x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Josh Hamilton's baggage limit is exceeded

For all his talent, MLB free agent Hamilton has no guarantees of a happy future for any potential suitor.

Baseball player Josh Hamilton has had a troubled time with the Texas Rangers.
Baseball player Josh Hamilton has had a troubled time with the Texas Rangers.

You are the general manager of a Major League Baseball team. Walking the aisles of the free-agent market, you stand in awe of one freakish player with his own display case.

This chap hits for power and average - from the left side, no less, further heightening his value. A sprinter's speed enables him to patrol centre field with ease. He would put extra bottoms in your ballpark's seats, draw more eyeballs to broadcasts of your games and expose a fresh audience to his heartwarming tale.

You dive into whatever-it-takes mode to sign him, right?

Then there is the unattached player who became lost in a batting funk the second half of the 2012 season.

He is susceptible to injuries and periods of misplaced focus. He will eternally reside in a state of recovery from drug abuse that nearly killed him, and media coverage of his tussles with various addictions looms as a potential distraction. He has turned his body into an artist's canvas, sporting 26 tattoos.

You turn tail and run away from this guy, right?

Not so fast. Those two scouting reports describe the same player - Josh Hamilton, the most tantalising high-reward, high-risk free agent in … well, maybe forever.

Hamilton's case is built around a splendid biography enhanced by an MVP award, two recent World Series appearances with the Texas Rangers, five consecutive All Star games and knockout numbers, including the uncommon combination of a .304 career average and 43 homers last season.

The lengthy contract - seven years, reportedly - for which Hamilton is trolling should give pause to any suitor.

Long-term deals for athletes on the high side of age 30 are fraught with peril. Just consider Alex Rodriguez.

Two more: Albert Pujols. The Los Angeles Angels should plead temporary insanity for gifting the future (but fading) Hall of Famer a 10-year deal. Only nine to go.

And will there be a uniform large enough to clothe the already corpulent (although assuredly athletic) Prince Fielder when his contract with the Detroit Tigers expires after eight more years?

Now consider Hamilton. He is not old, at 31, by the calendar, although it stands to reason that illicit substances have stolen a year or two from his body. He would be pushing 40, earning north of US$150 million (Dh551m), if his likely terms are met.

Years ago, a team handed Hamilton $4m, a sum with which most Americans could live happily ever after. He spilled this entire signing bonus in a flash, along with 50 pounds from his once-muscular frame, while engaged in a destructive lifestyle controlled by liquor and cocaine.

Evidence that Hamilton tapped out: once, when there were no funds to cover a cheque to his drug dealer, his father-in-law paid the tab.

None of which is a reflection on Hamilton's character, drug dependency being a disease, not a choice.

He deserves praise for displaying fortitude while minimising regressive behaviour.

From a cold business perspective, though, this is a shakier investment than in a player coping with a curable disease. For Hamilton's, there is no cure, only treatment.

The next employer must monitor his whereabouts, plus make sure he submits to drug testing every few days, as required by the conditions of his reinstatement.

Any lapse, however slight, will draw unwanted attention. Last spring, Hamilton was seen engaged in an activity as normal for a ballplayer as breathing - drinking at a bar. The reaction could not have been more alarming had he been spotted trading state secrets to a foreign agent.

Yet, it was understandable, a reminder of Hamilton's permanent vulnerability and the inherent risk that any franchise accepts by committing beyond one or two seasons.

Texas has extended a token offer, a sign they would rather he move on. Nolan Ryan, the Rangers chief executive, took issue with Hamilton trying to wean himself from another addiction - smokeless tobacco - during the season. Ryan's criticism of a player who would be better off shedding any cravings seemed insensitive and callous.

Another mini-crisis peculiar to Hamilton arose when balance and vision issues forced him to sit out five games. The suspected cause was caffeinated drinks that he is fond of chugging.

As the source of player problems, chewing tobacco and Red Bull are preferable to cocaine and alcohol, but it suggests the heavy baggage that Hamilton brings will never lighten.

Count me in, front and centre, among the Hamilton cheering section, hoping he will serve as a continuing inspiration to the similarly suffering and as a lesson on the ravages of addiction.

But franchises checking out the shelves in baseball's free-agent market should heed the warning for any shopper weighing a pricey purchase that carries no warranty.

Buyer beware.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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