ANAHEIM, Calif. – Josh Hamilton is too good a guy, in a friendly, great-smile, hey-how-ya-doin', once-or-twice-a-week way. He wields that swing gifted by God or Ted Williams or somebody. The story — how he got here, and how it speaks to us — endures, because the stuff that chases him chases everyone in one way or another.
So, there's a reason he's been terrible. For a year. But there are signs he won't be terrible anymore, right? There's a mechanical thing to be sorted out, bad luck to turn, a hitting coach to show up and tuck his elbow or flatten his bat or raise his hands. Something.
This is — was, maybe still is, it's blurry now — one of the finest athletes many had ever seen on a baseball field. The ball flies — well, flew — from his bat, from his hand. The way he runs — ran. The way a ball into the outfield finds — found — his glove. The way he plays — played — the game, rather than it playing him, which is how most people find it. It is — was — so special.
So, what's up with Josh Hamilton?
Thirty-two years old, apparently healthy, presumably clean, Hamilton is a .217 hitter in 2013. Against lefties: .153. With runners in scoring position: .132. In June: .207. Yes, he's a .217 hitter, up from .212 earlier this month, down from a high this month of .220.
The folks who chart such things say he swings at too many pitches out of the strike zone, and that pitchers rarely throw him strikes, or at least decent ones. And so Hamilton trudges to the plate, takes his hacks, often returns disappointed, and then does it again. For going on three months. For going on a year.
In 71 games as a Los Angeles Angel, he has 10 home runs. His OPS is more than 200 points below his career average and going on 400 points beneath his career best.
But you probably don't need the numbers, the charts, the on-pace-fors. He just doesn't look right. Not in the box, not in the outfield, not on the basepaths. It's like he feels uncomfortable in the uniform, out of place in the ballpark, knocked unsteady by the contract. Something.
"It's been weird, man," Hamilton said.
Not weird to be here or away from the Texas Rangers or Dallas or anything. Just weird that he hasn't hit, and can't seem to pick a pitch to hit, for so long now. An "off-and-on" video guy for much of his career, Hamilton said he's trying to get back to his mechanics of 2007 and 2008, his first two major-league seasons. His hands were set different then, and his swing was simpler, and the results came because he could hit, not necessarily because he knew why.
The "why" can mess with a man, even one who desperately believes everything happens for a reason including sliders that bounce. So he tries everything — or as much as a guy who could always, always hit can think of — and what he comes up with is get simple to let that pretty swing work. And he tries to believe again, because after three months, after a year, that will be a lot more important than where his hands are.
"I'd be lying to you if I said there weren't days I was frustrated, or down," he said. "I wouldn't say ‘depressed.' But down."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia rested Hamilton on Sunday against the New York Yankees, who led 6-0 late in the game. Then the ninth inning came, and the Angels were rallying. Then the weaker part of the order came around, and there sat Hamilton. Having played themselves to a place where they can't give an inch, the Angels had a chance to sweep a series — something that might carry them for a while.
But when Scioscia needed a pinch-hitter, he sent up J.B. Shuck. When he needed another, he sent up Brad Hawpe. Both reached base. And when the game ended in a 6-5 loss for the Angels, Hamilton hadn't seen so much as the on-deck circle.
He homered and singled Monday night against the Seattle Mariners, but by the third inning Tuesday had grounded into three double plays. The crowd booed, because it doesn't get it either, and because the Angels aren't going anywhere, and the offseason's splashiest signing is batting in the two-hole and struggling to survive it.
Hamilton's head tells him it will turn. His head feels the thump-thump-thump of the season, the games falling away, and him doing so little to help. He tries to stay up. He tries to be a good teammate. None of it seems to buy him a hot streak.
"When you're away from the field, you try not to think about it," he said. "You try to take it in stride and remember who you are as a player, and what's ahead for you as a player. But, seeing where we are in the standings and knowing I haven't even scratched the surface of what I'm capable of doing, that's the frustrating part.
"It's tough. You think with all the previous success, you're still going to have that confidence. As it keeps going, it's tougher."
He wakes up most mornings and believes this is the day. That he's a good ballplayer, a good hitter. That he's strong, and prepared, and relentless. Yes, this is the day it comes. This is the day he goes and gets it.
And then it's not. Again.
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