Josh Hamilton is baseball's ultimate what if.
To watch him face the Tampa Bay Rays on national television, as he did this weekend, is to wonder how his career and the fortunes of the team that drafted him might have differed. Josh Hamilton was once Bryce Harper, the sweet-swinging, power-hitting outfielder chosen No. 1 overall and destined to turn around a sluggish franchise.
To look at Hamilton's career stats is to wonder what they might be had he never been a drug and alcohol addict. Would he be a sure Hall of Famer had he been clean and broken into the big leagues a few years after being drafted in 1999 rather than with the Reds in 2007? Hamilton was 26 in his first real MLB season. Harper is 19.
Even now, at age 30 and a fixture in the Texas Rangers' lineup, there are what ifs about Hamilton: What if he gets hurt again? What if he falls off the wagon again? Those are legitimate questions and always will be.
But now there's another what if – a far more pleasant one to consider: What if it all comes together for Hamilton? How good can he be?
"He's a definite Triple Crown threat," teammate David Murphy said.
"He's the most talented player in the game right now," Michael Young said.
"He's making the game look easy right now," Mike Napoli said. "He's a freak."
It's not as if Hamilton hasn't had brilliant seasons before. He was AL MVP in 2010 when he hit .359 with 32 home runs. But that was one of only three seasons in which he played more than 90 games. His teammates marvel at his ability, but they agree there's room for improvement.
"Sometimes I think he doesn't even feel good at the plate," Napoli said. "It just happens for him."
Hamilton admits this is true. Asked how often he feels completely comfortable at bat, he rubs his eyes and says, "Never." He doesn't smile when he says it, either. He feels pitchers are changing things up on him all the time, and he's scrambling to stay ahead of them.
"You try to get a certain feel," he said. "The more at-bats you get, the better you feel. But then they start to do another thing and you have to adjust."
Well, he seems to be adjusting. This season he's hitting .395 with nine home runs and 25 RBIs in 22 games, which projects to 72 home runs and nearly 200 RBIs. Obviously that's not a sustainable pace, but it is a contract season, and pitchers are already uncertain how to approach him.
In Detroit a week ago, Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello served Hamilton a steady diet of outside pitches, including a change-up that he fouled off. Porcello figured he'd bust Hamilton inside, since that's really the only thing that works against a brutal Rangers lineup, and Hamilton whipsawed a high hard one deep into the bleachers for a three-run home run. The next day, lefty Drew Smyly fed Hamilton outside pitches and then tried to sneak one inside. Same result.
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"You try to move the fastball in and out," Porcello said. "I gotta tip my hat to him. I put it exactly where I wanted it. What are you gonna do?"
So what's changed in Hamilton's approach? Perspective, for one thing. Hamilton says he's always set goals for the season: 30 HRs, 100 RBIs and a .300 average. That's almost standard when he's healthy: In the three seasons he's played more than 100 games, Hamilton hit 25/32/32 home runs, drove in 94/100/130 runs and batted .298/.359/.304. This season, he says, he didn't set any goals. His only hope was "to help the team." He says that's allowed him to relieve some of the pressure he feels. Hard to imagine that a former MVP who swings so easily can feel a lot of pressure, but he says he feels it "a lot more than you'd think."
There are certainly reasons for that. The demons of alcohol and injury shadow him. He left Sunday's series finale against Tampa Bay with a stiff back. Less than three months ago, in February, he held a press conference to admit he had lapsed again. The relatively remote location of his team doesn't help much, either. The Rangers are the easternmost team in the AL West by far, meaning road trips are viciously long. Going to church means attending chapel in ballparks all over the country. Visiting with family means using Tango to place video calls to his daughters on a PDA. For someone trying to stay grounded and clean, 10-day road trips must be a landmine. He admits they feel long, whether in April or September.
"One day at a time is not just for a 12-step program," he said. "It's for everything."
That includes the long summer. Hamilton's only gotten through a couple of baseball steps so far – including one long road trip – but he's healthy and, we can only hope, sober. But he's found a mighty groove and he's protected not only in the lineup by great hitters but also in the clubhouse by teammates who look out for him. There will always be "what ifs" for Josh Hamilton, about his past and his future. But for now there's a "what if" for his immediate present:
What if this keeps up?
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