How Josh Hamilton Defeated His Demons
- Updated: July 8, 2009
The nice people at Guideposts.com have been kind enough to allow us to bring these stories of current Major League players in their entirety while I’m away on vacation. So without further ado…The Natural by Josh Hamilton (himself):
How faith and family helped big leaguer Josh Hamilton beat his demons
The scene was so familiar I could never have imagined my life was about to enter a tailspin I would almost not survive. But maybe that was because my life had been so charmed up until that point.
I was driving home from a ballgame with my parents that afternoon in March 2001. Mom was in the driver’s seat, I was beside her and Dad was in back. We were talking about the spring-training game I’d just played.
This time I had big news. The manager told me if it were up to him, I’d break camp with the big-league team and be playing in the majors this season.
I don’t mean to boast, but all my life people have called me The Natural. All I knew was, I loved baseball and I believed it was my destiny to play in the major leagues. And now it seemed so close.
My parents had coached me all my life. I was the hardworking All-American guy who didn’t drink or do drugs, who in high school kissed his grandmother before every game—the can’t-miss prospect Tampa Bay had drafted number one in the country and signed for a record $3.96 million bonus. They’re going to be so excited when they hear what the manager said, I thought.
We stopped at a traffic light. My house was about two minutes away. Mom and Dad lived there too. When I signed my pro contract, they left their jobs to be with me—to cook for me, to give me moral support, to be my off-field coaches. About the only thing we disagreed on was the tattoos I’d gotten recently.
After games I went home with my parents instead of hanging out with my teammates. Some people thought they kept me too sheltered, but I didn’t care. I wanted my parents with me. In fact, if it had been up to me, Granny would have lived there too. Then I still could have kissed her before every game.
The light changed. I couldn’t keep my news bottled up any longer. “The manager told me if it were up to him, I’d be breaking camp with the big-league team,” I blurted out. I paused a second before adding that the team’s executives had overruled the manager. For now.
Dad squeezed my shoulder. “Keep your head up,” he said. “You’re almost there.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw a yellow dump truck barreling toward us. I grabbed Mom and pulled her to me. The truck t-boned us in the right side. There was a terrible crash.
Our car careened down the road and rolled to a stop. I looked around. Thankfully we were all still in one piece. Mom’s neck hurt and Dad took a nasty blow to the head. They went home to North Carolina to recover.
I was injured too. The accident did something to my lower back. The team doctors couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong, but the pain kept me off the field. There was no telling when I’d play again. For the first time I was on my own—no parents, no baseball. It was like my life had stopped. At 19.
I didn’t know what to do with all that free time. One afternoon I wandered into the place where I’d gotten my tattoos. It wasn’t anything special—just a shop in a strip mall—but as I sat in the chair and let Kevin, the tattoo artist, ink designs on my body, I felt my troubles slip away.
So I kept going back. I’d get in the chair and forget my injury and the whispers about how I wasn’t living up to the Devil Rays’ nearly four-million-dollar investment. I could even forget how much I missed Mom, Dad and Granny.
One night Kevin invited me out with his buddies. “Sure,” I said. I didn’t ask where we were going. We pulled up to a strip club. Whoa, I thought. I’d never been to a place like that before.
I was nervous, but I tried to act nonchalant. One of the guys ordered beers. I drank one, not wanting them to know I’d never done that, either. I drank a few more, till I felt a buzz.
We ended up at Kevin’s house. Someone pulled out a mirror, tapped out some white powder on it and cut it into thin lines.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Cocaine, man. You gotta try it.”
I stared at the powder. This is wrong, I told myself. This isn’t how my parents raised me.
The guys looked at me expectantly. I felt like I did at the club—I wanted to fit in, be part of things. I bent over the mirror and snorted.
What a rush! It was like hitting a home run with the game on the line. I felt like I’d entered another world, one where I was fearless, invincible, free of the weight of everyone’s expectations, including my own.
Two days later I did coke again. It got to be a regular thing, every time I hung out with Kevin and the guys. I’m just experimenting, I rationalized. It’s not hurting my game. I can’t play now anyway.
Word reached the Devil Rays about my drug use. The team decided to send me to the Betty Ford Clinic. I had to call my parents and tell them.
“What? What are you talking about?” Dad said. “Betty Ford, the rehab?” Mom asked. They didn’t understand how their All-American boy could get mixed up with drugs and alcohol.
Neither did I. I wasn’t ready to admit I even had a drug problem. But that got harder and harder to deny, especially when I returned to playing ball. I went from doing a few lines with the tattoo-parlor guys to using every day, carrying a vial of cocaine in my pocket so I could get a boost whenever I needed it. I got edgy, paranoid that someone would find out my shameful secret.
Except it wasn’t a secret. My personality changed. I showed up late for practice. My performance on the field was erratic. Then in May 2003 I tested positive for cocaine and was suspended for 30 games.
I left Florida and went home to North Carolina, supposedly to get clean. But I didn’t.
Baseball had been my life. Now cocaine was. What consumed me every day was getting high. I tried to quit using—sometimes I’d even stay clean for a few months—but nothing got through to me enough to stick. Not the seven treatment centers I went to after Betty Ford. Not the one-year suspension for violating major-league-baseball’s drug policy yet again in March 2004. Not my parents or their anger, sadness and heartbreak. Not even my grandmother. I tried praying, but that didn’t help either.
The only bright spot was the five-month stretch I managed to stay clean, when I started dating Katie Chadwick. Katie and I went to the same high school, but we weren’t really friends back then. She wasn’t into baseball. She’d never seen me play and had no idea how good I’d been.
What she loved about me was how good I was to her and her daughter, Julia. I fell for both of them. They made me so happy that I fought extra hard to stay away from drugs and drink. When we married in November 2004, Katie thought I’d beaten my demons.
Man, was she wrong.
What was the lowest I sunk? The day I pawned Katie’s wedding ring to buy coke? The day we returned from the hospital with our newborn daughter, Sierra, and Katie asked me to pick up some things for her at the drugstore? I walked into a bar instead. Or was it the day Katie finally kicked me out and got a restraining order to keep me away?
By then I’d graduated to smoking crack. I burned through almost all my bonus money. My binges got worse. I didn’t eat or sleep, I didn’t care about anything except scoring crack. The Natural? No one would call me that now.
One October night in 2005 I blacked out. I woke up in a filthy trailer with a bunch of strangers. Who could I turn to now? My parents had cut me off. So had Katie.
Granny. Mary Holt, the grandmother I used to kiss before every baseball game. I staggered to my truck, drove to her house and knocked on her door…at 2:00 a.m. “Do you think I can stay here for a while?” I asked, practically begging.
She must have been shocked at the sight of me—I’d lost 50 pounds, my clothes were in tatters—but my grandmother took me in. For three days she fed me, hovered over me, woke me, put me to bed. She didn’t lecture me, didn’t judge me. For some reason, she believed in me. “You can get better, Josh,” she said. “You can get all the way better and get back to playing ball.”
Baseball? I’d written that off. And vice versa. But I couldn’t bring myself to dispute her. Maybe part of me was still hoping I could be what I once was.
My addiction turned out to be way more powerful than my grandmother—or I—could imagine. The fourth day at her house, I bought crack, holed up in the room she’d given me and got high.
When I emerged, Granny was waiting in the hall. There was deep sorrow in her eyes, but also anger. “I can’t take this anymore, Josh,” she said. “I can’t sit here and watch you kill yourself, and hurt all the people who love you.” She turned and walked away.
Granny was one of the few people who still believed in me, and I was letting her down. For years I’d wondered when I would hit bottom. Now I knew. You hit bottom when you’ve hurt every last person who loves you.
I went back into my room, and the cold, hard reality of what I’d done hit me. I’d chosen cocaine over everything that gave my life meaning. I chose it over baseball, the sport I was born to play. I chose it over my wife and children, my parents and now my grandmother.
I even chose it over God. I dropped to my knees. Lord, I don’t care if I never play baseball again. Help me get right with my family, and with you, most of all.
It was my first real prayer in a long while. This time I wasn’t trying to make a deal with God. This was me surrendering, throwing myself at his mercy. “Do with me what you want, Lord,” I said.
My eyes fell on the Bible Granny had put in my room. I picked it up and flipped through it. One verse, James 4:7, practically jumped off the page at me: “Humble yourself before God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
I read those lines over and over till they were burned into my memory. Every time I was tempted by cocaine—and that first week going cold turkey was vicious—I repeated that verse: “Humble yourself before God…”
My grandmother’s country cooking helped me regain my physical strength. Emotionally and spiritually, I was healing too, now that I understood what I needed to do. I used to live for baseball. Then I lived for crack. Only by living for God, having a personal, intimate relationship with Christ, could I be whole again.
Piece by piece, my life was restored. I earned back my grandmother’s trust, my parents’ and Katie’s. I held my girls again. I started exercising. I learned to face down temptation with prayer. I read the Bible and opened myself up to how God was leading me…to a psychiatrist I trusted…to a baseball program where I worked and rediscovered my love for the game…all the way to the big leagues.
The Cincinnati Reds took a chance on me in 2007 and invited me to spring training. The way my body bounced back after the abuse I’d put it through—that had to be a God thing.
I made the team as a reserve outfielder. Opening Day I didn’t expect to play. I was just thrilled to be in the dugout. Late in the game the manager sent me up to pinch hit. I walked to the batter’s box, my heart hammering.
Some of the fans got to their feet and cheered. Then more. And more. I couldn’t see them but I knew that Katie, my parents, her parents and our girls were there and Granny was watching at home, all of them crying.
Everyone in the ballpark was standing and cheering. I’d never heard a sound like that before. I took a few practice swings and stood for a moment, in awe.
This was about so much more than me, so much more than baseball, even. This was about the kind of miracles the Lord can work when we turn our lives over to him.
That kind of healing could only be super Natural.