Believing.

“I felt like part of the team in Cincinnati, and I believe God put me there for a reason to start my career in a baseball-crazed city.  But from the moment Ian, Michael, and Hank sat down in the back of the room during my spring training press conference, I felt at home with the Rangers.  It just felt right, like this, too, was meant to be.”

– Josh Hamilton

I finished “Beyond Belief: Finding the strength to come back” yesterday.  It’s a quick read, a fascinating, frightening, detailed account of Josh Hamilton’s incredible story.  The way it is told, I imagine the book would appeal just as much to someone who is religious but not a fan of baseball as to a baseball fan who isn’t religious.  

The highs of Hamilton’s two big league seasons take on new meaning when you get to relive them through his own words.  As for the lows, we all have a sense of how dark those five years were, but you’ve probably never seen it laid out in nearly this much stark detail.  I certainly never had as strong a sense before reading the book that Hamilton is truly fortunate to be alive.

Tomorrow is the release date for “Beyond Belief.”  (Incidentally, if you plan to buy it and plan to go through Amazon.com to do so, consider taking the one extra step of clicking the Amazon link at the top of the NewbergReport.com website.  Costs you nothing extra.)  Hamilton will make two public appearances next week to promote the book: October 21 at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano (6801 W. Park Blvd., 11:30-1:00 p.m.), and October 22 at Barnes & Noble in South Arlington (3881 S. Cooper, near I-20, 7:00 p.m.).

When Hamilton wrote this about the chance Cincinnati took on him in 2007 — “It was easy to place a bet on my ability to hit a baseball and track down a fly ball.  But based on my personal history, it took serious guts to believe I could stay clean and sober” — my thoughts turned to the Rangers, who paid not $50,000 but Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera to get Hamilton.  Knowing more now about what Hamilton put himself through and how you might consider his triumph on the other side a perpetually tenuous one, the trade seems even gutsier in retrospect.

This was a kid who, despite being paid nearly $4 million out of high school because Tampa Bay, like so many other teams, believed in his once-in-a-generation, Mantle-esque talent, had never had a beer, been to a strip club, or tried cocaine — until that one night in 2002, when at age 20 he did all three for the first time, after a back injury just before spring training resulted in a change in environment.  He found acceptance in a tattoo parlor, and the impressionable kid ended up following the lead of a couple guys who set him on a path that destroyed his life, almost permanently.  

That he bounced back from what followed — even if he never played baseball again — is hard to believe.

Think about the Hamilton you know, the one who always seems to have a smile on his face, who plays the game with an obvious looseness, physically and emotionally, who never seems to take himself too seriously.  That same guy recalls that, just three years ago: “I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed or even smiled or felt a flutter of joy pass through me.  I was living like an animal.”

Fast forward to spring training 2008, the press conference at which Hamilton noticed Kinsler, Young, and Blalock in the back of room in street clothes, figuring they were just waiting their turn for their own press conferences.  When a reporter asked Hamilton if he’d ever had teammates show that sort of support, through welling tears he said no, thinking to himself that the lack of outward support from his Reds teammates never registered with him nearly as much as the effort his new Rangers teammates were making.

Kinsler asked him to get dinner a few days later.  It was the first time a teammate had ever asked him to do anything away from the ballpark.

He would wind down at the end of those days in Surprise by playing video games or watching TV with Kinsler and Jason Botts.

He went to movies during the season with Kinsler.  Milton Bradley regularly asked him to get breakfast on the road.  

For all the resentment that his Reds teammates had exhibited (publicly so by Brandon Phillips), what he found instead in Texas was acceptance, just as addicting as the acceptance he’d reached out for in a Florida tattoo parlor, but this time overwhelmingly healthy.  

On the back cover of the book, Nolan Ryan offers this quote: “Josh is one of the most talented baseball players I’ve ever seen, but his life experiences transcend baseball.  His ability to be one of the best players in the game after all he’s been through is amazing — and inspiring for everyone who knows his story.”

Meanwhile, as I was finishing the book over the weekend, there were Internet stories adding detail to Ryan’s reported plans for the Rangers to implement an amplified set of expectations for the organization’s pitchers.  Aside from higher pitch counts, live batting practice, and better conditioning, there’s work to be done in the mental side of the game.  The Rangers intend to challenge their young arms even more going forward, to cultivate a fearlessness in them, with no room for excuses.  

Jon Daniels commented late last week, in the context of what the club might be looking for in its new pitching coach, that one thing he’d like to see is a coach who might be able to help Texas pitchers develop the same confidence — even swagger — that the hitters always have here.  

I thought about Hamilton, and the Kinsler/Young/Blalock triumvirate that sat in the back of the room as he was introduced to the Rangers press in February.  They all have that swagger, but it’s a quiet confidence that stops short of arrogance, or self-importance.  

We’ve seen it in Marlon Byrd and Mark DeRosa and David Murphy, too.  And Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden.  The Rangers have a habit of bringing hitters to Arlington — whether from other clubs or from their own farm system — and getting almost immediate results, often far greater than you might have expected from a non-roster invite, or another club’s first-round disappointment, or a 17th-round pick, or someone who many thought would never hit enough to start in the big leagues, or a kid with basically two years in the minor leagues.  

Or someone whose drug addiction cost him nearly four years of his baseball life, if not worse.

There have been so many examples in recent years of hitters doing more than they were supposed to in Texas, and that undoubtedly feeds into that swagger.  

Without being in the clubhouse, I’d guess that the example that Young and Kinsler set, the leadership that they provide, helps feed that quiet swagger, too.  I also get the sense that, without oversimplifying things, on most teams position players typically have their own leader or leaders while pitchers have their own.  I’m not sure who the leader is among the pitchers on this team, but part of that equation is leading by example, and in 2008 there wasn’t the pitching equivalent (as far as we know) of a guy who played through two broken fingers or a knee that should have been operated on, and produced.

Fearlessness.  No excuses.  Swagger.

Josh Hamilton exemplifies all those things, and after you spend 256 pages reading about what he’s made it through, you’ll understand better.  

The things that the Rangers’ young pitchers have to overcome are far different, obviously far less bleak and unstable and scary, but in a way it’s all about believing in yourself and meeting challenges head-on.  The core of this team is in its growing supply of young, confident, productive hitters, as it alway
s has been.  If the franchise starts to add pitching not only with comparable talent but also with just as good a chance to produce — helped by a stronger mindset — then we can look forward to better things from this baseball team.

And if it all plays out right?  Maybe a second book from Josh Hamilton.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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