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Back in the game

LOS ANGELES – Josh Hamilton was in right field at Busch Stadium when a voice carried from the stands, across the grass and to his ears.

"My name is Josh Hamilton," the voice boomed, "and I'm a drug addict."

Three weeks later, Hamilton sat on the bench at Dodger Stadium and smile and shrugged.

"I looked right at him and shook my head," he said. "Tell me something I don't know."

Four years out of the game before 15 games in the New York-Penn League in 2006, Hamilton is coming up on his 26th birthday. He is 98 at-bats into his major-league career, batting .265 with eight home runs and 18 RBIs and playing mostly center and right fields for the Cincinnati Reds.

Six weeks in, the 1999 No. 1 overall pick stands with Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and starter Jason Hirsh, Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Chris Young and starter Micah Owings, and Florida Marlins reliever Henry Owens as early candidates for National League Rookie of the Year.

Hamilton laughed again.

"I'm sorry," he said, "rookie of the what?"

It's a lot for him to fathom. A year ago, after kicking a drug addiction that kept him out of the game for more than three seasons, Hamilton was hoping someone – anyone – would let him play baseball again, anywhere. Five months ago, the Reds acquired him from the Cubs, who had picked him up as Rule 5 designate. Two months ago, he was playing to make the team out of spring training.

Now his eight home runs are second on the Reds to Adam Dunn's 11, and before he went hitless in his last 13 at-bats, he was hitting .306. He is one of the best athletes in baseball, with good speed and a great arm.

Rather than dwell on all that, however, Hamilton opens his eyes each day and is thankful they are clear.

"It's getting out of bed every morning and knowing I didn't do anything last night to mess up today," he said.

He takes the rest of the day from there.

So far, he's figured out big-league pitchers almost as quickly as they figure him out. A left-handed hitter, he's hanging in there against left-handed pitchers, against whom he is batting .250 but has yet to homer and has nine strikeouts in 24 at-bats. It might be the last skill to come.

In the meantime, he is more ready for the major leagues than anyone could have imagined, adjusting to the pitchers and keeping the lifestyle to the basics. His wife, Katie, and one of his daughters made the trip to Los Angeles, where the Reds are facing the Dodgers this weekend, and will continue with him to San Diego.

Those years he missed, the repetitions he missed, the baseball experiences that passed without him, well, he'll have to get along without them.

"Can I explain how well I'm doing by missing that?" he said. "No, I can't. I feel comfortable right now playing at this level. Should I feel overwhelmed at times? Probably so."

It hasn't gone that way so far. Reds reliever Mike Stanton said he's seen few players with bat speed like Hamilton's, and recalled being struck by the first time he saw Hamilton swing, just as he was the first time he saw Mark Teixeira swing.

It brought Hamilton to the major leagues with hardly any preparation, at least any recent preparation. But it wasn't the swing that brought him back.

"I wouldn't change it," he said. "Now that I've been on the other side of it, I wouldn't change it."

The life, and then the chance to do it again, he said, brought him God, family, friends and, eventually, finally, and lastly, baseball.

Which, a month ago, brought him to the outfield at Wrigley Field, nearest the bleachers.

"They were just wearing me out," he said.

But, of course, he had the greater perspective.

"They were wearing their own team out worse," he said.