The Josh Hamilton case should be about his addiction and only his addiction. It's what anybody fighting substance abuse deserves: The ability to remain sober with as few distractions as possible. The very last thing he needs is people with vested interests in his career twisting his problems into something about themselves. This is not about the Los Angeles Angels, not about Major League Baseball's drug program, not about anybody but Hamilton and his disease.
And yet here he stands, not the addict in need of unified support from everyone around baseball but a pawn in a game of politics and money and power. The fight over Hamilton has started, and as ugly as it is, it's bound to get worse unless Rob Manfred intervenes and does the right thing.
Manfred is baseball's new commissioner, and he is certainly a reasonable enough man to understand that punishing a sick man for his sickness is cruel. And it would be that easy if Josh Hamilton weren't Josh Hamilton, if he weren't in the midst of a contract that over the next three seasons will pay him $89.7 million. Or, conversely, it would be just as easy if Josh Hamilton were the Josh Hamilton, who fetched that sort of a deal because once upon a time he was a superstar.
Those are the competing realities that turn a straightforward answer all catawampus. Currently, Major League Baseball, which Manfred runs, and the MLB Players Association, to which Hamilton belongs, are fighting over whether he violated his treatment program. Because of his past issues – Hamilton's addiction landed him three previous suspensions in the mid-2000s and necessitated his reinstatement to the game – he must abide by a program that tests him three times a week. MLB and the union are fighting over whether his situation warrants a violation of the treatment program.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation told Yahoo Sports that Hamilton has told people his latest spiral began around Super Bowl weekend after a fight with his wife. Because he cannot carry cash or credit cards, Hamilton wrote himself a check to cash. He wound up at a strip club and used cocaine. Before his next test, Hamilton admitted to using drugs, which prompted the meeting with MLB in New York that the Los Angeles Times first reported, sending Hamilton's case into the public view.
Now that it's there, the loyalties Manfred must weigh are in full view. Any suspension would cost Hamilton millions of dollars – and save Angels owner Arte Moreno, who still has not commented publicly on Hamilton's situation, those same millions. The union is fighting the idea that a failed drug test is an automatic violation of Hamilton's treatment program, hoping a neutral arbitrator will agree and keep Manfred from meting out discipline.
Should the arbitrator agree with MLB, Manfred must ignore the urge to hammer Hamilton with a suspension that could reach an entire season. However much favor it might curry with Moreno – who, remember, was one of the most vociferous owners opposing Manfred's candidacy for commission – it would fall prey to the same ineffective thinking that turned the War on Drugs into such a rousing failure. Don't punish addicts. Help them.
Consult with doctors and recommend a course of action that addresses Hamilton's slip-up. Insist on the return of the support system that once helped him maintain sobriety for the longest stretch of his adult life after his reinstatement. Sidelining Hamilton with any sort of suspension beyond something that matches the time he needs away to get healthy would be callous, a poor message to send from someone establishing his leadership bona fides.
By no means would helping Hamilton without levying a long suspension make Manfred look like a pushover. On the contrary, it would have the dual effect of showing proper sympathy toward a player in need of some amid one of the most embarrassing moments of his life and letting owners know they may be his boss but he's a free thinker, principled, willing to do what's right for the game.
Because here is the truth: If Hamilton weren't a broken-down version of himself – if he were playing at the MVP level at which he was capable of playing – Moreno would spend his every waking moment vouching for Hamilton in public and back channeling Manfred for leniency. That a player's ability could factor into potential discipline is damning, and it's something Manfred must ensure doesn't happen for the sake of his policy's credibility.
He'll get that chance if the arbitrator rules in MLB's favor and allows Manfred his choice of discipline. The MLBPA would appeal that, too, and the second case would fall on arbitrator Fredric Horowitz. So a quick resolution is unlikely, leaving this to linger on as Hamilton recovers from shoulder surgery he underwent just days after his binge.
Until then, Manfred has time to consider his options. He can be a politician and play bulldog. He can strictly interpret the league's drug rules and use Hamilton to send a message. Or he can do what others haven't: Put the best interests of Hamilton in mind.
Hamilton turns 34 in May, and he could use an ally in the commissioner. Sobriety is not achieved through shame or punishment. It is through people who care enough to learn why an addict slipped, where he went wrong, how he can put himself in the best position to maintain it. However much billionaire Arte Moreno might want his rebate, however much Rob Manfred might want to show owners he means business, neither them nor their desires matter.
This is about Josh Hamilton and his disease. He doesn't need another fight to worry about.
More MLB coverage: