Messy Heroes: The Return of Josh Hamilton
The writer of the Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once said, "show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." Even decades ago, Fitzgerald knew the obvious about heroes: their fall is likely inevitable, or perhaps if the fall is what they're best known for, the climb back to the throne of grace is what people root for. I don't know if the famed writer was a baseball fan, but without question, his idea of heroes could apply to Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. The baseball prodigy/drug addict/comeback star/relapse expert is begging for you, in not so many words, to give him a second chance. Scratch that. A third, or fourth, or seventy-billionth chance.
Baseball nerds know him as the five-tool superstar that dominated pitchers so overwhelmingly in high school that he was described as "one of the game's most talented players". He was chosen #1 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 1999. So why did a player so heads and shoulders above others his age not make his major league debut until 2007? Drugs. Alcohol. More drugs. A life corrosive to everything in the body that it poured out and literally ruined his career for years, not mere weeks or months.
Hamilton gives credit to God, his grandmother, and his wife for helping him to get back on track to his major league dreams. After years of struggles, Hamilton cleaned up for good in 2005 and after being traded to the Cincinnati Reds finally made his debut in 2007. Hamilton went on to become a hitting machine, earning multiple All-Star appearances during playing time with the Reds and the Texas Rangers. Hamilton has a beautiful wife and four wonderful kids and is a terrific leader in the clubhouse.
Aaaaand scene. Cut. Beautiful story.
This would be the story of Josh Hamilton we would want to read. This is the story he tells in his autobiography from 2008 called "Beyond Belief". This cut-and-dry story of saving redemption for a man turning from demons and chasing a dream is what movies are made of, and work well as a story to tell our kids. Hey, look at Josh Hamilton, he was a guy who made some mistakes and now is a really good guy and is awesome at baseball!
Turn the page.
2009 comes, and pictures surface of Hamilton shirtless in a bar throwing back shots with co-eds seemingly not caring who sees him. This, the same Hamilton who goes around speaking to church groups and high school baseball teams and little leaguers with his posters on their walls. Hamilton is labeled as a hypocrite, one who can't escape his past, one who profits from his own sick story, and one who, somehow, has remarkable talent on the field. Forgive and move on. Hamilton said this at his press conference regarding the photos:
“Obviously it was one those things that reinforce that I can't have alcohol. I got away from the one thing that kept me on the straight and narrow and that was my relationship with the Lord. That should always come first. Hopefully some good will come out of this. It just crossed my mind that night, 'Can I have a drink?' Obviously, I can't and this reinforces that. Since that night, I have not had another thought like that. I know it's something I shouldn't do because it leads to other things."
Turn the page.
In February of 2012, Hamilton fell off the wagon again, slightly. He had two or three drinks at a bar before inviting some teammates to join him. No co-eds. No shirts off. No brazen photos chronicling the demons he cannot escape. Just a few beers that convicted Hamilton enough to let people know he slipped. A gentle fall from the wagon indeed. But was it jarring at all the fragile trust he was rebuilding one sober season at a time? The lumberjack-esque slugger felt the need to, even after a "fall" like this, to call a press conference and apologize.
Turn the page.
Earlier this year in February, Hamilton confessed once again to another relapse. To what extent he fell we don't know. We do know his wife has left him. He is not allowed to see his kids right now. He was traded by the Anaheim Angels who no longer wanted the drama surrounding Hamilton's roller-coaster life, both on and off the field. As he makes a comeback attempt with the Texas Rangers, the question is burning across the world of sports: can we trust Josh Hamilton anymore?
Josh Hamilton had become a hero for everyone. He was proving, early in his major league career, that anyone with big dreams that get derailed because of bad decisions can get back on track and succeed. But what if those dreams are continually sabotaged? What if it turns out the demons you've run away from are really just taking up residence in the back closet of your house? What if you are a beautiful redemption story who is hailed as an inspiration only to become the "what not to do" poster child for the war on drugs movement?
The likelihood is greater now that Josh Hamilton enters a vast foray of athletes labeled "what could have been" instead of entering the Hall of Fame. He will more likely be someone profiled by coaches to their young athletes about the inherent dangers of drug abuse. He will most certainly be mentioned as the guy with crazy talent who never put it all together.
Somewhere among the taunting chants of "Just Say No!" by opposing fans, there must be a sliver of hope for Hamilton. Sports' fans love redemption stories. We love the players that overcome obstacles, even the obstacles they crafted themselves. Few stories come along like that of Josh Hamilton. Few athletes have such over-the-top-skills that also get dragged down by cocaine and alcohol and subsequently find a way to get past it.
That's just the thing about it: he's not past it. He's not done with the drugs. He hasn't shaken the demons he's fought for decades. The superstar turned hero turned inspiration is quickly becoming a footnote in the database of professional athletes who couldn't overcome temptation.
For all the little battles Hamilton has won over the years, he certainly has not given us the clear verdict on the war. And regular everyday people need second chances, but how willing are we to give chances away every few years for the very same player? A player so messed up that even his wife who stood by him so many years has given up?
The lessons to learn here are numerous, but perhaps we need to allow the life of Josh Hamilton to point more squarely at us: our tendencies to forgive, to give grace and mercy, or to give up and walk away. Are any of our heroes messy, or do their stories come neatly wrapped and perfectly packaged?
If Josh Hamilton is who he says he is, which is a follower of Jesus Christ, then he certainly recognizes the greatness of his flaws, but even more so, the greatness of a Savior who forgives those flaws. Josh Hamilton will struggle for the rest of his life with resisting the temptations of drugs and alcohol. His sins are big because they are well-known and documented. Our sins are big too, but not because they are well known. They are big because they do just as Hamilton's sins do: disobey God. And if we are to beg for a saving grace that forgives our wrongs, we must allow Josh Hamilton the same. Even if his status has changed from superstar hero and role model to “washed up” comeback player with a valuable lesson to share, it's okay to root for him. Even in the depths of our valleys, even in our repeated failures and undoing, we certainly would want someone rooting for us. We would want someone in our corner giving us "atta boys" and encouraging us. We know Josh Hamilton's tragedies. Let's root for his triumphs.