Hamilton walks hard road to Reds camp

Hamilton walks hard road to camp

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The temptation for Josh Hamilton to go back to drugs lessens a little bit more every day.

But, it's definitely still there -- even if it's just in the dark recesses of his mind.

"Occasionally, I'll have a dream about using," Hamilton said. "I used to have dreams about using where I actually used. But now, the drug test guys are in my dream with me. I have the choice to either take the test or use. So far, I've been taking the test."

There will be other kinds of tests facing Hamilton over the next six weeks. Out of baseball for most of the last four years because of injuries and drug suspensions, the 25-year-old has been given probably the best chance of what have been many second chances.

Hamilton is trying to make the Reds' 25-man roster this spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick. It's the closest to the Major Leagues the outfielder has ever been. Only, this isn't a free pass and there will be no special treatment.

"If we don't think he can help us at the Major League level, there's a good chance he won't be here," Reds manager Jerry Narron said.

When Hamilton, with his sweet left-handed swing, first burst on the pro baseball scene as the first overall pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, it was expected he'd often face a large media horde eager to talk about his great abilities on the field.

Fast forward seven years later to Monday, and Hamilton was indeed holding a press conference with a large assembly of media. However, baseball ability was the secondary topic to the drug use that once consumed, and very nearly destroyed, his life.

"There were many times I thought I'd never play again, just because of the lifestyle I had been living," Hamilton said. "Nobody can do anything productive out of what I was doing. There were definitely times I felt down and like I'd never get back to doing the thing I loved. God's grace got me here today."

Because of the glut of media requests the Reds media relations office received, it was the only time in Spring Training Hamilton would be talking about off-the-field issues. He welcomed the scrutiny and spoke openly.

"You guys [in the media] help me out more than you know," Hamilton said. "When you're in recovery, they say you need to have people around you that hold you accountable for what you do. You guys hold me accountable at a national level."

The downward spiral
Ironically, it was in Bradenton, Fla., one town over and just a few miles from the Reds' Sarasota complex where Hamilton first found trouble. In 2001, he and his parents were injured in a car accident that left Hamilton on the disabled list with a bad back. His parents returned home to North Carolina to recover.

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For the first time in his life, Hamilton was unable to play baseball and was alone, without his protective parents. He still had plenty of money in his pocket from his $3.96 million signing bonus as the Rays' No. 1 draft pick.

It helped form a perfect storm of personal destruction.

After his morning workouts at the ballpark completed each day and left him with idle time, Hamilton began hanging out in tattoo shops in bad parts of town. Eventually, most of his 6-foot-4 body was covered in permanent ink. It was with the friends he made at these establishments that he experimented with alcohol and eventually graduated to cocaine and then crack cocaine.

"I made bad choices," Hamilton said. "I went looking for something I shouldn't have to fill that void that was there. The choices I made were my choices. They weren't the best choices. I learned from it."

From 2003 until the summer of 2006, Hamilton was completely out of baseball because of his drug use. Numerous efforts to clean up only resulted in numerous relapses. He became estranged from his parents and for a while was separated from his wife, Katie, and their two young children.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Hamilton. "When you're involved in drug use and alcohol abuse, you look for anything to set you off to drink over or use over. I'd be fine for a month and then something would happen and I'd go back to using. It was a cycle that kept repeating itself."

Rock bottom for Hamilton came on Oct. 6, 2005, when he dropped in at the home of his grandmother, Mary Holt, in North Carolina.

"The biggest low point was showing up at my grandmother's house at 180 pounds, I'm 230 pounds now, and facing her," Hamilton said. "She welcomed me with open arms. She really wanted me to stop using, and I wanted to stop using. But when I lived there the first couple of weeks, I used a couple of times. One time, she knew I was using. She said she couldn't take it anymore. I was hurting people I loved. I was making them worry. My grandmother seeing me like that was the turning point."

Hamilton said that was the last time he's been high.

Recovery
With the help of Katie and his father-in-law, Michael, a drug counselor that often speaks with high school and college teams, Hamilton began the long road to permanent recovery.

"He's been down the same road I've been through to a certain extent," Hamilton said of his father-in-law. "He never judged me. There were times I'm sure he wanted to choke me or beat me down. But he just loved on me. He's a great man and somebody I look up to today."

By the winter of 2005-06, Hamilton came into contact with former Rays Minor League manager Roy Silver. Silver owned and operated a baseball clinic called Winning Inning out of Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, Fla. It was the Phillies' former Spring Training complex.

In a far departure from his high-profile draft selection and promising pro career, Hamilton was allowed to come and work for Winning Inning. He did not receive any pay and lived at the stadium. In exchange for his work, he was allowed to hit in the cages and talk with the coaches.

"I had chores. I worked. I did field maintenance, cut grass, cut trees, took out trash and cleaned toilets," Hamilton said. "If I didn't do those things, I couldn't play ball."

On June 30, 2006, Hamilton was cleared to return to play for the Rays organization. He played 15 games for low Class A Hudson Valley before a knee injury cut short the comeback.

The best chance ever
In the fall, when Major League clubs needed to protect players on their 40-man rosters, Hamilton was not protected by Tampa Bay. It left him exposed to the Rule 5 Draft in December.

Very quietly, the Reds began doing their due diligence on Hamilton. Senior director of scouting Chris Buckley, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, first tipped general manager Wayne Krivsky. Eventually, the consensus in the organization built.

"We decided there was no one in the Rule 5 Draft that compared to Josh in terms of raw ability," Krivsky said. "[And we thought,] 'Hey, this is well worth the gamble.'"


"Nobody can do anything productive out of what I was doing. There were definitely times I felt down and like I'd never get back to doing the thing I loved. God's grace got me here today."
-- Josh Hamilton

It turned out that Narron and Hamilton had a history. Narron's brother, Johnny, coached Hamilton as a teenager.

"My brother was saying, 'You have got to see this guy play. He is outstanding,'" Jerry Narron said. "I show up and I didn't know I was going to see a left-handed-throwing catcher. You could tell when he was 15 years old that he had tremendous ability and tremendous talent."

Krivsky kept the Hamilton discussions to a limited inner circle. Ownership wasn't notified for permission until two days before the draft. Even Narron wasn't informed until the night before at the Winter Meetings. Narron's jaw dropped when he was given the news.

"[Krivsky] had no idea that I had known him," Narron said.

To prevent another club from plucking Hamilton, the Reds made a deal with the Cubs to pick for them, who drafted ahead in line. Chicago wasn't told until it was handed a piece of paper with Hamilton's name on it just before the draft began.

"'Whoa, good call. I like it,'" Krivsky recounted being told by Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken.

Chicago selected Hamilton and then sent him to Cincinnati in exchange for cash.

Since the draft, Narron -- also a North Carolina resident -- began meeting with Hamilton twice a week and threw him batting practice. Also present at the sessions was Johnny Narron, the same former youth coach. Johnny Narron was recently named the Reds' video and administrative coach.

"I think the whole thing is set up for him to do extremely well," Jerry Narron said. "I know [Hamilton] doesn't have to worry about what the manager thinks of him as a person. That's got to be a huge load off his mind."

Because of the nearly four-year layoff, the odds of Hamilton making the Reds' roster are extremely long. But there have already been signs that there is plenty of life left in the swing that had everyone drooling seven years ago.

An early arrival to Spring Training, Hamilton has already deposited numerous batting practice home runs to parts beyond Ed Smith Stadium that many Reds hitters rarely reach.

Is there another All-American underdog comeback story in the making?

"I don't think there's anybody here with the combination of power and speed and the throwing arm that he has," Narron said. "It's a very, very difficult game to play when you're playing it every day, and he hasn't been able to play the last couple of years. There's some rust there. We're going to try our best to play him all we can this spring and see how close he is."

Hamilton has to remain on the Reds' 25-man roster all season or be exposed to waivers. If another club doesn't claim him, he must be offered back for $25,000 to the Devil Rays, who have already said they'd gladly take him back.

"Game situations, that's really when I need to not think about it and let my ability take over," Hamilton said of his baseball challenges. "Sometimes, that's the hardest thing to do. Baseball is fun. It's not hard."

If he makes it to the Majors, another world of money and temptation could be waiting for Hamilton. He says he has a "backup" plan to confront any issues. Katie carries all of his cash, and the family keeps only one car in Florida to reduce the urge of his taking off alone. The couple is deeply religious and on Monday, Hamilton frequently mentioned his faith as an aid to his staying clean.

If he makes the team this season, the Reds would make arrangements on the road for someone to hold Hamilton's meal money and plan to offer a support system.

"I know there are temptations," Hamilton said. "The devil is going to come at me hard. I don't know from where yet. We'll handle it when it comes.

"It's amazing I'm here with the Reds about four or five miles from where it all began as far as drug use. Sometimes God brings you back to times and places that we were. It might not have been the best of times. But it brings you back there when you're doing well to remind you where he brought you from."

For Hamilton, even that short distance was one heck of a long road.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.