Friday, September 21, 2012

What Do We Owe Josh Hamilton?

As a sports fan, I have a lot of faith in rehabilitation. It's that magical time and place where our favorite athletes, generally out of sight and mind, magically mend themselves. It's sort of like the save station in Metroid; Samus always emerges with full health, no matter her condition going in.

The theory of rehabilitation is that through will power and daily work to strengthen yourself, you can get back to 100% or sometimes even surpass your prior healthy self. Chris Carpenter gets Tommy John surgery and comes back as a vastly better pitcher. Wes Welker rehabs like hell and returns from a torn ACL/MCL in eight months. Some guys get back to 100% while others may only reach 80%, but we can evaluate their health on a scale and with a healthy end point in mind.

Rehabilitation has another meaning, though, and it's less mechanistic. We send our drug addicts to rehab in the hope that with enough work they can have the tools to face life sober, but there's no 75% sober. There's only the one end point.

Generally we ask how ready our athletes are coming out of rehab, wanting to know how much of their pre-injury state we can expect. Instead, I'm asking what if you had to throw out the paradigm of percent healthy, and move to a simple binary question of readiness? In other words, what if you're Josh Hamilton?


Josh Hamilton is many things. A number-one overall draft pick. A recovering addict. A dynamic outfielder. An American League MVP and five-time All-Star. A key player on two AL Pennant winners. He's a pre-packaged Rick Reilly essay, a prodigiously talented athlete who made the game look easy, who had everything handed to him too soon, who almost lost everything to the temptations of drugs and money and was at one point banned from the sport, who got clean and turned his life around and in the process became a dominant player on an offensive juggernaut. It makes for pretty damn compelling copy. He's also, day in and day out, at least at some risk of utterly destroying himself.

In the comic book construction of Hamilton's life, the redemption story is cut and dry. He was supremely talented, lost it all, and eventually overcame his demons. But as is so often true in these media-driven narratives, that oversimplifies by quite a bit.

Today, as far as I know, Josh Hamilton's demons are at bay. Yesterday, I believe he was fine, too. Hopefully, tomorrow we can say the same. But you never really know because Josh Hamilton's rehabilitation doesn't have an end-game. It just has sober or not, and it goes one simple day at a time. Chris Carpenter and Wes Welker recovered; Josh Hamilton is recovering.

America's favorite recovering addict Josh Hamilton has been saying and doing some scary sounding things lately, especially considering his impending free agency. Last offseason, photos from one night of presumably drunken revelry made the rounds on Deadspin. Upon struggling for a few months this season, he admitted to feeling cloudy, especially related to his efforts to give up chewing tobacco. Hamilton had committed himself to the game and got clean with an immense amount of self-discipline, yet here is Hamilton talking about his struggles, both with addiction and the game:
"Due to the speculation that occurred from my recent comments, I felt it was important to clarify what the "issue" was to which I was referring- both personally and professionally. The issue is 'discipline.' Professionally, it's been plate discipline. Personally, it's been being obedient to the Lord in quitting chewing tobacco. I was hesitant to address the tobacco once again, because it's an area that I've struggled with trying to quit in the past. I wanted to have some time of success 'under my belt' before addressing again publicly, but feel I haven't been given that option with all of the speculating out there as to what the 'mystery issue' was. But there you have it -- discipline."
There's a powerful scene in The West Wing where Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff and a recovering addict, comes clean to one of his subordinates about his addiction to pills and alcohol and his time in rehab. He describes not only the demons he struggles with every day but the fear of relapsing. I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the quote, but the gist is as follows: your friends (or "friends" as Leo sarcastically remarks) all cheer you when you first get clean, and abandon you just as quickly when you relapse.

Josh Hamilton has pretty much hewed to that comic book story-line, wholly relapse-free, and it's been pretty easy to root for him since he came up. First and foremost, he's mashed (for some reason, sportscasters always say Josh Hamilton mashes) from the moment he made it to the big leagues, and as LeBron James just triumphantly proved, success trumps all. Unlike Matt Bush, an equally troubled former number one pick, Hamilton says all the right things and has for the most part stayed out of trouble. Hamilton's story is a refreshing (and rare) case where sportswriters don't really have to up the stakes or manufacture narrative. The story of Drew Brees playing to lift the spirit of New Orleans which was beaten into my brain by every sportswriter alive in the last few years has always felt a little canned whereas Hamilton's personal redemption, especially since he really does exude joy playing baseball, has never felt like a construction. Sure that's equally schlocky, but it feels more honest. And maybe Brees did channel the spirit of New Orleans, but it was much more an abstraction than Hamilton almost literally playing for his life.

Hamilton would be a superstar simply because of his prowess and the market he plays in, but his story has pushed him over the top. His story has made him one of the premier stars in the MLB, maybe the most marketable player outside of the Bronx. Thirty-one years old and despite a massive mid-season slump still one of the most productive hitters in the game, Hamilton is primed to cash in as a free agent at the end of the year. His age knocks him out of the Joey Votto salary range (12 years/$250 million), but you would ordinarily expect him to ink a similar deal to Ryan Howard's albatross of a contract (5/$125M).

I'm not sure he'll get it. How can you give a drug addict the benefit of the doubt?

It's the rare case where his marketability works against him. Hamilton's a great story but he's undeniably a risk, in a way many players aren't. Jose Reyes' injury history probably stopped multiple teams from pursuing him, which likely ate into his contract dollars (though he still did alright). Why shouldn't the same hold for Hamilton? No one would ever hope for him to relapse, and one would expect whatever team that signs him to put in appropriate support measures to guarantee Hamilton stays clean, but that uncertainty is still there.

Uncertainty exists for every player (see: Joe Theismann or Jay Williams) and uncertainty is a big part of why we care about sports (see: 2011 NY Giants and St. Louis Cardinals), but in Hamilton's case it means a bit more. His addictions are under control and yet almost out of his control by the way he's wired. Ultimately, talent wins out and some team will take a pretty serious long-term financial risk on him, but Josh Hamilton will have to contend with something almost no other player has to. He can be 100% physically healthy and it still might not matter.

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