Hamilton’s relapse gives us pause

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The best thing that could have happened to Josh Hamilton(notes) was the indignity of seeing himself lick whipped cream off a pair of fake breasts that didn’t belong to his wife.

Only now can he fully understand what his sobriety means to people. Not just his bride, Katie, and his children, and his Texas Rangers teammates. Hamilton is the most famous junkie in sports today, his story of crack addiction and revival an inspiration. His relapse, brought to light in a dozen embarrassing photos posted Saturday morning on Deadspin, reinforced the damage from that January day he got blackout drunk at a bar in Tempe, Ariz.: Addiction is a twisted creature, and no matter how long one stays sober, it’s never long enough.

Photo Texas’ Josh Hamilton spoke candidly Saturday about his relapse earlier this year. “If I forget what saved me the first time, I’ll be right back where I was, and I can’t do that,” he said. Listen to more of Hamilton’s comments
(Chris Carlson/AP Photo)

For Hamilton, it lasted three years, three months. He said he resisted every nip, toke and snort until he no longer could. Given Hamilton’s very public – and publicized – battle with substances, a relapse came as little surprise. There was no moratorium on talking about drugs and alcohol, in a book and TV interviews and magazine pieces, even if keeping those pieces of his identity alive were constant reminders of his weaknesses. He wanted to show others that the vagaries of addiction were bigger than him.

And that January day was too big. One drink spilled into another and cascaded into a flood of booze, and by the end of the night, Hamilton might have asked to go to a strip club and do drugs. He’s not sure, the photographs of him shirtless and stupid not jogging that morsel of his memory.

All of this was fascinating and raw, a man of enormous talent and crystalline fragility confronted with his worst nightmare and willing to offer the truth, or at least the version he remembers. Hamilton stood tall and spoke resolutely. He fell off the wagon and needed a hand back up.

“I don’t feel like I’m a hypocrite,” Hamilton said. “I feel like I’m human.”

With that came the rainbow of emotions that accompany such a shared debasing: embarrassment, shame, failure, sadness, disappointment, fear. Slowly, his teammates diverted their eyes from “Jackass: The Movie” on the televisions above and surrounded him – Ian Kinsler(notes) to his right, Michael Young(notes) to his left, Nelson Cruz(notes) right in front. If they couldn’t protect him from himself, they would encircle him in a theoretical cocoon.

Nobody, in truth, can safeguard Hamilton but Hamilton. The Rangers hired Johnny Narron specifically to babysit him. The day after Hamilton’s relapse, Narron called Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. Narron’s voice trembled.

“I need to talk with you about Josh,” he said.

In the previous weeks, Hamilton, so focused on his preseason conditioning at Athletes’ Performance training facility in Tempe, scuttled his routine. He said God helped him stay sober, and when he cut out Bible study and prayer in favor of longer workouts, the devil pounced.

“Satan, honestly, can get in there and say, ‘Why not one?’ ” Hamilton said. “And obviously, one leads to a lot more than that. …

“Some people it just don’t mix with, and I’m one of those people.”

Temptation wags its tongue at professional athletes daily, and Hamilton had somehow avoided it from his first sober days with the team that picked him No. 1 overall in the 1999 draft, Tampa Bay, and then during his comeback with Cincinnati and his breakout season in Texas last year. People wanted to take a shot or do a line with him after he put on the greatest performance in Home Run Derby history at the 2008 All-Star game, and he managed to say no. Sobriety means seeing friends drink, family drink, anyone drink, and knowing for the rest of your life it’s not an option, no matter the temptation.

“I can honestly say, since that night, I have not even had a thought of trying another one,” Hamilton said.

He will again. Every addict does. There is no such thing as recovery for Hamilton. He lives with his disease and fights it and hopes he can win and knows that the odds are against him, because one day with liquor or powder or rock brings him back to an uncomfortable reality: starting over.

Others do their best to help. Narron’s responsibilities were ramped up. He traveled with Hamilton to his minor league rehabilitation following abdominal surgery. Major League Baseball still drug tests Hamilton every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 52 weeks a year, and that’s the only way he knew he hadn’t done cocaine that night in January: a positive test didn’t register.

“I’m not naïve, nor is the organization,” Daniels said. “We understand, as we always have, the risks associated with someone that deals with substance abuse. He’s also very much a part of our community, team, organization. We’re going to help him get through this.”

Daniels can do only so much. Hamilton is a grown man who owns his consequences. And maybe, Hamilton said, this wasn’t such a bad thing. Relapsing is part of addiction. It’s not the end of the world. Even 6-foot-4, 240-pound Supermen aren’t immune, nor was the relapse a gateway back to the world in which a crack-addled Hamilton walked down a busy road begging for a car to waylay him or knocked on his grandmother’s door pleading for help.

“I don’t know if it was a lesson I was being taught,” Hamilton said in a private moment following Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Angels, in which he went 2-for-4 with a double. “I can look at it that way. If I forget what saved me the first time, I’ll be right back where I was, and I can’t do that.”

Because he’s too important. To his wife, who he said forgave him, and his children, and his teammates. To the 200,000 people who care enough about Hamilton’s story – or found schadenfreude in the pious man humbled – to have found the pictures in their first nine hours online. To the believers in front of whom Hamilton was paraded as the paragon of discipline and epitome of willpower.

Hamilton’s was a story about success, and those always titillate.

“So why do y’all look like you’ve got sick feelings in your stomach?” Hamilton said. “Y’all don’t know what y’all are gonna talk about today? Just be honest, like I have been.”

Fine.

This was sad. It was terribly sad. Alcohol killed Billy Martin. Drugs killed Steve Howe. Drugs and alcohol torpedoed the careers of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. A sober Josh Hamilton represented hope. A relapsed Josh Hamilton represents a different sort of hope.

And so often does that latter hope prove futile, because outside influences, no matter the effort and care, cannot right an addict. It is up to the addict, in this case Hamilton, who said Saturday he was committed to staying clean. That made everyone smile, if only momentarily, knowing they’d heard the same thing so many times before.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Aug 8, 2009