Angels fans hope for the Hamilton that dazzles
On the field, the slugger is at times brilliant, but can be equally lost and uncertain
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's probably best to let fans of the Los Angeles Angels experience Josh Hamilton for themselves. Why spoil the ride? They think they know how much fun it's going to be. The thing is, they have no idea.
There will be days that Hamilton makes the game look ridiculously easy. He'll hit moonshot home runs and make sliding catches. He'll gallop headfirst into bases and come up laughing -- a big, gifted kid having the time of his life.
Hamilton's joy is infectious. There was a time when the Texas Rangers cautioned him to be less reckless about banging into walls and throwing himself around the field. But they came to believe that he can't help himself, and they stopped wasting their breath.
To have Josh Hamilton on your team is to have the entire Josh Hamilton, the good Josh and the reckless Josh and all the others. His teammates will run out of nice things to say about him. They will get to the point where they just shake their heads. This happened to the Rangers last season when, for a few weeks, it was Hamilton, and not Miguel Cabrera, who looked like he might win a Triple Crown.
"He's a talent that's beyond the normal realm of comprehension," said Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson, who played with Hamilton for four seasons in Texas and is one of his closest friends. "One of the things people don't know about Josh is that he's a really great teammate. He's fun to be around in the clubhouse. He keeps it really light."
Hamilton's 2012 season had a wild beginning. One night, it was five RBIs in Boston. Another, it was four home runs in Baltimore. On May 16, he was hitting .404.
On May 26, Hamilton showed up so sick he almost didn't play. That day, he seemed to be struggling simply to stay in the game. And in the bottom of the 13th inning, with the Rangers trailing the Blue Jays by a run, he hit the ball over the center-field wall to end it.
"There are times he just makes it look too easy," former teammate Michael Young said. He, too, admitted he'd run out of things to say. He'd long since stopped being surprised by anything Hamilton did.
This is the Josh Hamilton who prompted the Angels to sign him to a five-year, $125 million contract. Here's to seven joyous months of that Josh Hamilton.
There's also another Josh, who does not resemble the Josh that Young and Wilson speak of. This Josh seems to give away at-bats and looks almost disinterested in things. He swings wildly. He occasionally drops fly balls.
This Josh is as bad as that other Josh is good. Even Josh himself has trouble explaining the two Joshs. They come and go, duck in and out. Bad Josh disappears for weeks, then reappears at the worst of times.
These times will be accompanied by eye-rolling quotes about his blue eyes making it tough to play day games, or his blurred vision caused by his battle against smokeless tobacco.
Even this Josh, as much as he may frustrate the people around him, is impossible to dislike. He's just so open with whatever is on his mind. He also never ducks responsibility, never hides, always stands up.
When his dropped fly ball in the final regular-season game of 2012 helped hand the American League West to the Oakland Athletics, Hamilton stood in front of his locker and placed the blame on his own shoulders.
"What do you want me to say, guys?" he asked. "I screwed up."
Hamilton was 2-for-17 with eight strikeouts as the Rangers were swept by the A's, and then lost the AL Wild Card Game to the Orioles. When that game ended, when he'd hit a workman-like .259 after the All-Star break, he seemed to need a change of scenery as much as any player has ever needed one.
Asked about the highs and lows, Hamilton said: "You always want to even it out. In the game you want to be as consistent as possible the whole year, but it's tough. That's why it's a lot harder to stay here. You figure out what to work on as the year goes on and what's working good, but some days you might feel good and do terrible, and some days you might feel terrible and play good. And that's what makes the game fun -- going through those hot and cold streaks, learning how to go through the cold part, figuring out how to make the adjustments to get through it quicker. One thing is just staying focused and really focusing on what needs to be done every day in your preparation. Not saying I didn't do that, but there's always room to improve."
Once the Rangers weighed Hamilton's season from start to finish, they realized that, despite the tough ending, he'd still been productive, hitting 43 home runs and compiling a .930 OPS, eighth best in the AL.
He might have re-signed with the Rangers if the Angels hadn't stepped in with the $125 million offer. Now manager Mike Scioscia talks excitedly about putting Albert Pujols and Hamilton back-to-back in the middle of his lineup.
"We hope [it's] much along the lines of what you saw with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera [in Detroit]," Scioscia said. "Those two guys in the middle of your order fed off each other. We have the potential to do that with Josh and Albert."
Hamilton sat at a news conference with Mike Trout and Pujols on Thursday afternoon and listened as Pujols vividly recalled the first time he'd seen him play -- that coming in a gathering of the country's best players before the 1999 First-Year Player Draft.
"I heard this guy is going to be the No. 1 pick," Pujols said. "I was like, `Yeah, right.' He started taking [batting practice], and I was like, 'Are you serious?'" Then it was Hamilton's turn. When asked if he remembered Pujols from 1999, he smiled and referred to the years of substance abuse that almost derailed his career and his life.
"I don't remember anything, man," Hamilton said. "I took a little different route than Albert did, forgot a few things along the way. But we're here together now."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.