Josh Hamilton's messy Texas exit
A brave new world awaits him, but the farewell to Arlington wasn't pretty
Josh Hamilton is scheduled to take a physical exam Friday in Anaheim, and if all goes well, he will appear at a news conference Saturday to make official his five-year, $125 million agreement with the Los Angeles Angels. If the Angels adhere to recent tradition, they will hold the event in the stadium parking lot, beneath a radiant Southern California sun, amid the backdrop of two giant baseball caps and the Albert Pujols and Mike Trout murals.
In light of Hamilton's career arc, it's only fitting that he will join his new team just a few Mark Trumbo home runs from Disneyland. The scene will make a wonderful opening shot in the proposed Josh Hamilton movie, which will be written and directed by Casey Affleck and took another step toward reality in November.
For a professional athlete, few things are more exhilarating than saying hello to a new, adoring fan base on a team with serious aspirations of winning. It's those messy goodbyes that tend to get in the way.
Hamilton's tenure with his former team, the Rangers, is replete with Texas-size memories. When he wasn't denting the Yankee Stadium bleachers in the Home Run Derby in 2008, he was hitting a record-tying four homers in a game at Baltimore last May. Although the Rangers came up short twice in the World Series, Hamilton experienced a transcendent moment of peace in Game 6 of the 2011 Fall Classic when God told him he was about to go deep during his stroll from the on-deck circle to home plate. Hamilton naturally obliged, homering in the 10th inning of a classic that the Rangers eventually lost 10-9 to St. Louis.
During his five seasons in Texas, Hamilton made five All-Star teams, won three Silver Sluggers and a Most Valuable Player award. And when he fell off the wagon during a trip to a local bar last February, the Rangers threw their arms around him, stood by him and supported him despite all his baggage.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship that could have easily run its course to Hamilton's retirement. Instead, the plot played out like "No Country For Old Men" for many Rangers fans -- with a captivating Texas storyline, spoiled by a bad ending.
When Michael Young left Arlington this week in a trade with Philadelphia, he bluntly told reporters that he has "no relationship" with the Rangers' front office. That wasn't the case with Hamilton. His rapport with the team is merely strained from the free-agent process, which requires well-intentioned people to make life-altering decisions in a highly scrutinized environment.
At issue: Whether Hamilton and his agent, Mike Moye, owed something more to the Rangers before severing ties with the club. There's no rulebook for out-the-door comportment, and even for men such as Hamilton and Moye -- devout Christians who value their word and pride themselves on taking the high road -- things can get muddy in the trenches.
Hamilton, the prize catch of baseball's free-agent market this year, made several comments during the season to indicate he would keep the Rangers in the loop if he decided to leave town. After Texas lost to Baltimore in the wild-card game in early October, Hamilton gauged his chances of returning to Arlington at 50-50 and told reporters he would "absolutely" inform the Rangers before making a commitment to a new club.
The dynamic can change, of course, when the agent and general manager meet to establish ground rules, and something clearly got lost in the translation during this courtship.
Sources said the Angels began making their push with Moye during the recent winter meetings in Nashville. That contradicts the notion that the Hamilton signing was a knee-jerk move by the Angels to steal the Los Angeles Dodgers' thunder given their signing of Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu earlier this week. For Angels owner Arte Moreno, it appears to be less about Magic Johnson envy than trying to build a championship club and stockpiling star power to drive viewers to his $3 billion regional sports network.
That same competitiveness and tunnel vision drive Moreno's approach to contract negotiations. He's happy to spend big on a player he values, but perish the thought of the player shopping an offer. This, from all indications, is how the bond between Josh Hamilton and the Rangers ultimately unraveled.
Things unfolded very uncomfortably for Texas general manager Jon Daniels, who sat down with Rangers beat writers during a holiday media luncheon Thursday and delivered the status quo company line: Yes, the Rangers were still interested in signing Hamilton, Daniels said. But there was nothing new to report.
Or so he thought. Somewhere between that tired update and the arrival of his turkey breast and ham, Daniels received a call from Moye telling him that Hamilton was going to the Angels. Not It's coming to a head or We need to know your bottom line immediately. More along the lines of Josh is an Angel. For Daniels, the sense of finality was stunning.
Did Hamilton and Moye violate some predetermined verbal agreement with the Rangers? Moye told ESPN.com on Thursday night that there was no understanding between the two sides that the Rangers would receive a final chance to lock up Hamilton before he signed with another club -- regardless of comments Hamilton made in the clubhouse during the season.
"Reports in the media that we gave the Rangers the right to match offers were simply erroneous," Moye said.
Daniels essentially agrees with Moye's characterization. There's no provision in MLB's basic agreement giving teams a right of first refusal to match offers. In Hamilton's case, the Rangers thought it would simply have been a case of showing a courtesy in the name of good faith.
"I don't begrudge Josh at all for going to the Angels, but the relationship between Josh and the Rangers was not a typical team-player relationship," Daniels said. "That's where it was a little disappointing -- that it was decided in the manner it was decided and communicated in the way it was communicated."
As the day unfolded, some Texas fans got whipped into a frenzy and embraced the notion of Hamilton as villain or an ingrate. It's common knowledge that Hamilton requires some extra care and feeding because of his history of drug and alcohol abuse. Peruse the fan backlash on the Internet, and you'll find abundant mentions of how the Rangers "coddled" or "baby-sat" Hamilton and deserved better. That's no surprise; while teams, agents and players understand that free agency is a business, fans are more inclined to take it personally.
But that doesn't change the way the Angels swooped in and shocked the baseball world. For weeks, speculation has run rampant that Hamilton couldn't get four years on the open market. And the Rangers made it clear to Moye from the outset that if Hamilton could hit the mother lode somewhere else, they probably wouldn't be competitive. If Hamilton was going to return to Texas, it would have to be on their terms.
Daniels, assistant GM Thad Levine and Texas' front office team have a reputation for exhausting every avenue, and you can argue that they've spread themselves too thin this winter and needed to act more decisively. Their options -- Zack Greinke, James Shields, Justin Upton and Hamilton -- all failed to materialize, and now Daniels and his group have to devise a Plan E. If the Rangers can add a bat along the lines of Nick Swisher or Adam LaRoche, find a way to upgrade the pitching, and unleash prospects Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt on the American League, it might be a bad idea to write them off come spring training.
By February, everybody should be ready to shake hands around the batting cage and move forward in the Cactus League. And even by late Thursday night, as he drove home from a holiday party, a weary Daniels was striking a more conciliatory tone.
"I've seen players leave organizations on a sour note, and that's not the case at all here," Daniels said. "Do I love how it was handled at the end? No, I don't. But Josh has been a huge part of the baseball renaissance here with this club, and I wish him well personally. I don't wish his team well, but I wish him well.
"I don't want it to come across like sour grapes on our side. I understand the business side of it, 100 percent. We make these tough calls all the time. At the end of the day, maybe we didn't like how it was communicated. I'm sure people say the same thing about us at times. But when the dust settles, we're going to look back on Josh's time with the Rangers as pretty special. I still look at him as one of the best Rangers of all time."
With all due respect to the Oakland A's, who won the AL West in 2012, the Rangers versus Angels will be the second-most compelling rivalry in baseball next season -- behind only the Angels-Dodgers battle for L.A. superiority. Vlad Guerrero, Mike Napoli and Darren Oliver gravitated from Anaheim to Arlington in recent years and played important roles in the resurgence of baseball in Texas, and the Angels have signed C.J. Wilson and Hamilton off the Rangers' roster to free-agent deals worth a total of $202.5 million the past two winters, so the cross-pollination between the teams adds to the intrigue.
In 2010 and 2011, Hamilton and Wilson took part in postseason celebrations in Texas amid a deluge of ginger ale. Hamilton, the recovering addict, and Wilson, a disciple of the alcohol-free Straight Edge lifestyle, shared a common bond. But for Hamilton, this was less about reuniting with a former teammate than hitting in the same lineup with Trout and Pujols and getting some nine-digit-contract love out of the blue. He followed the opportunity and the money to Anaheim, and who can blame him for that?
Amid the ball caps and the stadium murals, the Angels' feel-good angle will play out this weekend in SoCal. Pardon the folks in Texas, but they'll be watching a different movie.