PHOENIX – Josh Hamilton, a big-league ballplayer for nine days, sober for 18 months and four days, homered Tuesday night for the first time in nearly five years.
Hamilton batted leadoff and played center field for the Cincinnati Reds in his first major-league start, and in his second at-bat against Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Edgar Gonzalez, pulled a changeup over the right-field fence at Chase Field.
The home run was the first major-league hit for Hamilton, the first overall draft pick by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999, back when all of this was supposed to happen much sooner.
He's 25 now and on the Reds' roster as a fourth outfielder and five-tool, Rule 5 flier. That he is anywhere at all – his head clear, a bat in his hands, measuring an off-speed pitch – attests to the size of the fight in the little of him that was left a year and a half ago, and for five years before that.
His last official home run was June 29, 2002, playing for Class-A Bakersfield.
"So," he said almost under his breath, "it was a long time ago."
A few lifetimes, yeah. This one appears to be treating him better, though, and he it.
"You know, when I was away from baseball it seemed like things were going in slow motion, all the things I was doing, seeing the seasons go by," he said. "Since I've been back, it seems like such a whirlwind.
"It overwhelms me thinking about it. But, I can't think about it. I just have to let it go."
Hamilton is off the booze, off the cocaine, free from the suspensions and out of the life that led to the following media guide notations for his 2003-05 seasons: "Didn't play professionally."
With some trepidation, Major League Baseball allowed Hamilton to resume his career in Class A Hudson Valley late last June. Five months later, the Chicago Cubs selected him in the Rule 5 draft and traded him to the Reds, who had themselves a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and also a big, strong, hard-swinging, hard-sliding ballplayer with still plenty to lose.
His wife, Katie, was not in the ballpark Monday, but she intends to be Friday in Chicago.
"I'm sure she was listening, or watching, if she could," he said.
An hour before game time, as handfuls of Reds players ducked their heads and passed nearby, Hamilton stood at the dugout's top step, looked people in the eyes and accepted their encouragement. As he did, he caught a hat and a pen and signed. A ball and a pen and signed. A program and a pen and signed.
When there was no one else shouting his name, he took his glove and departed for his first start, another step in which he'd first test the ground ahead of him.
Several times during the game, he said, he removed his cap to clear his view. Then he allowed himself a breath and a long look around.
The thought ran through his mind, he said, "There's no reason I should be here."
He let himself hear the hecklers, the people from behind who knew him only as HAMILTON 33. He said he smiled and wished he could tell them, "You have no idea where I've been or where I've come from. … It's just an awesome ballpark."
You got the feeling any ballpark would have done. But in this one, so cavernous that batting practice balls echoed forever off seatbacks and scoreboard panels, it would be special for a while.
In the third inning, Hamilton hit the first pitch he saw, a tumbler Gonzalez would regret, for a two-run home run. He was at second base before he'd realized what he'd done, and this time it was OK to keep running.
All those years continued to echo, all those wasted thoughts, those wasted nights, those wasted directions. They'll never fully die, maybe. And he'll start over tomorrow.
"The one thing that has impressed me since day one with him," Reds manager Jerry Narron said, "he's not made any excuses. He's been fully accountable for his past. He wants to get his life right and help other people."
He paused and thought about the home run, well-intended and well-struck.
"He's got a chance," Narron said, "to hit a lot more."
It had been a long time since anybody said that about Josh Hamilton. A very long time.
In that, Hamilton said, he arrived eventually at a single notion.
"Just basically thinking about not giving up," he said. "First of all, on life itself."