Cleaned-Up Hitter

Despite a devastating drug habit, Josh Hamilton wouldn’t be denied his destiny

Josh Hamilton snorted cocaine almost every day for nearly a year, and the drugs were beginning to take their toll on his body. Others could see how his once sculpted, athletic, 220-pound physique was shedding a significant amount of muscle. The other damage caused by the drug use was not as obvious.

“I would sit in the room with a T-shirt in my hands, blowing 6- to 8-inch-long strings of tissue out of my nose and into the shirt,” Hamilton wrote in his autobiography, Beyond Belief. “I could feel them hanging loose behind the bridge of my nose, and I would blow and blow until they came out. The T-shirts were covered in blood and the meaty flesh of my sinuses.”

This wasn’t the path Hamilton’s life was expected to travel. From the time he was 7 years old, the prodigious talent was destined to become a major league baseball player. That expectation became a reality in 1999 when Hamilton was drafted No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He quickly signed a record $3.96 million contract out of high school.

Hamilton grew up in rural North Carolina, in a tight-knit family. So when it was time for the 19-year-old to leave his small, rural, Mayberry-like North Carolina community and embark on his new career, his parents thought nothing of selling their home and accompanying their son to help with the transition. They followed Hamilton during his first two minor league seasons, renting a place nearby and traveling to the ballpark every day for practice or a game — both at home and on the road.

But this unusual situation was looked upon with a wary eye by those in baseball, and during his third pro season, it was finally time for Hamilton to go out on his own. Without his parents by his side, Hamilton lacked a support system for the first time and grew lonely. He acted out. First, by getting six tattoos, then some more. Eventually, he ended up with 26. Hamilton didn’t even want that many tattoos, but killing time at the parlor provided an artificial distraction from his loneliness and the mounting frustration caused by the numerous injuries he suffered during his first two pro seasons.

Hamilton desperately sought acceptance and companionship and gradually grew closer to two men who worked at the tattoo parlor. One night, they invited Hamilton to go out with them. These weren’t the type of people he would normally associate with, but Hamilton believed he needed to accept the offer. There was no way of knowing at the time, but this one lapse in judgment was the first step toward a four-year period of alcohol and drug abuse that would nearly destroy his life.

That night, Hamilton got drunk for the first time. Not long after, the men introduced Hamilton to cocaine. He used often — almost every day and for a long time. This behavior was unexpected from the potential superstar, who had once skipped his senior prom out of fear of getting into a bad situation and thereby ruining his standing as a top draft prospect.

Hamilton continued his drug abuse, which led to numerous failed drug tests and five suspensions from baseball. The final one cost him a full year of his career when he was only 24 years old. Hamilton bounced in and out of rehab eight times, sometimes going a few months without using, only to relapse again.

At his worst, Hamilton pawned his wife’s ring as collateral to his drug dealer so he could get a fix after she had blocked him from accessing his dwindling bank account. She eventually got her ring back, but only after it was bought back from the dealer.

During another low point, two DEA agents knocked on Hamilton’s door and explained that they had watched him for quite a while and knew of his drug use. They wanted to use him as a conduit to his drug dealer, who, in turn would lead them to a bigger fish. Hamilton had to oblige, or go to jail. Rattled, he resumed his normal routine, but the next two times he returned to the drug dealer’s house, he wore a wire. 

The experience still didn’t scare him straight. One night, during a bender, he met two strangers, hoping they could help him get his next fix. They told him to forget cocaine and said they had something better. They introduced him to crack.

Hamilton loved the rush. He wanted to experience it over and over. During the next six weeks, he burned though nearly $100,000 on drugs. Crack was his new best friend.

“I dove in headfirst,” Hamilton recalled.

“I smoked crack like it could save the world. From the moment the high wore off, I was searching for it again. The low was indescribable. I woke up in the cab of my pickup, or in places I didn’t recognize, with people I didn’t know, and I’d pray to be taken away from the nightmare my life had become.”

Hamilton would do anything to feed the beast. He pawned off his minor league championship ring. Another time, his wife caught him unscrewing a TV from the wall.

The drug use destroyed all of his relationships. His parents failed at numerous attempts to help him and became unwilling observers to his decline. His wife kicked him out of the house, isolating him from her and their two young daughters. With nowhere else to go, Hamilton turned to the only person left in his life: he moved in with his grandmother.

Despite his desperate situation, Hamilton continued to abuse drugs right up until judgment day finally arrived: After yet another night of using, Hamilton was confronted by his grandmother, who told him that if he was going to keep doing drugs, she was kicking him out.

Faced with the reality of destroying his cherished relationship with his grandmother — the same woman he kissed on the cheek before every baseball game — Hamilton was jarred into a moment of clarity, and he reflected on all the losses brought about by his drug use. For the first time, he resolved to get better for himself and his family, instead of using recovery as a vehicle to resume his baseball career.

Hamilton surrendered himself to his grandmother, who, with tough love, helped him get through those difficult first few weeks of recovery. He also reaffirmed his faith.

After more than a year of sobriety, Hamilton was reinstated to baseball and established himself as the star he was destined to become since he was a young boy. The pinnacle of his comeback came on a grand stage during the 2008 MLB All-Star Game Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, when he put forth a record-setting performance. During his nearly 30-minute power display, his story was told in great detail, earning him the respect of thousands of fans nationwide.

For many, that is where Hamilton’s story ended, as his struggles and initial recovery battles were well told in his biography and by the media. The story lesser told is that of his continued daily struggle to remain sober, including his one fall off the wagon in 2009, when photos of his wild night out in a Scottsdale, Ariz., bar made their way onto the Internet.

“I thought I could have one drink, and one turned into 20,” Hamilton recalls.

Remaining sober has required Hamilton to make numerous changes in his life to ensure he maintains the faith he restored with this second chance, along with his standing as one of the best in the game. He no longer listens to rap music, which he says he used to listen to all the time, and has even changed the TV shows he watches. “I believe what you put in your mind is what you think about,” he says. “Basically, I changed every aspect of how I lived my life.”

He and his wife are also selective about the people they associate with — none of their current friends are their age, as they’ve elected instead to surround themselves with people who are older and wiser.

Avoiding or denying temptation is the key to maintaining sobriety, and there are many temptations when living the life of a Major League Baseball player. Hamilton has implemented numerous safeguards to minimize the risk of facing those temptations. When he travels with his team, Hamilton has a list of things he needs to have to help him maintain his sobriety.

“When we are on the road, I get meal money of about $1,000 a week,” Hamilton says.

“I don’t need to carry one thousand bucks in my pocket, because that could lead to temptation and me doing something I shouldn’t be doing, so I have someone hold it for me. If I need something, I’ll go get it. I don’t carry credit cards. I don’t carry cash, period. Once in a while, I’ll have 20 bucks and that is to get gas. But if I don’t have 20 bucks, I’ll call my wife and she’ll meet me at the gas station. Some people laugh, but that is what works.”

While on the road, one of the coaches serves as Hamilton’s accountability partner and is always assigned the adjoining hotel room, that way he’s close by if Hamilton needs to talk. Also, Hamilton always calls the hotel’s front desk beforehand and asks them to cut off access to the adult films on the TV in his room.

“It is important to have those people around and important to separate yourself from the places and things that would be tempting,” Hamilton says. “As we found out in 2009, when you take the safeguards out of place, it is very easy to fall back into what you used to do.

Hamilton faced an especially difficult challenge on July 7. During a game, he tossed a foul ball into the stands to a fan, who lost his balance while trying to catch the ball and tumbled headfirst over a railing. The fan fell 20 feet to his death in front of his 6-year-old son and the other spectators. Hamilton was distraught by the event, and his father-in-law flew out from North Carolina to be by his side. These are the unexpected events that can easily lead a man back into his bad habits. For Hamilton, the experience was a test to his commitment to maintain his sobriety — one which, by all accounts, he passed.

 “It was just hard for me, hearing the little boy screaming for his daddy after he had fallen — and then being home with my kids, it really hit home,” Hamilton says of his feelings the day after the accident occurred.

Despite his challenges, Hamilton has maintained his status as one of the top players in baseball, even winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award last season. In addition to having talent that is rivaled by few peers, he is also among the most popular players in the game. A recent report stated he was the second most marketable player in baseball.

This turnaround is remarkable, considering that just four years ago, Hamilton smoked crack, was on the verge of divorce and burned through most of his fortune. However, life is about second chances. And Hamilton is proof that life isn’t about the mistakes you make, it’s about what you do to correct them.