Josh Hamilton has been reminded time and again that he is a symbol of hope to the people who have traveled addiction's awful, lonely road. Hundreds of times, people have approached him, sometimes shyly, sometimes with tears in their eyes, and handed him a scrap of paper to sign.
Professional athletes get this kind of thing all the time. They have the routine down: nod, scribble their autograph, move on. Only with Hamilton, it's different. He gets the kids that they all get, the enthusiastic ones with the laughter and the screams.
In almost all these scrums, though, Hamilton has learned to pick out other faces. They are the faces of spouses and fathers, of best friends and neighbors and coworkers. They ask for his autograph, only it's not the autograph they really want.
Rather, they want to tell him their story, or someone else's story. They want to tell him that they understand his lonely fight, that that they appreciate how far he has come. They want to tell him that he has inspired someone they care about.
His story of personal renaissance is almost beyond belief. His isn't a baseball story, not really, though he has done amazing things on the diamond, hitting moonshot home runs effortlessly, other times flying around the bases, all 6-foot-4, 240 pounds of him.
His performance in the 2008 Home Run Derby was one of the most jaw-dropping spectacles of all-time as he launched one long, towering shot after another, making it look easy, most of all making it look fun. In moments like that one, he fulfilled all the hopes the Tampa Ray Devil Rays had for him when they made him the first pick of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft. He had franchise-changing talent, and the Rays hoped to build the whole thing around him, not just his talent, but his country-boy warmth and smile and all the rest.
Soon after, his story became about something else. Drugs and alcohol ravaged his body and his spirit so brutally that he wasn't recognizable to people who'd known him his entire life. Somehow, he got through it. Again, this isn't about baseball. He found hope and he found a way out. How he did we'll never really know. For this, most of all, is a fight that must be waged alone, a war that never will be won. He's a reminder that addiction's demons lurk forever. One day at a time is a life lesson.
A step back
Now there are reports that Hamilton has had a slip and that he has confessed to Major League Baseball. This has been a hellish two seasons for him with the Angels, at least from a baseball standpoint. He has been a shadow of the player he'd been during five seasons with the Texas Rangers in which he went to the All-Star Game every year and was the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player. His 2010 season --.359 batting average, 32 home runs -- is one of the great offensive seasons in recent memory.
Because he got big money from the Angels after the 2012 season and because big money means big expectations, he surely has felt the pressure to perform. Again, though, this isn't about baseball.
Hamilton has reminded us of this through the years. When he's asked about being in a baseball slump, he has always smiled and nodded and attempted to make the world understand that his real fight is elsewhere, that baseball simply has given him a bigger stage for the same things millions deal with every single day.
He will again receive support and encouragement from baseball, from the Angels and from countless people around the world. This fight comes at a different point in his life. He's 33 years old now and has an arthritic shoulder that may never allow him to be the player he once was.
He's sidelined indefinitely after undergoing surgery, and that's another part of this story. He will tell you that he loves the structure of a season, that it's the offseason when he has free time when the temptation is greatest. He's distant by nature, as if he can never really drop his guard, never really trust himself with others.
Baseball teams live together for at least seven months a year. Players travel together, eat together, laugh together. But Hamilton is seen on the road dining with his supervisor while a group of teammates are a few feet away. If alcohol is being consumed, he can't be part of the group.
When the Rangers celebrated a division championship one year, they did so with ginger ale instead of champagne out of deference to Hamilton. For large portions of his career, he was accompanied to and from the ballpark and was allowed to carry only a small amount of money.
A good heart
People who know Josh Hamilton like him. They like him enormously. There's a decency to him, a spirit that is impossible to dislike. He has been so open about his struggle that he has contributed to everyone's understanding of it.
He has a good heart, which was celebrated in a piece I wrote for MLB.com in 2012.
For instance, there's the story of Hamilton's relationship with Ashley Pittman, a former high school classmate in Raleigh, N.C., who has Down Syndrome.
"In the core of his soul, Josh is a good human being," said Pirates scout Jax Robertson, who has known Hamilton for more than 20 years.
Robertson first met Josh when his own son, Matt, was one of Hamilton's teammates on various youth baseball teams around Raleigh. When people ask about Hamilton, he tells them about Ashley.
"It's a tough way to grow up, and you know how kids are," Robertson said in 2012. "They can be cruel. Josh took this kid under his wing and went out of his way to make sure Ashley was treated kindly."
Scouts began tracking Hamilton in his early teen years, and by the time he arrived at Athens Drive High School, he was becoming something of a legendary figure. He was also physically imposing, and if he told the others to stop picking on someone, they stopped picking on him.
"I remember him spending time with Ashley on and off the baseball field," Robertson said. "He made him the manager of the baseball team and took him places and made him special. To me, it's a thing that's true to Josh's heart. He cares about people and wants to make a positive impact on anyone he comes in contact with."
Nothing Hamilton has ever done since has made a deeper impression on Robertson than the friendship with Ashley Pittman. Through the years of battling addiction, of having his baseball career interrupted for three years, Hamilton had people like Jax Robertson rooting for him and telling others Josh was the kind of person worth rooting for.
"Obviously, he has been through some tough times," Robertson said. "But I've known him since he was 14 years old and spent a lot of time with him. He's truly a sincere kid. Addictions are a really tough thing. I don't get it. Not many of us understand the place he was at.
"The fact that he has come through it and is willing to use it as a tool to get to people, that's the sincere person that he is. He's willing to throw himself out there. Don't we all have weaknesses, and a lot of 'em? I know that I do. Josh is trying to make a difference."
Asked in 2012 why he'd befriended him in the first place, Hamilton shrugged.
"He loved being a part of the team," he said. "I just remember being on the bus one time at spring break. We'd lost the championship game of a tournament, and he was on there by himself crying. He was thinking he was why we'd lost the game. For him, to feel like he was part of it, like one of the guys, it meant the world to him. You never know who you're going to affect by loving on them. I don't know, man. You've just got to be good to people."
Once after hitting a home run on a day when he was suffering from flu-like symptoms, Hamilton was asked how he got through it. He credited a Higher Power.
"You know," he said. "Same old, same old. Thank you, Lord."
He's a man of enormous physical gifts and appears to have put every fiber of his being into staying sober. His teammates will tell you he has a good heart. He has waged a relentless fight against addiction. Here's hoping for more victories, more good days.
Richard Justice is a Sports on Earth contributor who joined MLB.com as an executive correspondent in 2011. He has covered Major League Baseball for more than three decades and offers his insight on MLB.com.