Photo via Keith Allison on Flickr
Photo via Keith Allison on Flickr
When Josh Hamilton can’t control his impulses, as he couldn’t this February, it becomes a national story, The Rangers announce they’ve hired him a new accountability partner, and scores of ill-informed columns comment on how Hamilton disappointed because he just didn’t try hard enough not to drink and do drugs. It’s a cycle of sanctification and outrage we’ve grown accustomed to with sports stars like LeBron James, but Hamilton’s very real personal struggles render it more disconcerting than usual.
Most of my sense of what it’s like to struggle with addiction comes from Infinite Jest. I know enough, though, to be sure that the typical Hamilton narrative—which he hasn’t exactly disavowed—is bullshit. The idea that a can’t-miss-prospect-turned-junkie could solve his problems by cleaning toilets at a Christian baseball academy and reclaim his career sounds too perfect, fit for a Kirk Cameron vehicle or inspirational pamphlet. It turns recovery into a binary issue; every relapse will be read as an abject failure on the part of Hamilton, rather than a common fact of his condition. Hamilton can only be a winner or loser on the field of addiction, never a person—an addict—trying to negotiate consistently difficult terrain.
Luckily, we have baseball to expose the simplicity of that narrative. Since his return to prominence with the Cincinnati Reds in 2007, Hamilton has played the sport as if he had never left it in disgrace. With one American League MVP and four consecutive All-Star appearances with the Texas Rangers, he’s become the star everyone expected him to be when the Devil Rays drafted him first-overall in 1999. Whereas his exile in a baseball Midian is typically read as simultaneously transformative for both his soul and career, Hamilton’s play since suggests a rediscovery of what made him great rather than an entire reformulation of his being. While he has obviously developed as he’s aged, Hamilton is the same kind of player he was as a teenager. His Christianity and addiction experiences have shaped his personality, but he is fundamentally the athlete he has always been. But it would be wrong to view his personal story and on-field play as unrelated. It’s here that the idea that Hamilton flips a switch between sobriety and addiction begins to break down.
Hamilton’s style of play is notable not just for the fact that it works, but for the dynamic at its heart: a push-pull between letting loose natural talent and a more studied approach to the sport that would rein it in. Most great players view hitting as an issue of patience, of waiting for just the right pitch and pouncing on it like a lurking predator. Barry Bonds, the most successful hitter of the last 15 years, turned this process into something fit for a monk or assassin (or, if you want to combine them, the most ornery member of the Wu-Tang Clan), occasionally seeing just one good pitch during an entire series and ripping it for a homer anyway. Greatness is often a matter of learning to control urges.
Hamilton has never been especially patient, drawing 50 walks in a season just once and topping 90 strikeouts three times. While those stats are not particularly bad—his career walk and strikeout rates are both right around the league average—they are outliers among the league’s top stars. Unlike Albert Pujols, Hamilton plays the sport with a philosophy of pressure, trying to force the issue with hard contact instead of sitting back until he sees the perfect pitch. That he’s able to put the ball in play so often is a testament to his abilities. But it can also read as a little brash, if not reckless. He hits well, but there’s a sense that it might be in spite of his better judgment. In a way, his play is more honest about his history than his public identity. It’s both an effective process and an uneasy one, almost suggesting that the foundation of his talent is not entirely steady.
Sometimes that freewheeling approach becomes problematic, especially in the field. Hamilton’s defensive stats are not exemplary, but he’s developed a reputation as a quality center fielder due to his athleticism and propensity for highlight-reel plays. He’s also fearless, often causing himself physical harm and serious injury by crashing into walls. It’s self-destructive: not as a death wish, but as behavior that threatens to get dangerous. Hamilton is injury-prone, having missed 143 games over the past three seasons and seeing his power sapped in last season’s postseason due to severe abdominal pain. The Rangers have attempted to protect him by playing him in the less rigorous left field, but, having seen the disabled list in four of his five MLB seasons, he might just be the kind of player who gets hurt—or hurts himself.
There’s pervasive fragility to Hamilton’s stardom that belies the supreme physicality of his play. A fearsome hitter, his at-bats look like battles between his id and superego instead of his will and that of the pitcher. In the outfield, he flirts with injury every time he chases a fly ball towards the wall or foul line. As much as Hamilton has accomplished over the past five years, it could be fleeting. Every time he takes the field, it seems as if his talent might deteriorate or his body might fail him.
Addiction is the obvious context for this feeling of tenuous triumph, and yet it’s not the whole story. Baseball itself is a sport of contingencies and luck, where hitting a ball hard can be a double in the gap or a lineout to a well-placed second baseman. Predictive stats have attempted to tame the game’s essential entropy, but the possibility of a bizarre occurrence is as compelling a draw for many fans as the opportunity to see a brilliant pitching prospect find himself on the mound. The best players are able to impose a measure of order on that randomness, playing with so certain a sense of what they want to hit that they can take on the air of nobility, a place above the fray. But the most fun players—Vladimir Guerrero, Pablo Sandoval, and Jose Reyes, to name three recent examples—are often those who embrace the possibility of failure, swing when they like it, and trust that their prodigious talent will carry them. Whereas the Pujols-ian player is conservative and entrenched, the free-swinging player is loose and open to new possibilities for success. Both understand the bigger picture of baseball, but one tries to solve the sport while the other revels in its peculiarities.
Hamilton is somehow in both camps, although for very different reasons. His self-promoted and media-sanctioned narrative, built as it is on notions of divine providence and spiritual guidance, makes it seem as if life, of which his profession is obviously a part, can be cured of its ills and made pure. Yet, when Hamilton takes the field, his highlight-reel style casts that black-white worldview as a sham. This aspect of his play frees him of his leaden symbolism. On the field, we can appreciate Hamilton as a great athlete making plays in the moment. The eventual fall might occur, but it’s part of the lived-in reality of his career, not a vague threat that could derail his careful plans at any minute.
When Hamilton plays, he doesn’t transcend or escape his history of addiction—he enacts it. The long baseball season is a daily grind in which the best players fail seven times out of ten and important games are decided by line-drive outs and seeing-eye singles. But that lack of logic can also be inspiring, a chance to accept those moments of random struggle or temporary success for what they are and learn from them. A 2-for-24 slump isn’t a life-altering failure, but a momentary slump in a long season; a hot streak could look far different if his bat speed were a split-second slower. As in addiction, the relapse must be accepted but not forgotten in times of sobriety. The highs and lows are always intertwined, each as present and potential as the other.