Opinion: The new face of baseball

Published 11:20 pm Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Most of the chatter heading into Monday night’s home run derby focused on who was not in the annual long ball showdown. Many voiced their displeasure with Alex Rodriguez for declining to wave the New York banner in the final all-star hoorah of Yankee Stadium. But what no one could understand at the time was that the absence of household names provided the perfect setting for the next step in the emergence of the new face of baseball.

It was a field that included an aptly named sophomore sensation, Ryan Braun, a still anonymous MVP, Justin Morneau, a rookie with a name as glamorous as his game, Evan Longoria, and the league’s two best-hitting second baseman at a position notorious for its lack of offense, Chase Utley and Dan Uggla. The closest thing the draw boasted to a marquee name was that of Houston’s Lance Berkman. So surely there was very little reason to tune into baseball’s blast off.

To have made the mistake of believing such was to have missed one of the most astounding exhibitions the grand old game has offered in quite some time.

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The superstar void meant that baseball’s most prominent stage needed a leading man, even if just for one night. That charge was one Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton took with great ferocity, ripping 28 shots into the seats beyond the outfield wall during the first round. Included among those were drives the likes of which Yankee Stadium has scarcely seen even over its storied past.

Hamilton’s first round tally, which featured a string of 13 consecutive home runs at one point, set a new single-round record, surpassing the next best round by four dingers. For those scoring at home, Bobby Abreu launched 24 home runs in a single round during his derby appearance.

It should be noted that Hamilton’s night, while remarkable, didn’t end with him hoisting the derby’s trophy. No. Life doesn’t usually work that way. Were Hamilton to have overcome Morneau in the finals, it would have left a neat little bow on the evening. Such symmetrical endings, while desirable for audiences, have little place in Hamilton’s life.

In 1999, faced with the choice of drafting Hamilton, a can’t-miss kid from Athens Drive High in Raleigh, N.C. or Josh Beckett, a cocky fire-baller from Texas, Tampa Bay chose the five-tool outfielder.

Beckett’s story is well known. He has thus far anchored two World Series runs in his still young career. He is one of the most dominant starters in the game. He led the Marlins to a championship and then landed them All-World shortstop Hanley Ramirez on his way out of town.

Hamilton, on the other hand, seemed destined for obscurity. Following his selection, the previously clean-cut, All-American boy went down a path no one saw coming. He danced with addiction. He became so mired in his need for narcotics that his once bright baseball future seemed to have gone the way of so many other wasted potential stories.

At least, that’s what Tampa Bay thought. The then Devil Rays needed closure. They wagered a great deal of their future on Hamilton, only to have him face suspension after suspension for substance abuse. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, Josh Hamilton’s career was over before it began.

Only, Hamilton didn’t get that memo. He refused to acknowledge the neat little bow that the baseball community had put on his career. Instead, he worked. And, eventually, rehab, faith and a newly discovered resolve to overcome put the bat back in his hand.

However, it wasn’t until the Cincinnati Reds took a flier on him in last year’s Rule 5 Draft that Hamilton’s second chance came to fruition.

And it wasn’t until Monday’s Home Run Derby that the outlying areas of the baseball community took notice. Hamilton gripped the bat firmly, yet gently as if it were a physical manifestation of his last chance. He stroked ball after ball deep into the New York night as he moved a sea of thousands to chant his name. There, on the hallowed Bronx ground where Mantle, Ruth, Dimaggio, Gehrig and Berra authored their legends, Hamilton added the perfect combination of pen strokes to his own story.

Immediately following, he sat in the clubhouse as reporters asked him about his past, his addiction, his mistakes. And, in a showing as remarkable as his on-field performance just minutes earlier, he shied away from no inquiry. It was not shame that provided the musical accompaniment to his words. Rather, it was acceptance. Hamilton clearly understands and is at peace with where he has been. Moreover, he knows that best way to never return is to face up to every little mistake. It is that blatant and unabashed sincerity that makes Hamilton easy to love.

So, on a night where none of the game’s biggest names felt the need to put on a show on its biggest platform, baseball’s next generation emerged. And, fittingly, it is headlined by Josh Hamilton, a man whose own story so neatly parallels with that of the game which he loves.

See, baseball is still in the shadow of the steroid era. It is an unpleasant story of addiction and broken trust that will not soon fade from the public’s conscious. But the conversations about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the Mitchell Report have largely been replaced by conversations about a surprisingly good Tampa Bay squad and, now, a once-fallen star that has valiantly lit the path to redemption.

So while his Monday night triumph didn’t end as nice and tidy as fans may like, Josh Hamilton is the perfect person to help baseball put a neat little bow on its own darkest chapter.