Hamilton's past might still haunt him

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Jose Vazquez, the strength and conditioning coach of the Texas Rangers, has been in the big leagues eight years, the first four with the New York Mets.

"For brute strength," Vazquez said, "Josh Hamilton(notes) is one of the strongest guys I've seen in a long, long time. One of the most naturally gifted athletes I know, and his strength is off the charts.''

But Vazquez worries for Hamilton, whose dazzling show of power at the All-Star home run derby is one of 2008's most enduring memories. He worries not that Hamilton will succumb again to the crack addiction that sent him into rehab eight times and nearly cost him his life, not to mention his career. Vazquez's fear is that even if Hamilton remains clean, he can't escape paying a price for his addiction.

"His challenge is his health,'' Vazquez said. "We just don't know how his body will bounce back from all those years of drug use. It's a mystery to all of us.''

On Tuesday, Hamilton underwent surgery in Philadelphia to repair a tear in his abdominal muscle. The Rangers' center fielder sustained the injury running into a wall making a catch on May 17 at The Ballpark in Arlington. The surgery was performed by Dr. William Meyers, who performed similar procedures on Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and former Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon(notes). He is expected to miss four to six weeks; the Rangers were relieved when Meyers said the injury was not a sports hernia, which could have sidelined Hamilton up to three months.

But the Rangers also wonder about the recovery process. Last season, Hamilton had a stomach ailment that sent him to the hospital; he wound up on the disabled list. "The years of drug abuse tore up my immune system pretty good,'' he said at the time.

Hamilton hit 21 home runs and drove in a major league leading 95 runs in the season's first half; those numbers dropped to 11 and 35 in the second half. The most commonly offered explanation was that Hamilton had never played a full major league season, but maybe there is more involved.

"It's just so hard to tell with him,'' Vazquez said. "His body is not as resilient as a normal person's. He has brute strength and serious talent, but his ability to heal and his immune system is not there, like it is for a lot of people.''

Texas manager Ron Washington admits he, too, has his concerns.

"Maybe it's still taking a toll on his body,'' Washington said. "I don’t know that scientifically, but I think about it. It may be.

"He's so strong, and he plays with such reckless abandon. Who says that when he comes back that he won't bang into something else? That's just the way he plays.''

The Rangers have been the surprise team in the American League, seizing the lead in the AL West with a much-improved pitching staff and defense making a profound difference on a club that always has hit. The bats are still potent; the Rangers rank second to the Yankees in home runs, even though Hamilton had gotten off to a slow start, batting .240 with six home runs.

"We certainly can't move forward without Josh Hamilton in our lineup the way we want to move forward,'' Washington said. "He's such a big piece, but there's a lot of character in this clubhouse. We all have to pick it up."

For one thing, the injury means there will be no chance of Hamilton duplicating last year's home run derby show of force, which was straight out of "The Natural." That is a trifle compared to whether the Rangers will have a fully healthy Hamilton back in the lineup when he comes off the DL.

"He's such a great story,'' Vazquez said. "He's been forgiven, he has a great message, but the consequences are still there to be seen.''

HITTING THE CORNERS

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A scout says John Smoltz needs to kick it up a couple of notches or else he won't make it through two turns of a major league lineup.
(Nick Laham/Getty Images )

Approaching re-launch: John Smoltz(notes) has just one scheduled rehab start left – Thursday in Syracuse, N.Y. – before he expects to join the Red Sox. There isn't a rotation spot open at the moment, which is why Brad Penny's(notes) name has surfaced in so many trade rumors. And because Penny signed as a free agent last winter, June 15 is the first date the Red Sox can trade him without his consent, which dovetails nicely with Smoltz's arrival.

Smoltz has said he would be willing to throw out of the bullpen, but the Red Sox didn't sign him to be a reliever. How good can he be at age 42 after undergoing shoulder surgery? Here's the report of one scout who saw him make his last rehab start last Friday in Triple-A Pawtucket:

"Smoltz said he was going at about 80 percent, and it looked like it. As long as he can kick it up another 15 percent or so, with the stuff he has he'll be fine. But if he doesn't, what he showed me won't be enough to make it two times through a major league lineup. Yeah, he only gave up one hit, but those guys were getting themselves out. There weren't many swings and misses.

"And you won't know until he's throwing with adrenaline. I'm sure he's going to hold something back in Syracuse.''

Smoltz touched 91 mph in his last start, but pitched at 87-88, a velocity at which he can be effective, according to the scout. "He's making the transition from a power guy to a finesse guy who works off the plate,'' the scout said. "He was working on his changeup, adding and subtracting, the same thing Pedro [Martinez] went through.''

The Red Sox will be hosting Smoltz's former team, the Braves, in a series that begins in Fenway Park on June 19, but Smoltz said he could do without the sideshow in his first game back. But don't bet against Smoltz facing the Braves the following weekend in Atlanta.

This old toad still jumps: The last anyone heard of Hideki Irabu, the former Yankee was running a noodle shop in L.A. But Irabu, who in the course of six desultory seasons in the big leagues (34-35, 5.15 ERA) was immortalized as a "fat [full of pus] toad" by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, has gotten the urge to pitch again at age 40. Irabu last pitched in 2004 when he finished his career in Japan, but he pitching for the Long Beach Armada in the independent Golden Baseball League, where he hopes to attract the attention of a big league club.

A teammate on the Armada is another former big league pitcher, Jose Lima(notes). "We got a call six weeks or so ago from Irabu's camp, saying he wanted to make a comeback,'' said Tony Soares, the first-year president and GM of the Armada. "We'd heard he was throwing, so we took a look. The velocity was there, the control was there. He's big, but he's in pretty good shape. He's slimmed down. At his age, the window [for a comeback] is going to close pretty quickly, but he's hoping for another shot.''

Irabu's next start is scheduled for Friday in Long Beach. He threw 88 pitches in five innings in his last start, giving up four runs (two earned), and maxed out at 92 mph.

Unsafe at home: Omar Vizquel(notes) long ago made his offseason home in Seattle, where he has lived 15 years, but he grieves at conditions in his native Venezuela, where crimes like last week's kidnapping of the son and brother-in-law of Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba(notes) are all too commonplace. Torrealba's family members were rescued by police pretending to deliver ransom money to the kidnappers, according to published reports. Torrealba remains on the Rockies' restricted list, though he has returned to the U.S. and could be activated by Friday.

"Sometimes I feel ashamed by the things that have happened in my country, which used to be so beautiful, so free,'' Vizquel said. "Now it's pretty tough for people to go out on the street after 7 [p.m.].''

Vizquel said when he visits his native Caracas, he always makes sure to go out in a crowd, and leave in a crowd. "You grew up in the poorest neighborhoods,'' he said. "Everybody knows your success. The [monetary] numbers are there for everyone to see. You have to stay low, try not to be shiny, like show off with cars and jewelry.''

FC trivia question: Vizquel, 42, is close to passing Luis Aparicio for the most hits by a Venezuelan-born player. Vizquel began play Tuesday with 2,674 hits, three less than the Hall of Fame shortstop. Here's the question: Name the Dominican-born player with the most hits from that island nation.

Bonus trivia: Name the all-time hits leader born in Poland. (Hint: He's a pitcher).

Perfection denied: It's a position no manager wants to be in, having to remove a pitcher with a no-hitter intact. Brad Epperson, manager of the Class A Salem (Va.) Red Sox had an even more distasteful assignment Friday night: He took out a pitcher who had thrown six perfect innings in what was scheduled as a seven-inning game.

Casey Kelly, Boston's first-round draft choice in 2008, had retired all 18 batters he faced in just his second start since being promoted from Greenville (S.C.). But he'd reached his pitch-count limit, and that was that. The game was scoreless until the 10th when Salem scored five runs, so Kelly wouldn't have been able to go the entire game anyway.

"No question, it wasn't the best situation to be in,'' Epperson said by phone, "but for the long haul, it was the right decision. The young man is 19. Nobody is going to remember the perfect game he threw in the Carolina League when he makes it to the big leagues. He understood. There was no fight-back. He understood the process.''

Kelly poses an unusual challenge for the Red Sox player development staff. The 6-foot-3, 194-pounder has been dazzling as a pitcher (6-1, 1.12 ERA for Greenville before his promotion), but he has expressed a preference to playing shortstop, a position he played well enough to be named Florida's Mr. Baseball coming out of Sarasota High School. The Sox are contractually obligated to let him switch positions later this summer.

Fungo hitting: The Brewers are looking to add another starting pitcher, but don't have many internal options. That's why it remains a priority to get Manny Parra(notes) straightened out. The left-hander was a 10-game winner as a rookie last season, but he has taken a step back in 2009 (3-7, 6.86 ERA). "He's got great stuff,'' one Brewers official said of the 26-year-old left-hander, "but he's just not as far along developmentally as some of our other guys.'' … Former Phillies GM Pat Gillick, who still serves the team as a consultant, is among the club officials who has watched Penny pitch. Penny's next start is Thursday, just before the Red Sox go to Philadelphia for a three-game set against the defending World Series champions. … Astros closer Jose Valverde(notes), whose right calf strain has kept him out since April 26, is expected to be activated Friday, and his return will be closely watched by teams needing bullpen help – Tampa Bay being the most logical trading partner. But another Astros reliever should draw interest at the trading deadline – veteran LaTroy Hawkins(notes), who is battle-tested and pitching well this season. … Any team looking for a talisman as well as a pitcher might consider Jason Marquis(notes). He has pitched for a division winner in each of the last nine seasons – four in Atlanta (2000-2003), three in St. Louis (2004-06), two in Chicago with the Cubs (2007-08). Marquis, pitching for the woeful Rockies, figures to be trade bait. … The instant spike in the standings that often occurs when teams change managers hasn't taken place in Arizona, where the Diamondbacks lost six of their first seven games under new manager A.J. Hinch, are 13-16 overall since he took over, and have lost five games in the standings. Things are a little better in Colorado, where the Rockies won seven of their first 11 after Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle. … Question: If you're David Wright(notes), who has hit just three home runs so far this season, do you really want to play the rest of your days in cavernous Citi Field while balls fly out of the new Yankee Stadium at a record rate? … If you put stock in omens, how about this one: The Yankees have won their division in each of the last six seasons they had a least a share of the lead entering June. … While there are skeptics (present company included) who believe that Miguel Tejada's(notes) contract ($13 million) and reduced range will make him tough to trade, one scout strongly disagrees. "Tejada is somebody who cares,'' the scout said. "He'll help somebody down the stretch. He's better than either of the guys (Julio Lugo(notes) or Nick Green(notes)) that Boston is running out there now.'' Another shortstop who could be moved is Vizquel, who said he would be open to a trade. In the last three years he was in San Francisco, Vizquel said, his name would come up but he didn't want to be dealt. … The Giants began play Tuesday 8½ games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, but don't be surprised if they're big players at the trading deadline. The wild-card race is wide open, the Giants are loaded with young pitching prospects, and Brian Sabean is the type of GM willing to make a bold move to bring in a needed bat. … Rangers rookie outfielder Nelson Cruz(notes) had 10 home runs and 20 RBIs in his last 19 games entering play Tuesday, but that doesn't mean he can't be slowed down. Sunday in Fenway Park, play was held up because Cruz could not get the metal doughnuts off his bat. "Weird," he said with a laugh. "I think it was because I put two doughnuts on there, the big one and the small one. Every time I swung the small one hit the big one. When I got to the plate, the umpire told me I had one strike, because I took too much time. Then he said he was just kidding.''

FC trivia answer: Julio Franco(notes). Franco, who played until he was 48, had 2,586 hits in 2,527 games. That record may not stand long. Manny Ramirez(notes) is just 162 hits behind, at 2,424 hits in 2,130 games.

FC trivia bonus answer: Moe Drabowsky, with 68. The reliever was born in Ozanna, Poland.