AL West: Hamilton and the Rangersby David Wade
July 25, 2011
Will Carroll once wrote that Josh Hamilton is "sui generis when it comes to a lot of things." Carroll's focus centered on projecting lost time due to injury. But that statement encapsulates what has become one of the more unique stories in baseball.
Certainly, when looking for comparable players in baseball, for injuries, projections, or path to the majors, Hamilton is unique. His path to the majors was abnormal. He missed the wear and tear of hundreds of games, but he also ravaged his body with drugs and went through significant weight loss. He also missed developmental time in the minors, which likely would have put him in the big leagues in his early twenties.
Perhaps with Hamilton we have to abandon comparisons in baseball. Perhaps his comparisons are more fitting in literature or mythology. The Rangers have picked up on this, as they play the theme from the movie "The Natural" when Hamilton homers.
In that film, as many of you likely know, the hero in the story has a checkered past and comes back from a long absence from the game to dominate his competition. But, as easy as the fictional Roy Hobbs made the game look at times, he was also prone to slumps. The narrative demanded that he battle demons, both internal and external. His past, one he tried so hard to move beyond so he could fulfill his dream of playing baseball better than anyone that ever lived, caught up with him.
Hamilton, our real-life protagonist, battles demons on a daily basis. In his autobiography, he talks of a vision he had of a devil's face in the clouds during a minor league game. He tells how just having one beer after a game can destroy everything he has tried so hard to rebuild.
Hamilton tells how he became so adept at finding drugs that he could walk into a restaurant and guess which customer or employee was the most likely to be holding cocaine, a process he said he could accomplish with surprising accuracy in only minutes. He had an embarassing and public relapse in January of 2009. That incident reminded us all that his story may not be have a Hollywood ending.
And yet, Hamilton has had his share of Hollywood moments. He had a memorable All-Star weekend in 2008, when he hit an amazing 28 home runs in one round of the Home Run Derby. He spoke with ESPN's Erin Andrews after his round and told her how he had actually dreamt of the moment beforehand.
He won the AL MVP last year, hitting .359/.411/.633 for the year while leading the Rangers to the franchise's first World Series appearance. He's playing well again this year, even though he missed a little over a month with a broken shoulder. His team is in the middle of an impressive run and leading the AL West again.
But he has a disease and has to resist temptation every day. Should we call him a tragic hero? Perhaps, yet his battle isn't against fate. He's not a character in a Greek tragedy, though his life has been tragic at times. He's not a hero who fights destiny, his battle is against the disease of addiction. Even his successful return to baseball is diminished somewhat. It's diminished by the seasons he has lost.
How good could he have been? Well, at times it looks like he could have been one of the best players that ever lived. He has a beautiful, powerful swing. He also runs well and is a good fielder. But, there's a chance he would have been even better.
His multiple injuries can't necessarily be tied to his past since players of all types break bones. But that the point from Carroll made earlier—we can't know because, outside of a cause like World War II, we don't know of a bunch of other players that essentially missed four years of baseball heading into their prime. We certainly don't know any that missed four years due to crack and alcohol addiction and came back to be one of the best players in the game.
What we do know is that in his constant struggle against addiction and things like the accident at Rangers Ballpark earlier this month almost seem like some kind of trial from the Old Testament. Something where our hero is tempted, tortured, and tried, maybe just to see how he'll react. Hamilton's life reminds us of a tragic play, one in which we can hope the story will have a happy ending.
The Rangers seem determined to try to make 2011 a storybook season. They've been on a tear of late, winning 12 straight games starting on the Fourth of July, a winning streak that withstood the accident in the stands and the hospitalization of CEO Nolan Ryan.
The Rangers' past success has usually followed their hitting. They are currently second in the American League in batting average and last in strikeouts, so as a team, they put the ball in play and constantly pressure their opponents' defenses. Conversely, Texas' defense ranks well in several statistical measures and excels and getting outs on balls in play, as summarized here.
The loss of standout third baseman Adrian Beltre for the next few weeks may adversely affect their run-prevention in the short term. But reports of Beltre's strained hamstring make it sound similar in severity to the one Jose Reyes dealt with over the All-Star break. Reyes missed right around two weeks, and the Rangers hope Beltre's absence will be similarly brief and, therefore, minimize the effect of his loss.
Texas' pitching is ranked in the middle of the pack for ERA in the American League. However, their top two starters, Alexi Ogando and C.J. Wilson, have excelled this year.
Ogando's story, while not quite as remarkable as Hamilton's, still impresses. The former minor league Rule 5 draft pick had to wait out a four-year ban from entering the United States before he could join the team. He served his punishment for participating in an immigration scheme, and since his eventual promotion last year, Ogando has moved from reliever to starter and has posted a career ERA+ of 184.
As the West's top team continues to succeed, the Seattle Mariners lost their 14th straight game going into Sunday. On July 1, Seattle sat only 3.5 games back of Texas in the division standings. Just over three weeks later, they were 14.5 back.
Texas is primed to repeat as division champions, and if they can hold off the Angels, maybe they can overcome the tragedy at their ballpark earlier this year. Maybe their best player can, too.
References and Resources
Arthur Miller, The Natural
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.