April 4, 2013

Josh Hamilton: 'I don’t care what people think'

Hamilton helped turn the Rangers into a World Series contender, but returns as a member of the division-rival Angels.

There’s no easy place to start when it comes to Josh Hamilton.

A former No. 1 overall pick, he was out of baseball for drug and alcohol addiction before becoming a superstar with the Texas Rangers. He’s a polarizing figure in the game with his mammoth home runs and his mission to spread his faith.

Hamilton’s career blossomed when the Texas Rangers acquired him in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds five years ago. He became an instant fan favorite with his record-setting long balls, MVP-caliber seasons and, of course, helping turn a dormant franchise into a World Series contender.

But how quickly things can change.

Hamilton has gone from beloved to despised, admired to mocked. He had head-scratching meltdowns in critical moments late last season, then signed with a division rival and capped it off this spring when he said Dallas/Fort Worth isn’t a baseball town.

It all comes together Friday. Hamilton returns to Rangers Ballpark for the first time as an opposing player when the Rangers host the Los Angeles Angels in the home opener.

“The people who really get it and understand what I gave, and I gave 100 percent out there every day, are going to clap,” Hamilton said. “The other people who are bandwagon, fair-weather fans, they are going to boo.

“I learned a huge lesson last year when I got booed for the first time. I had two RBIs and I was like, ‘All right. I get it.’ It doesn’t matter. It’s never enough. It’s just like signing autographs. I can sign for two hours and then if I leave before everybody is signed, it’s like ‘C’mon man. One more.’ It’s never enough.

“So I’m not going to kill myself worrying about everybody’s feelings. But I do love people and I do what I can and treat them the best I can.”

Lasting image

Hamilton could have been remembered as an October legend. He hit the go-ahead, extra-inning two-run homer in what could have been the deciding World Series game in 2011, but the Rangers didn’t close it out.

That is the furthest thing from fans’ minds now, though. The freshest memory is seeing Hamilton as the centerpiece of the Rangers’ late-season collapse last year.

Hamilton batted .245 the final month of the season, missed five games in late September with an eye condition caused by too much caffeine consumption and dropped a routine fly ball in the regular-season finale at Oakland that determined the AL West championship.

Hamilton followed that up by going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, seeing a total of eight pitches, in the Rangers’ loss to the Orioles in the one-game wild card.

So, what happened in the final weeks of the season? Some people have questioned Hamilton’s effort level and the legitimacy of the eye condition.

What does he make of it all?

Hamilton pauses for a few seconds and then flashes that ever-familiar grin — the one that comes across his face whenever he knows an answer will rub a few people the wrong way. It’s the same one he had last spring training when he said, “I don’t feel like I owe the Rangers.”

“I don’t care what people think that should be the headline,” Hamilton said. “Honestly, I got a wife and four girls at home. I can’t worry about what people tweet and Facebook. It’s sports. I’ve just got to focus on me, my family, my relationship with the Lord. He’s the only one who is going to be my judge.

“I’ve always been a straight-shooter and totally honest with people. If that hurts people’s feelings, I’m sorry. The truth hurts sometimes.

“It doesn’t matter what is written, it doesn’t matter what I say. People are going to think what they want to think no matter what information they get.

“If I was still there, they wouldn’t be remembering that. It is what it is, man.”

One of the more memorable final images of Hamilton in a Rangers uniform came near the end of his lackluster performance in the wild card game. Hamilton struck out to end the eighth inning and, by that point, the boo-birds nestled inside Rangers Ballpark were in full force.

That’s when second baseman Ian Kinsler walked over and threw his arm around Hamilton.

“The guy was getting booed at the moment and I felt like he needed to be embraced,” Kinsler said. “He was having a tough night in an important game. He was my teammate. That was really it. Nothing more than that.”

That isn’t how most people thought it would have ended last season for Hamilton, who was the AL player of the month in April and May and had a historic four-homer game on May 8 in Baltimore.

And it’s a stark difference from the hero treatment he would have received if Game 6 of the 2011 World Series had ended differently. Even the opposing players knew Hamilton was on the cusp of history when he swatted the extra-inning shot.

“At the time, I was like, ‘This is going to be a Hollywood-type script if he ends up hitting the home run that wins the World Series for the Rangers after all that he’s been through,’” said Lance Berkman, who played for the Cardinals that season.

“Certainly things like that do cross your mind even as an opposing player.”

Moving on

You won’t hear Hamilton say a bad word about the Rangers’ organization. He liked everyone, from the front-office staff to the players to the fans. They supported him through it all, from two public relapses with alcohol to the tragedy of Shannon Stone, the dad who died after falling 20 feet trying to catch a baseball from Hamilton.

Hamilton appreciated everything the organization and community did for him and his family, and he intends to call Tarrant County home for the future.

But, when it came down to negotiations this off-season, Hamilton seemed a bit turned off by the Rangers’ “unique” proposal. The Rangers’ offer included only three guaranteed years with the possibility of a six-year pact through incentives.

The Angels swooped in and wooed Hamilton away with a five-year, $125 million deal. The deal made Hamilton the highest-paid outfielder in the game with a $25 million average annual value.

“We were looking for him to share some of the risk in the deal, given some of the unique circumstances involved,” said Jon Daniels, the Rangers’ president of baseball operations and general manager. “They weren’t willing to do so unless the market dictated that, so we agreed to let the market develop and we’d talk once they had an idea of where it was heading.

“We further outlined what we wanted to do at the winter meetings. But the Angels made an aggressive offer and Josh accepted. I don’t blame him for that — he got a great deal from a very good club. We went to the high end of what we were comfortable doing.”

Said Hamilton: “I didn’t set out and say, ‘I’m going to sign with the Angels to really stick it to the Rangers.’ That never crossed my mind. I was as shocked as everybody else when I got the answer [from God]. Trust me. I was like, ‘Really? California?’ So it is what it is. Business is business when it comes down to it.”

Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto felt his organization made the right pitch to Hamilton during the winter meetings. DiPoto got the sense that Hamilton’s heart was still in Texas at the time, but that other opportunities could intrigue Hamilton and his family.

“I think we hit the right chord,” DiPoto said. “We were in a unique situation as a team that has a chance to be very competitive in a market that was really attractive to Josh. It was a pretty good fit. I think everybody felt comfortable with it and the rest is history.”

Hamilton has acclimated himself quickly to his new surroundings. He strolled into the Angels’ spring training facility in Tempe, Ariz., on a Wednesday morning in March and gave a few first-bumps to his new teammates by his locker.

He changed into his Angels workout gear and eventually went to the batting cage with his accountability partner, Shayne Kelley, who worked with the Rangers last season.

Hamilton appears to be fit, in great shape and still launches 450-foot homers in batting practice with the same ease he did the last half-decade with the Rangers.

He’s ready for a new chapter in his life to begin and to go through what he calls the “reunion tour” — the Angels’ first two road trips are to his previous big-league stops, Cincinnati and Arlington.

“Let’s knock it out, get it out of the way and get after it,” Hamilton said.

The Reds’ faithful gave him a rousing ovation on Monday. All signs point to Texas being on the opposite end of the spectrum, but we’ll find out Friday.

Rangers on Josh Hamilton

Jon Daniels: “Josh performed at a very high level for us for five years, played a huge role in turning this club around and made a big connection with the fans. He was arguably the best player on the team and in the league. In a couple of years, no one will focus on that [dropped fly ball and how 2012 ended]. They’ll remember the playoffs, the All-Star Games, the Home Run Derby, the great catches, the power.”

Colby Lewis: “I hope there’s more cheers than boos for him. He did a lot for this ballclub when he was here. I hope the fans see that more than they see him leaving and putting on an Angels uniform.”

Nelson Cruz: “I remember how great he was with us as a person and as a teammate. He helped me when I needed help, especially the first year I came here. He helped me go through the process, and, of course, every other year he was there whenever I needed him. I cannot blame him for leaving, because it’s a business.”

David Murphy: “He was the face, or one of the faces, of the franchise in his time here. He was part of arguably the best teams in Texas Rangers history and he’s just a special player. Obviously an amazing talent.”

Matt Harrison: “You can’t replace a guy like him with one guy. That sums up what he was able to do with his bat in the middle of the lineup. It’s very rare you see a guy who can put up those kinds of numbers. What he did for five years here, I don’t think you’ll see another guy do it. It’s unfortunate with how it worked out, because the last game of the season is fresh in people’s minds.”

Derek Holland: “He’s one of those guys who could definitely carry a team by himself. He was unbelievable, making great plays out there defensively and offensively. He was kind of a quiet guy in the clubhouse, but he definitely wanted to win and had the fight in him.”

Lance Berkman: “Josh is tremendously talented and he’s a guy that has as much or more power than anybody maybe in the history of the game. So it would be foolhardy for me to try to play that kind of a game. I’ve just got to do what I can do.”

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