Shooting stars don’t come along very often, nor do they last very long. But one came to the Texas Rangers more than a decade ago.
Josh Hamilton became a part of every Rangers fan’s life for five seasons, beginning in 2008. He won the American League MVP in 2010, helped the Rangers reach the World Series in 2010 and 2011, and launched a career-best 43 homers in 2012.
Hamilton was the most talented player on the best teams in Rangers history.
“I used to tell people in interviews after Josh would have a good game that, with all due respect to the history of baseball, his skill set has to be one of the best in the history of baseball,” former Rangers outfielder David Murphy said.
And in a snap of a finger, Hamilton’s star burned out. Pretty badly.
But he came back, for 50 fleeting games in 2015 and to spring training the next two years without playing a single game because of a balky knee.
Hamilton returned again Saturday night, when he rightly took his spot in the club’s Hall of Fame. Former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene, a driving force behind the construction of Globe Life Park, was also inducted in an on-field ceremony before the Rangers faced the Minnesota Twins.
“I’m not up here doing this and receiving this by myself,” Hamilton said. “Every teammate and every coach I had made me better.”
A five-time All-Star, Hamilton thanked everyone who helped him during his time with the Rangers before recalling his story of drug addiction and alcoholism. He continues to live within an arm’s reach of the Lord, as was evident in his speech, but sobriety still isn’t easy.
Hamilton also, for the first time, made mention of one regret he had along the way: his decision to leave the Rangers for the Los Angeles Angels. That experience has left many to wonder what might have happened had he stayed with the Rangers, rather than taking the money and running away.
“I have,” Hamilton said. “Everyone can come up with a lot of, ‘If I’d made a different decision here or there, or done things differently.’ Texas has always felt like home, so I got back here as quick as I could. I hated that I couldn’t play two or three more years.
“It’s a blessing that I went to the Angels, and, yeah, I’m taking care of my kids. I got paid, but it’s not all about that. I really should have prayed more and harder before I made any kind of decision.”
Shoot, they way he looked, he might have been on the field Saturday in a playing capacity.
His baseball story almost certainly would have had a happier ending had he not left.
“He was a five-tool guy, and when he played for me, I saw all five tools almost every night,” former Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
“We made it comfortable for Josh to play baseball. I think the players had a lot to do with it, the front office had a lot to do with it and the coaching staff had a lot to do with it. We gave Josh everything he needed to perform, and he performed.
Hamilton left the Rangers in December 2012 for a five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels. He joined Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in a lineup that on paper was the envy of baseball.
But Hamilton never produced at the same level that he did with the Rangers, finishing both of his Angels seasons with OPS percentages below what is considered average for a full season (.750).
Rather than wrap their arms around Hamilton and gain a full understanding of his quirks and demons, the Angels treated him as they did any other player. The Rangers learned they couldn’t do that to get the best out of Hamilton.
Did he get preferential treatment, beyond the assignment of an accountability partner?
“Probably,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “Different people require different things from support and trying to be a little flexible in how you manage it. Josh definitely did.”
Were players up in arms about it?
“I don’t think so,” Murphy said.
They knew Hamilton and understood that a happy Josh was a productive Josh.
“There is a sensitivity to it because you see how amazing the talent is, and when you’re building a team and you see talent out there that can win you a World Series,” Murphy said.
Hamilton didn’t run amok of team rules, and Murphy considers Hamilton a very good teammate. Daniels goes by the mantra of former farm director Scott Servais, now the Seattle Mariners’ manager.
A team has an obligation to treat every player fairly, not necessarily equally.
“When he left us and went to Anaheim, his care was totally different, and that did it to him,” Washington said. “You can’t treat Josh Hamilton like one of the 25.”
So, why did Hamilton leave? The money the Angels offered in a take-it-or-leave deal was hard to refuse, but there might have been more to it.
He said after signing with the Angels that the Rangers didn’t pursue him hard enough, almost like they wanted him to meet with other teams. His ex-wife, Katie, infamously said that the Rangers “didn’t put a ring on it.”
One theory is that he didn’t like that he had fallen out of favor with Rangers fans after a dismal July, the missed flyball in Game 162 at Oakland, and with his 0-for-4 performance in the wild-card loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
He rebounded in August and September with an OPS over .900 in each month, but he became the poster boy for the Rangers’ fall from a third straight AL West crown to a one-game playoff exit.
Hamilton still hit 43 home runs and drove in 128 runs that season.
He combined to hit 31 homers with 123 RBIs in his two seasons with the Angels.
“I felt at the time and still feel to this day that we were the right team for him and he was the right player for us,” Daniels said. “The Angels offered a lot more money than we were offering, but I genuinely believe if he had stayed here, he would have been more productive than he was in Anaheim.”
The Rangers didn’t win another division title until 2015, when the Angels traded Hamilton to the Rangers for next to nothing, eating the remaining millions on his contract, after he suffered another relapse while rehabbing from shoulder surgery.
They fell just short of the postseason in 2013, losing a play-in game to the Tampa Bay Rays, and suffered through an injury-wrecked 2014 season. Hamilton wouldn’t have saved 2014, but 2013?
“Oh my God,” Andrus said. “When you have someone like him, he’s a game-changer. He can carry a team. When you got to the postseason, you need those guys. He did it for us in 2010. When you losing a superstar, it’s always going to hurt. He was made to play here.
“I know he got paid and he had a decision to make with his family, and I hoped everything was good. But in LA, where they talked so bad against him, I was like, ‘Why did he go there?’ At least he got to a chance come back and finish playing here.”
The shooting star appeared again Saturday.
“I made a decision I wanted to make for my family at the time,” Hamilton said. “It didn’t work out, but I was able to come back home.”