Josh Hamilton turns 36 years old today. It makes us wonder what could have been for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Selected with the first overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 1999, Josh Hamilton was expected to be the first real home grown star in franchise history. A power hitting outfielder in high school, he set a school record with 15 homers and 35 RBI in just 25 games. Hamilton had solid speed as well, and appeared as though he would be that five tool talent the Rays could build around.
Hamilton immediately grabbed the attention of the minor league prognosticators. He was ranked as a top prospect for four consecutive years, even being ranked the best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2001 season. However, Hamilton only got into 27 games that year, having been injured in a car accident. During that downtime, Hamilton began experimenting with drugs and alcohol, ending with his first attempt at rehab.
Those issues would follow Hamilton throughout his minor league career. The Rays sent him to the Betty Ford clinic for drug rehab. He failed a drug test at the start of the 2003 season, and after several other failed tests, was out of baseball for three years. Even his comeback in 2006 was marred by problems, as he was placed on the restricted list by the Rays and suspended for the remainder of the season by MLB for smashing the windshield of a friend’s truck and another relapse.
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Understandably, the Rays left Hamilton available for the Rule V Draft that offseason, where he was selected by the Chicago Cubs, and traded to the Reds. He impressed during his first major league season, hitting 19 homers and producing a .292/.368/.554 batting line in 90 games. However, after the season, he was traded to the Texas Rangers for Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera.
It was with the Rangers that Hamilton became a star. He made the All Star team in each of his five seasons in Texas, and won three Silver Slugger awards. In 2010, Hamilton had his best season, leading the American League with a .359 batting average and a .633 slugging percentage. All told, in those five seasons, Hamilton had a .305/.363/.549 batting line, hitting 142 homers and driving in 506 runs.
That production led to a five year, $125 Million contract from the Angels, which quickly turned out to be a mistake. He was not healthy during the majority of that time, and had relapses with substance abuse again. He was traded back to Texas, where he had found the support he needed, but once again dealt with injuries. His knees had given out on him by this point, and he was released by the Rangers on April 21 of this season.
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That production certainly makes one wonder what could have been. Hamilton had flashed that potential during his time in the minors, but those injuries and drug problems derailed what could have been a great career. If not for that fateful car accident, and his getting involved in drugs and alcohol while hanging out at a tattoo parlor during his recovery, Hamilton could have been a true star for the Rays.
Instead, he served as a cautionary tale. Hamilton’s struggles with substance abuse, and his three years out of the game because of those issues, illustrated how far the mighty could fall. He was an example for the younger players, someone that they could speak with and see before their eyes as he struggled with sobriety.
Could Hamilton have become a star with the Rays? It is certainly possible, even after his personal demons. However, it took until he got to Texas for Hamilton to find the peace of mind that he needed. Perhaps that pressure of being the first overall pick, and the expected savior of a franchise, was simply too great.
Today, Josh Hamilton turns 36 years old. On his birthday, it makes us wonder what could have been for the Tampa Bay Rays.