CINCINNATI -- It was, as expected, a rousing ovation that greeted Josh Hamilton when the starting lineups were introduced at Great American Ball Park on Opening Day. Hamilton's tenure with the Reds was, after all, a short but memorable chapter of his amazing comeback tale, and you don't have to look hard to find fans who wish that chapter would have been considerably longer.
"I always have people come up and say, 'I wish you were still in Cincinnati,'" Hamilton said with a smile Monday, before his Angels faced the Reds. "I always pick at them and say, 'Why did you trade me then?'"
The Reds traded Hamilton just 90 games into a big league career that very nearly never got off the ground. Between the failed drug tests, suspensions, absences and relapses that dominated his tenure in the Tampa Bay Rays' organization, Hamilton wasted years of his vast potential. The Reds, though, were intrigued enough by Hamilton's 15 games played at Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League at the end of the '06 season to take a chance on him in the Rule 5 Draft that December.
A pre-Rule 5 trade arrangement was made with the Cubs, who had the third overall pick and had no idea who the Reds had designs on until that final moment, when they were handed a slip of paper bearing Hamilton's name.
The rest, as they say, is history. And though relatively little of that history took place in Cincinnati, Hamilton still felt emotional coming back.
"It was the beginning of everything that's happened so far in my career," he said, "so it's always going to hold a special place in my heart."
For Hamilton, it began in this building. His Major League debut -- a pinch-hit appearance against the Cubs in the 2007 opener -- took place nearly six years to the day before Monday's game. It was April 2, 2007, and then, as now, Hamilton received a loud ovation from the Cincinnati faithful when he came to the plate.
"I had nothing vested in the town or the team because I hadn't played here before," Hamilton said. "It just showed me a lot about the character of the town as a whole, as a baseball community, not only appreciating the game of baseball but life, too."
Hamilton hit .292 with a .368 on-base percentage and .554 slugging percentage in those 90 games played in 2007. He hit 19 homers and 17 doubles and drove in 47 runs in 337 plate appearances. It was an encouraging rookie campaign, but it also included two stints on the disabled list for gastroenteritis and a sprained wrist. There were questions about Hamilton's durability, particularly given all he had been through prior to his Major League arrival. And those questions would prompt then-general manager Wayne Krivsky to engage in trade discussions the following winter.
If the Reds' decision to take a flier on Hamilton in the Rule 5 was bold, the decision to move him one year later was bolder.
"We were worried," Krivsky would tell the Cincinnati Enquirer several years later, "about him holding up 140 to 150 games."
Not that the Reds doubted Hamilton's raw talent or his ability to handle his personal demons. But they had no idea he'd become an MVP.
Hamilton said he never had any hard feelings about the Reds' decision.
"It was more thankfulness and appreciation," he said, "for the Reds taking a chance with me, more than it was, 'I can't believe they traded me.' It was just part of the journey. I was where I was supposed to be for that year."
Maybe the Hamilton-for-Edinson Volquez trade of December 2007 doesn't hold as infamous a place in Reds lore as the Milt Pappas-for-Frank Robinson swap, but it's not entirely far off. The saving grace was that Volquez was an All-Star starter for the Reds in '08 and that his trade to San Diego in December '11 brought Mat Latos to the Reds' rotation.
That is, however, small consolation for the loss of a guy who has been one of the game's most prolific sluggers the last five seasons.
"It looked good at the beginning," said Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, "until Edinson got hurt and got caught [testing positive for the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2010]. Hamilton has become one of the best players in baseball. He deserves it, and I'm happy for him. But I wish he was still here."
Hamilton's Reds tenure, though, wasn't entirely rosy. It is no secret that there was a bit of resentment within the Reds clubhouse of the rookie who received tons of media attention, had his own personal coach -- Johnny Narron, brother of then-Reds manager Jerry Narron -- and did not abide by the sort of rookie hazing rituals that are considered standard by some.
"When you're a rookie," Hamilton said, "you're expected to do certain things and there are certain traditions involved that might not have been the best for me to participate in. Some guys understood it and some didn't. Or they didn't care. But I found who I was supposed to be connected with, and other guys I just got along with."
Phillips, one of only a handful of members of that 2007 team who are still with the Reds, said those issues are ancient history.
"The guys that used to be over here, they were the ones who had problems with him," Phillips said. "They didn't like that he had a babysitter and all this stuff. I just wanted the man to come over here and help me win. I thought he was a great guy. I always respected him and Jerry Narron and the other Narron. I respect those guys. I never had a problem with him."
Hamilton said he found much more of a comfort zone when he arrived in Texas -- and, interestingly, he'll have another homecoming when the Angels visit Arlington later this week.
But he remembers well how Reds fans embraced him from the very beginning, and he enjoyed re-connecting with those fans in the midst of making his Angels debut.
"It's always fun," Hamilton said, "to come back to places where you began."