hamilton is his first two years in professional baseball, and his parents even quit their jobs so they could travel with their rarely gifted son.
Once the 2001 season came around, the stunning downward spiral of Hamilton began. Prior to the 2001 season, Hamilton was involved in an automobile accident. Both Hamilton and his mother were injured in the accident, and she was sent home with her husband to recover from her injuries with Hamilton's father by her side. While the 2001 season was in progress, Hamilton started participating in experimental drug use, and actually made his first attempt at rehab, which would turn out to be unsuccessful. Hamilton played in only 27 games in 2001, split between A-Ball and AA-Ball. Hamilton started off his 2002 season at a torrid pace for the Bakersfield Blaze, batting .303 with nine home runs and 44 RBI's in 56 games before his season came to an end due to lingering shoulder and back issues.
At the beginning of the 2003 season, Hamilton started to hit rock bottom. He showed up late several times during spring training, and was reassigned to Tampa Bay's minor league camp. He left the team and popped his head in several times, but eventually took the remaining season off because of personal reasons. Hamilton was exicited to return to spring training with the Devil Rays in 2004, but he was suspended for thirty games, and fined for violating the drug policy put in place by MLB. Because of the length of the suspenison, and the terms of the drug policy, Hamilton was placed in a drug program. The suspension was made more harsh several times after he violated rules of the program.
Until 2006, Hamilton did not play baseball at all. He checked into rehab several times, and was excited about possibly returning to major league baseball in 2005. Not until the end of June 2006, after working in a baseball facility and MLB not allowing to play for an independent minor league team, major league baseball finally let Hamilton participate in minor league games for the Tampa Bay organization. He played in fifteen games for the Class-A short season Hudson Valley Renegades, and was considered to be a tremendous role model and a cautionary tale for the young players on that team.
Since Hamilton was left of Tampa Bay's 40-man roster at the end of the 2006 season, Hamilton was eligible to be picked in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft, where he was picked by the Chicago Cubs with the third overall pick. Hamilton was sent to the Cincinnati Reds for $100,000.
In order to retain Hamilton's rights, the Reds had to keep him on their 25-man roster for the whole season. He was one of the Reds best hitters in spring training with his .403 batting average, which helped him reach a goal that seemed so far away just one year prior, the major leagues. Hamilton made the opening day roster for Cincy, and made his major league debut on April 2, 2007 to a 22 second standing ovation. In just 298 AB's in 2007, Hamilton finished his magical 2007 season with a .292 batting average, nineteen home runs and forty-seven RBI's. If Josh thought this was surreal, he had no idea what was coming in 2008.
On December 21st 2007, Cincinnati traded their slugger to the Texas Rangers for a Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera. Through July 21st 2008, Hamilton has posted an all-time great, Triple Crown type numbers with a .308 batting average, 22 homers and 98 RBI's.
Ever since Josh Hamilton made his major league debut on April 2nd, 2007, I started to idolize and almost worship Hamilton, but on July 14th, 2008, he won over every fan of baseball. It did not matter if you were a Boston Red Sox fan or a New York Yankees fan, everybody fell in love with this guy and his story. While his wife was expecting their second child, Hamilton put on an absolute hitting clinic at the Home Run Derby, highlighted by his record 28 homers in the first round. That night, baseball fans from nation to nation did not just fall in love with Mr. Josh Hamilton, they fell in love with his story. Can you really rise from the ashes? After what Josh Hamilton has done, you can. Josh has taught us to never give up. Never give up.