Is Major League Baseball Healthy For Josh Hamilton?

** Since I wrote this, Hamilton has had two publicized relapses, struggled with injuries, and filed for divorce from his wife.  So to answer my own question, I think that it’s clear that no, Major League Baseball is not healthy for Josh Hamilton. **

Originally published February 3rd, 2012

I think a better question this morning, after the news that Josh Hamilton had relapsed 3 nights ago in a Dallas-area bar, is not if you thought Hamilton would drink again, it’s “Are you surprised it didn’t happen sooner?”  Before you get any further, this is not a “bash Hamilton” column, and if you’re looking for insensitive jokes or digs, you’re not going to find it here.

The Texas Rangers took a big risk when they traded for Josh Hamilton in December 2007.  There were questions then about Josh Hamilton’s long-term risk/reward when he was traded to the Reds for Edison Volquez and Danny Herrera, but Hamilton’s power and hustle on the field earned him a quick and fevered following.  When Josh Hamilton was crushing home runs and diving for balls in the outfield, Danny Herrara was shuttling between the Reds, the Brewers, and the Mets.  When Hamilton was winning the American League MVP, Edison Volquez was spiraling from a 17-6 season in 2008 to a combined 13-12 record over 2009-2011.  The leadership and production that Josh Hamilton brought to the Texas Rangers, helping them to consecutive World Series, has been worth every moment of effort the Rangers have put behind Hamilton.  Every effort the Rangers have put behind Hamilton, to keep him clean.

Josh Hamilton’s struggle with substance abuse is well documented.  Hamilton is a modern day Roy Hobbs, but Josh’s “woman in black” are drugs and alcohol.  “Regular” recovering addicts have a hard enough time turning away from demons, I can’t imagine being a Major League ballplayer in that kind of situation.  Players spend half of their year on the road, living a semi-vagrant lifestyle as they move from city to city (but with better rooms).  Things that “regular” recovering addicts may be able to count on, like family, home, and set routines at work or church are thrown to the wind during an MLB season. I can absolutely understand the Rangers move to assign Johnny Narron to Hamilton thru 2010 — Josh needed that anchor and grounding influence for the 81 games that he played on the road and away from home.  But what about the other 81 games that were at home?  Don’t discount the stress that families go thru when your spouse is on the road for half of the year.  When you’re on the road you get into a routine, you see players more than you do your wife and kids.  The minute you get in the door, your family wants and demands the attention you couldn’t give them on the road — It can put a player in an even more stressful situation than on the road.  I would contend that’s what happened to Josh Hamilton in 2009.  Now, mix Josh Hamilton’s certain celebrity and efforts to lead a role-model’s life (with added pressures from the 2009 relapse,) with Jerry Narron’s departure in 2011, then add grief and guilt.

Shannon Stone’s death was in no way Josh Hamilton’s fault.  Everyone knows that.  I’m sure that Hamilton knows it too, but that doesn’t mean that the moment doesn’t eat at him.  I was worried that Hamilton would have a severe relapse last season.  After Stone’s death and Hamilton’s injury, Josh was at home, but not at peace.  Here’s a player that just saw a man die in front of him on the field.  His team is working towards the playoffs and he’s helpless.  He’s injured and frustrated, and hurting.  The injuries heal, probably slower than they used to, but last season was filled with emotional highs and lows.  Josh revisited tragedy during the World Series by accepting a first pitch from Shannon’s young son.  It left me, as a parent, heartbroken.  How do you think Hamilton felt?  Mix that with the Rangers failure to win the World Series and an offseason filled with uncertainty over his contract?  Relapse.

Josh Hamilton has a problem.  With two alcohol related relapses in two years, Major League Baseball should consider suspending Hamilton to start the season, requiring additional therapy and abuse courses in place of his games.  I’m concerned that both relapses hit the press before Hamilton came forward and accepted responsibility.  I have a problem with the fact that in 2009, Narron was completely in the dark even weeks after the event.  This was Hamilton’s mentor and confidant.  We’re three days out from his relapse in Dallas, and officials were just now aware of the issue.  Should we question whether we’ve had the complete story, and whether these are actually two isolated incidents?  It’s a legitimate question.

An argument could be made that Major League Baseball isn’t healthy for Josh Hamilton.  A life on the road, tempted by celebrity and a portion of society that likes to see someone fail are a bad mix.  Check Twitter today, check comments on legitimate stories online.  How people revel and joke about someone’s personal failures is astounding and sick.  But true, and sadly becoming a norm.  Is Hamilton at a point in his life where he would be better off away from the game?  Would Josh have a better chance of staying clean for himself and his family if he left the game?  The other argument could be that Major League Baseball could be the one thing keeping him clean.  Without the support of his teammates and the routine of the road, would Hamilton be more apt to struggle with sobriety?  It’s a serious question that Josh Hamilton needs to consider, and he needs to consider it now.

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