Josh Hamilton Dodges Discipline Bullet
As my bio makes clear, I am a long-time, die-hard fan of the Texas Rangers. So writing about Los Angeles Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton is a sensitive subject for me. On the one hand, I adored him during his first four years in Texas from 2008 through 2011. It was exciting to have a player of his caliber after so many years of watching Michael Young play as the sole bright spot for a team. It was also neat that Texas would be the place where Hamilton would make his phoenix-like ascension from the ashes of his past as one of the best feel good stories in baseball. On the other hand, the last memories I have of Josh in a Rangers uniform during that epic 2012 end of season series collapse against the Oakland A’s include watching him constantly swinging and missing at breaking balls away in the dirt, especially against Jarrod Parker, and dropping a routine fly ball that some of the worst players in my old-man softball league could catch.
Those memories should not have been how I remember him in Texas. He should have gone down as one of the all-time Dallas sports legends alongside Roger Staubach, or Emmitt Smith, or Dirk Nowitzki and as the hero of one of the greatest World Series games ever. As a refresher, Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals saw the Rangers blow a lead in both the 9th and 10th innings only to lose in the 11th. Hamilton played much of that series with a sports hernia and was clearly not right. But after Nelson Cruz took the worst angle of all angles on a fly ball in the 9th to allow the Cardinals to rally from their last strike, Hamilton fights through the injury and hits a go ahead 2 run home run in the 10th inning. That should have been it. That should have been the moment that all Rangers fans will always remember about Hamilton. Instead, he returned for his final year in Texas only to perform poorly while he fought through quitting a nicotine addiction, looked completely disinterested at the end of the year, clashed with manager Ron Washington and bashed the Rangers fans as treating the Rangers as second class citizens in the land of the Cowboys.
The rest is history. In the offseason after the 2012 season, Hamilton signs a ludicrous 5 year, 125 million dollar mega-deal with the rival Angels who apparently never forgot 2011, but certainly forgot the telltale signs of a player in decline that he showed at the end of 2012 . For their ignorance, the Angels have been rewarded the past two years with a total of 31 home runs and 123 RBIs for the low, low price of $41 million dollars. Hamilton missed 73 games last year due to injuries, hit a disastrous .000 in 13 ABs against the Kansas City Royals in the playoffs, and is now slated to miss at least the entire month of April with an AC joint injury in his shoulder. Based on recent history, it was no surprise that a player who once looked liked he’d be the poster child for all second chance success stories, but now can’t seem to get out of his own way, had a relapse with both alcohol and cocaine this offseason. The fact that these are the same drugs he has struggled with in the past and which almost cost him his entire career should be the msot concerning for the Angels.
Based on his self-reported relapse, and the fact that he has not tested positive for cocaine since he has been in the majors, there were collective bargaining agreement questions as to whether this one-time self-reported use even violated the major league drug protocol, and if it did, whether he could be treated as a first-time offender, or as a fourth-time offender based on his past in the minors. The independent arbitrator in this case ruled, without any explanation being made public thus far, that Hamilton’s one-time, self-reported use of cocaine was not enough to allow Major League Baseball to suspend Hamilton. Without having any explanation it’s hard to judge the arbitrator’s decision, which is rooted in a CBA that most fans wouldn’t bother to read.
But, that does not mean that most baseball fans can’t rely on their common sense in thinking that a system where a player has routinely abused drugs and has suffered numerous relapses (at least with alcohol) can’t punish the player now based on these circumstances. Hamilton has dodged the proverbial bullet and seems to have escaped ramifications for poor behavior, just like in 2012, when Hamilton escaped ramifications of his poor play and attitude to be rewarded with an exorbitant, well above market contract from the Angels.
The real question now, is where do Josh and the Angels go from here? As callous as it may sound, Josh’s relapse with alcohol and cocaine are the least of his worries when it comes to on-field performance. He turns 34 this year, his body is beginning the breakdown as this will be the second year in a row he misses at least a month of a season, if not more. He also sees the fewest amount of fastballs in the major leagues, and has not been able to adjust to the amount of pitches he’s seeing out of the strike zone. The decline in fast balls over the years has led to his K rate ballooning out of control for an elite hitter. After striking out 95 times in 133 games in 2010 (his MVP year) and 93 times in 122 games in 2011, he has struck out 428 times in 388 games. In the same span he’s seen his batting average drop dozens of points and his power greatly diminish over his two years in Anaheim.
For the Angels, the are left with limited options. I can imagine in a back room in their front office, they secretly hoped Hamilton would be suspended for the year saving them $23 million this year. He contributed very little last year to the best offense in baseball and he likely wouldn’t be missed. But, now they have to pay him, so they have to rehab from his shoulder injury and try to get him right again. His contract is virtually impossible to trade – Hamilton is due $83 million from now until the contract expires after 2017 – unless the Angels pay tens of millions of dollars to trade him. It’s getting less publicity, but the Hamilton situation for the Angels is growing very similar to the Yankees’ situation with Alex Rodriguez. Both have poisonous contracts for declining talent, while the players themselves abuse the trust of all those around them.
It’s a sad state of affairs for a player I once loved greatly. I’ll always appreciate what he meant to Texas when he helped them reach heights never experienced before, but it’s possible that at this point he may need to walk away and get himself right for good. He has more money than he ever needs and it’s possible that baseball has all along been the catalyst for his issues as the stresses of living up to his immeasurable talent and succeeding in the spotlight may bring out the worst in him. I wish him the best, but he’s shown time and again he just can’t get out of his own way.