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Josh Hamilton, In the Flesh

Josh Hamilton was one of the most revered players in Texas Rangers history, then one of the most reviled. He returns as something different: a human being.
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

They very nearly built a statue of Josh Hamilton in Arlington.

Nothing had been formally declared, there was no commissioning of an architect, or dedicating a plot of land, or any trip to Hobby Lobby to procure ribbon for cutting. But it was pretty well rubber-stamped the second Hamilton hit the go-ahead home run in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. He was about to win the Rangers their first-ever championship, coming through in the throes of a wretched postseason spent playing through excruciating pain that should by rights have put him on the disabled list. Given the circumstances, it is the greatest play in franchise history.


Nobody calls it that, however, because Texas lost. This was not Hamilton's fault; for all he did for that team, the bullpen was, fatefully, Ron Washington's responsibility. And so what lived for 15 minutes as baseball history quickly became the moment that precipitated a different moment, one context superseding and devouring another. The statue was put on hold indefinitely.

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The first step toward reclaiming that fairy tale ending began on Monday, with Hamilton returning to Texas to rekindle a relationship that was, when it worked, powerfully symbiotic—a broken soul lifting a sad-sack organization into legitimacy as that organization did its best to protect him from a world that very nearly killed him.

There is no second step. There will never be a monument to Josh Hamilton at the gates of Globe Life Park, because too much has happened since that home run. Hamilton became a pariah inside of a year and dutifully played prodigal son on his way toward free agency, then disappeared from the conversation over two lost seasons in Anaheim. He made an outlandish promise to revolutionize charity in professional sports and no sooner had he signed with the Rangers' greatest rival did he mostly renege on it. It was a steep fall from team savior and probably not a fair one, either, inadvertent postseason sabotage withstanding.


Nothing good is ever accomplished by moving to Anaheim. — Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

And, of course, there were the relapses, two that we know of since 2012. Objectively, they shouldn't matter—Hamilton is an overwhelming success story in how well he has managed his addiction, and it's insulting to regard him as anything less than that. Yet Josh Hamilton is a Ranger once again precisely because he is an addict, which means that whatever baseball success he has from here on out will be inextricably linked to his personal problems.

This is no triumphant homecoming, in other words, and no earnest platitudes, no number of home runs or on-field success, will change that. Hamilton did not plunge himself into the bleak dystopia in Arlington of his own volition; he is coming back because no one else would have him, not even for the reported pittance of a couple million per year. He returns to a team that needs him, and a lot more—this almost-champion has grayed into a husk before its time, its payroll bloated by free agency largesse, its rotation felled by an injury pandemic, and its budding star shortstop seemingly washed up at 26. Hamilton had staked out a vantage point on the shore to watch this luxury liner capsize, and now he's sinking with it, as a ticketed passenger. All of this is a mistake.

This places him on tenuous footing within the Metroplex. There are those who still embrace him for what he meant and did, and others who still despise him for how he left. Some have reinvested in his backstory, eager to see him succeed for his own sake, if not the team's. Then there are the ones who have filed him away into a contradictory liminal space, content to dissect him purely in clinical, transactional terms while still somehow arguing against it being a coup for the Rangers to secure an above-average hitter for less money than they pay Ross Detwiler to play Sentient Jugs Pitching Machine. As always, so much of Hamilton's reception depends on how he is contextualized.


There is no definitive way to parse that, but it seems obvious what should matter most. A human being who is far more susceptible to self-harm than the majority of the population is returning to the place best-equipped to stabilize him at a time when he may be on the precipice of slipping irrevocably. After that, well after that, this is a tremendous piece of baseball business.

If you believe that you've detected any symbolism in this photo, please alert the authorities. — Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

And what matters least of all is the statue that will never be built. It wouldn't fit, anyway. A statue cannot improve or evolve; it would stand and glisten in the hot Texas sun but it could never dazzle, never absorb pathos and expel it in the form of super-charged home runs. It would not uplift itself or a franchise, and most assuredly not a city. No amount of bronze tonnage could ever approximate Josh Hamilton, certainly not at his worst and damn sure not at his best.

Even Hamilton himself will struggle to measure up to his former self as he nears 34 with a surgically-repaired shoulder and fresh tumult in his personal life. But he seems a better bet to pull it off than anyone who isn't Josh Hamilton. The fun will come in watching him work, in once again having the opportunity to witness one of the great athletic talents of his generation in his natural habitat. He will battle, again, with a very difficult game and his own unsolvable self and maybe, possibly, bend every shortcoming to his will the way he did not all that long ago. It has nothing to do with sports and also everything. This is a continuum Hamilton fused together a long time ago, more honestly than any athlete in recent memory.

Maybe this all craters, and he again wrecks the clubhouse or the outfield defense or, worst of all, himself. This would make the deal a waste of some millions of dollars for the Rangers, but it wouldn't necessarily make it a waste. They are prepared, either way. The Rangers did not make a transaction when they agreed to reacquire Josh Hamilton. They traded for a man.