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Winding road leads Hamilton to Majors

Hamilton travels winding road

CINCINNATI -- It took nearly eight years, and the journey was filled with one massive detour after another, but Josh Hamilton finally reached his chosen destination.

"It's a dream come true. It really is," Hamilton said. "All I ever wanted to do was come into a big-league stadium and wear a big-league uniform and be part of a big-league team. The day is finally here."

Hamilton, the 1999 overall No. 1 draft pick by the Devil Rays, made the Reds 25-man roster this spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick. The Cubs selected him in December but immediately dealt him to the Reds for cash in a pre-arranged trade.

Many of the years between 1999 and 2006 were lost ones. It included a nearly four-year absence from baseball -- first because of injuries and later because he was suspended for drug use. Hamilton was a crack cocaine addict. He was re-instated in July 2006, and played in 15 games at the low Class A level.

"I didn't get any sleep," Hamilton said of the previous evening. "I was thinking about so much stuff -- where I've come from and what kind of road it's been. I'm finally here. I woke up about every hour and a half. I think I was nervous I would be late getting to the park."

Hamilton probably didn't have many sleepless nights wondering about his roster status in Spring Training. He immediately did well and hit an over 500-foot home run in his first exhibition game. The outfielder hit safely in 21 of 25 spring games and batted a club leading .403.

"It's hard for me to believe he has not played in three years with the types of at-bats he has. He's very patient," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "He's very disciplined. He doesn't rush up there, and he gives you a chance. Plus, he's got good bat speed."

Hamilton received one of the louder applauses from Reds fans as he ran to the first-base line during pregame introductions. But that didn't compare to the noise made when the 25-year-old's name was announced as an eighth-inning pinch-hitter for pitcher Kirk Saarloos.

Most of the 42,720 fans at Great American Ball Park were on their feet and cheering loudly. It continued as Chicago removed right-handed reliever Michael Wuertz and called on lefty Will Ohman from the bullpen to face the lefty-hitting Hamilton.

"I don't think it would have sunk in as much if he wouldn't have changed pitchers," Hamilton said after Cincinnati's 5-1 win. "The crowd was still going nuts. When they changed pitchers and I was about to hit, they waited for the commercials to be over, and they were still standing up. It was unreal. It was awesome support out there and I appreciate it."

"That was awesome," Reds left fielder Adam Dunn said. "I've never seen anyone that excited in my life. It was great to see. He deserves every single bit of it, if not more."

opening day 2007

Hamilton's storybook day didn't come complete with a hit. He lined a tailing fly to left field. Matt Murton made a nice rolling catch on the ground and robbed the rookie. The crowd continued to show its appreciation.

"Man, that was unbelievable," Hamilton said. "It was awesome once. But the second and the third time -- I can't describe it. I didn't realize how excited I was until I got back into the dugout. My heart was [beating fast]."

When Hamilton returned to the dugout, he was greeted by several teammates. Right fielder Ken Griffey Jr., himself a former overall No. 1 draft pick, playfully put his right arm around Hamilton's neck.

"He's been through a lot," Griffey said. "He's a teammate and we have to support him in every way. I know that he's going through those first Opening Day jitters. We tried to get him to sit down for a couple of minutes and he didn't do it. He went in the cage and started hitting. Even though he didn't get a hit in his first at-bat, he put a nice swing on it."

"It gave me the chills," center fielder Ryan Freel said. "It's what it's all about, being clean. It's another reminder of where he's at and where he could be. It just shows a lot of what Cincinnati fans are about. For them to respect what he's gone through and come out here and get to where he's at, fans realize that. It was an unbelievable moment."

Now that he got through the first day, Hamilton has to negotiate the next 161 games. He will be the Reds' fourth outfielder and will often play as a late-inning defensive replacement or a spot starter for Griffey, Dunn or Freel. He will also continue to be drug-tested randomly up to three times per week.

"The question is whether he can sit for three or four days and perform," said Narron, who hoped to get Hamilton a start this week. "It's something we'll have to find out. At some point something will happen where he'll get a lot of playing time."

As exciting and noisy as Hamilton's first game was, his first day at Great American Ball Park as a Major Leaguer came in a much quieter setting on Saturday. Following the club's final exhibition game in Dayton, Hamilton returned with his family to show them around. He even took a picture of his nameplate above his locker.

"I showed them around the clubhouse and stepped out onto the field," Hamilton said. "It was emotional for all of us. My Mom cried. My Dad and I stood there and talked by ourselves. He said he never thought he'd see the day again where I'd play baseball. It means a lot to me that I've pulled it together and got to this point."

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

{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }