Reds OF Hamilton living for the here and now

May 2, 2007 - 1:06 AM By Ian Parker Special for PA SportsTicker

HOUSTON (Ticker) -- When Josh Hamilton was the first overall draft pick in the major leagues eight years ago, he confidently declared he would spend three years in the minor leagues, 15 in the majors, and then, after a five-year wait, he would attend his own induction into Cooperstown.

You won't hear anything like that from him anymore.

"You're not guaranteed tomorrow. "I can't look to tomorrow," Hamilton said. "Take Josh Hancock for instance. It's just one of those things that can happen at anytime. It doesn't matter who you are. I have to look what I'm doing now."

Hancock, the St Louis Cardinals reliever, was tragically killed in an auto accident on Sunday morning.

For Hamilton, his realization of a boyhood dream and his life almost disappeared in a four-year fight against drugs and alcohol. Instead, Hamilton has battled back, not only earning a place on the Reds' active roster but forcing his way into their everyday lineup.

"It's so exciting to be here and be at this level," Hamilton said as he prepared for this mid-week series against the Houston Astros. "Just stepping out on this field between the lines, it's exciting."

From a young age it was clear that Hamilton had the talent to be a major leaguer. At Athens Drive High in Raleigh, North Carolina, he batted over .500 and threw a fastball that reached 97 miles per hour.

With their scouts describing him as the best amateur player they had seen since Alex Rodriguez, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft.

After two outstanding seasons in the minor leagues, including a co-MVP season in the Class-A South Atlantic League in 2000, everything changed on February 18, 2001. That evening, a truck ran a red light and smashed into the pickup that was carrying the 19-year-old Hamilton and his parents.

Hamilton came away with a back injury that forced him to miss all but four games of the season. He returned in 2002 and hit .303 in 211 at-bats at Class A High Desert before he was shut down with elbow and shoulder problems ended his campaign and started his life spiraling downward.

Bored and alone, Hamilton turned to cocaine. A string of suspensions followed, culminating in an indefinite ban which began in February 2004. In May 2005, Hamilton was arrested in Cary, North Carolina after a dispute with his wife in which he smashed the rearview mirror and windshield of a friend's pickup truck.

His career apparently in tatters, he turned up on the doorstep of his grandmother's house. There he began a remarkable turnaround.

"She gave me a lot of positive encouragement," Hamilton said of his grandmother. "When I was going through that time, I was staying with her. She said every day, 'You can do it.' She had a lot of faith in me.

"That, and being with my wife (Katie), seeing how she handled herself when I was out, how God strengthened her. It helped motivate me and my walk with the Lord."

Last June, baseball lifted his ban, allowing Hamilton to take part in extended spring training with the Devil Rays. Baseball had created the void in which Hamilton's problems began, but it also presented a way back.

"Before I left the game the first time, I was becoming complacent and started taking it for granted as far as being in baseball," Hamilton said. "When I got to the park, I was ready to go home. It was becoming like a job to me.

"But my dad told me, 'When it starts becoming a job, you're not going to enjoy it.' It was a wake-up call for me."

He played 15 games last summer in Class A, but the major leagues still seemed a long way away.

That was until the Rule V draft in December, when Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky, remembering the promise Hamilton had once shown, took what amounted to a $50,000 gamble on Hamilton.

Krivsky selected the troubled outfielder in that draft, forked over the money to the Devil Rays and placed Hamilton on the Reds' 40-man roster. Hamilton has to spend the entire season with Cincinnati or be offered back to Tampa Bay for $25,000.

Krivsky's faith is now being repaid in spades.

Hamilton stunned the Reds in spring training, showing no signs of rustiness as he hit in 21 of 25 games with a .403 average while patrolling the outfield like a veteran. It was astonishing from a man who had been working construction a year before.

Hamilton made the Reds roster, then set about forcing his way into the lineup. In his first major league start on April 10, he smashed a changeup by Arizona's Edgar Gonzalez for a home run, and he followed it up with another his next game.

Jerry Narron quickly set about adjusting his lineup to find regular playing time for Hamilton, who repaid him by homering five times in his first 11 games, the first player to accomplish that feat since Toronto Blue Jays catcher Carlos Delgado homered six times in his first 11 games in 1994.

Hamilton is batting .266 (17-for-64) with six homers and 13 RBI through the month of April. It all seems to easy for Hamilton a real life version of his favorite movie, 'The Natural' and even he is pinching himself.

"I can't complain about anything," he said. "I just told myself, 'You can play at this level. Let your natural ability take over.' If I come out and play hard, it will work out."

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