ARLINGTON, Texas – In his most desperate times, Josh Hamilton retreats to the Bible for reassurance and assistance. It answers the difficult questions, like the one fans here posed to him Friday night: What do you do when a city turns on you? The revolt came swift and strong, revealed in a tornado of boos, a flood of expletives. For Josh Hamilton, the natural, this was a disaster.
He was the face of the Texas Rangers' collapse over the last two weeks, a period in which they blew home-field advantage in the American League, a five-game lead in the AL West and found themselves in a one-game, win-or-go-home playoff against the Baltimore Orioles. And when they didn't show up for that, either, getting embarrassed 5-1 in front of a stunned Rangers Ballpark, it cemented Hamilton's slow devolution from hero to pariah.
Hard as he tried not to dwell on the boos, he couldn't help but bring them up over and over. Five years he's been here, one of the planet's best players when he's healthy and biggest teases when he isn't, and this was how he was leaving. Hamilton is a free agent, and while he said his return is a 50-50 proposition, his tenor and disappointment and dwelling said something entirely different.
And so did the verse of scripture he paraphrased, Matthew 10:14.
"If they don't receive you in a town," Hamilton said, "shake the dust off your feet and move to the next."
Hamilton uttered it more as a coping mechanism than a metaphor, and yet even he nodded to acknowledge its appropriateness. For the first time in his baseball career, Hamilton, 31, is going to be a free agent. Texas' dust never seemed so ripe to shake.
After the ugliness of the last few days – from the embarrassing fly-ball drop in the regular season's final and decisive game against Oakland to what could be his final at-bat in a Rangers uniform, a strikeout on three straight Brian Matusz fastballs, none faster than 92 mph – Hamilton stood by his locker and tried to unburden himself. He was alternately combative and apologetic, upbeat and sad, a contradictory scramble befitting a man at a crossroads.
After two World Series appearances, he's still ringless; after a 43-homer, 128-RBI season, still suspect in teams' eyes; and after an 0-for-4 wild-card game that followed a punchless stretch run, still tantalizingly talented, enough so that some team out there is going to give him the years he desires (at least five) and the money he wants ($20 million-plus a year). There is too much cash floating around baseball and too weak a free agent class for Hamilton not to get paid.
It just won't be Texas.
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Not unless something drastically changes. The Rangers are entering a transition period in which they try to do what only the most successful franchises can: reload instead of rebuild. They've got the goods for it: the money, the prospects, the front-office brains, the air of success. They're also in a division with a bigger spender (Los Angeles) and a similarly bright core of young talent (Oakland), and paying Hamilton that sort of salary for that long goes against much of what they believe, which can be summed up thusly: Do not give large sums of money to aging players.
It's worth noting the Rangers never signed Hamilton to a long-term deal during his prime, the likeliest time for a club to commit to a star. The feeling went both ways; Hamilton never sought a deal with great conviction. An underlying sense pervaded the relationship: The Rangers and Hamilton were friends with benefits, getting something good from each other but not destined for marriage.
On May 12, when Hamilton hit his 18th home run in the Rangers' first 31 games, when he was the best player in the world, when Texas was 21-10 and on its way to 100 wins, uttering a single cross word to Josh Hamilton was treason. As the season went on and little injuries kept him out of the lineup and a two-month funk festered and his eyes betrayed him down the stretch, something changed, something perhaps borne of the team's lack of commitment. For years, the Rangers have told their fans that Hamilton is not long for this team by declining to lock him up. The lack of a contract sent fans a message that he could leave, could wear another uniform – that he was fungible. And that makes for one excellent scapegoat.
So they screamed and hissed and booed, exhibited the same sort of behavior he has seen on the road, where they've called him a drug addict and a drunk, tried to use his past to detonate his present.
"Personally, myself, never would matter how high I was – if I went to a sporting event, I would never boo somebody or I would never yell obscenities at somebody," Hamilton said. "That's just me."
But, he added, "They pay for tickets. They've got a right to do what they want to do. You hate to have it happen possibly the last game ever here."
Hamilton brought that up himself, the part about the last game.
"You think about it, yeah," he said. "And then the boos slowly drown it out."
When he goes somewhere else, Hamilton will admit the pain of this night, his last as a Ranger. It was a sad nadir to a story that ultimately is good: the drug addict and the drunk trying to clean up his life, and, for the most part, succeeding. He slipped. He admitted his error. He vowed to do better. He was not perfect. Not in life and not on the field.
Following his strikeout against Matusz ending the eighth inning, Hamilton meandered toward the outfield, his steps measured, his gait contemplative. Second baseman Ian Kinsler, a friend, walked up and put his arm around him. They talked.
Kinsler said: "Don't listen to 'em."
The boos kept coming.
Hamilton said: "I never do."
They didn't stop.
Kinsler said: "They'll cheer you one minute and do this the next."
They eventually abated, though not soon enough to keep Hamilton from shaking his head, sighing and admitting: "It was bad, man."
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The whole scene was. Josh Hamilton hit 142 home runs here, drove in 506 runs, batted .305/.363/.549. He lurked in the middle of the lineup for three consecutive postseasons and won an MVP award. He may never have been the face of the franchise, but he is one of the faces of the sport.
"I always would love to stay here," he said, and maybe that's true. Maybe the overwhelming emotion of the moment, of losing to Joe Saunders and the Baltimore freaking Orioles, turned up the volume on the boos and left them rattling around in his head.
If not, we'll know by the trail of dust leading from here to parts unknown.
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