The Fall of Josh Hamilton

by Gregory Pratt,
August 20, 2009

One of the first political stand-up acts I ever watched was Bill Maher’s “Be More Cynical” HBO special in the year 2000: “Everyone says, ‘We’re too cynical.’ No, we’re too stupid,” he said, and I’ve always tried to remember that. In baseball, this cynicism manifests itself most often with the issue of steroids. I just don’t believe that anyone is clean. That isn’t to say that I believe everyone is doping as heavily and regularly as Barry Bonds did, but I know that no one is out there eating tomatoes and raking in the major leagues. Everyone’s on something to keep their muscles big and strong, and that “something” consists of various legal supplements, new steroids that can’t be detected via testing, and human growth hormone. Sometimes, probably often-times, all at once.

I’ve been scoffing at the game’s allegedly-clean heroes for a long time now. When David Ortiz was outed as a steroid user, I received apologies from friends who’d been in arguments with me over his statistics. Ortiz went from playing for the Minnesota Twins and doing nothing of note to heading over to Boston and launching homeruns as if he had been doing it his whole life. Fans of David Ortiz always said that this happened because the Twins foolishly insisted that he learn to hit the other way instead of allowing him to focus on swinging away.

There’s a long list of players I don’t buy. I remember how mad people used to get with me when I shrugged off the idea that Alex Rodriguez became the youngest player to five hundred homeruns because God blessed him.

And yet, despite promising that I would never let it happen to me, I feel used by a baseball player.

Sunday night, a good friend who I host a college radio show with instant messaged me and said, “What do you think of Josh Hamilton?” I said, “Well, he’s having a lousy season but I am a big fan.” He said, “You don’t know? He relapsed.” (For the unaware: Hamilton was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle when he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays first overall in 1999. He became addicted to drugs, was banned from baseball three times, reinstated in 2007, and had an incredible 2008 season.) Turns out that released pictures of him this weekend with him drinking heavily at a bar last January while fooling around with two skanky women. He allegedly was overheard asking where he could buy cocaine.

This bothers me. Quite frankly, I should have seen it coming. Most people never get the chances he’s gotten to fix his life; he’s been in and out of rehab eight times. For all the talk of him fixing his life, he’s still the immature and impulsive boy in man’s clothing who has always been able to get away with everything because he’s good at a game. I don’t begrudge him his talents. I’m just saying: few people get one opportunity to clean themselves up. Almost no one gets as many second-chances as he has. That’s not why I’m upset, though. I’m upset with myself not because I gave him the benefit of the doubt but because I had doubts and willfully ignored them.

On July 16, 2008, I got in touch with Josh Hamilton’s baseball agent in hopes of arranging an interview sometime, anytime, during the season. To tell you the truth, I just wanted to shake the man’s hand and ask a few soft questions. (Read my 2008 column and you’ll see how much I loved Josh Hamilton.) His agent told me over the phone that that would be impossible because Josh would be booked through the offseason, well into winter, and that was that. I was just happy to be talking to his agent so I emailed him a thank you note for his time and well-wishes for Mr. Hamilton. However, I politely asked two questions that to this day haven’t been asked anywhere.

1. What is Josh tested for when he's tested?
2. Can I have an assurance that Josh has not used and does not use steroids, Human Growth Hormone or any other equivalent illegal (either by law or by baseball) substances?

As I explained in my email to the agent, I was just curious about question one because I’ve never seen what he’s tested for reported on in the media -- and besides that, his “problems” are never consistently characterized in the press. Was he a heroin user? Cocaine? Crack? All of the above and more? All of the above and nothing else? And is he tested for every drug he ever used? Does he also get tested for steroids or hormones? Paint thinner? It’s a reporter’s question that deserves an answer, I think, especially from someone who boasts about his private relationship with God and his battle with his demons all the time. Demons have to have a name.

The second question, as I also wrote in my email, was asked because I couldn’t find an article where Hamilton explicitly denied use of these drugs, ever. I was curious about that, and curious about his weight, actually. The prevailing narrative of his life is that he was great at baseball, got addicted to drugs, lost a lot of weight and lived in the gutter for awhile, then got clean and bulked up at grandmother’s house, returned to baseball, and took his place as a hero of the game.

All of that is lovely and inspirational, or at least I thought so. But I’ve always wondered: how did he put on all his weight? Years of drug abuse and eating very poorly aren’t exactly conducive to getting up to 235 pounds of muscle, right? I just had trouble believing then that this was done without any sort of steroids -- and that’s not an accusation. But doctors prescribe steroids for people who’ve wasted away to rehabilitate themselves. Besides that, there have got to be natural temptations to get big again quickly, right? I was just wondering why no one ever asks for the particulars of his weight-gaining program when he was working his way back to baseball.

I never heard back from the agent. Now I feel stupid for ever having written that Josh Hamilton is the “only ballplayer who can reasonably claim to be like Roy Hobbs,” adding, “Maybe ever.” Baseball is not the place to find a hero.

Gregory Pratt is a junior political science and history double-major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently serves as News Editor of the Chicago Flame newspaper. Email him at He likes email.