ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was just six months ago that Josh Hamilton's popularity, not to mention his stock, hit an all-time high in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Hamilton, whose story of battling drug and alcohol addiction to make it to the big leagues captivated the country, had just mashed an incredible four homers in a game in early May at Camden Yards in Baltimore. That is the closest hitting equivalent to a perfect game, if you look at the rarity of the feat, and Hamilton was in the middle of a searing hot streak. Fans were calling into sports talk shows, begging the Rangers' front office to start long-term negotiations with the slugger before his price got set in the open market. The Rangers heading into the future without Hamilton, the team's most popular player, batting third in the lineup seemed unthinkable to many fans.
But in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately universe we live in, the way Hamilton's season paralleled a rough end to the Rangers' season has really hurt his reputation and value with fans. An inconsistent 2012 ended with a strange injury, a botched play and a no-show performance in the American League wild-card game that caused some fans at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to boo the slugger.
Hamilton missed five big road games with what he admitted was a "weird" physical issue that caused him to be able to focus on only one spot, affecting his ability to play. He said the problem was too much caffeine, so he cut down on coffee and energy drinks, and felt better. But his bat, like those of his teammates, went MIA when it counted most. So, too, did his glove in the division-deciding game.
Poll the fans -- or just check my inbox -- and you'll see that Hamilton's drop in center field on a clear October day in the fourth inning of a tie game in Oakland was the lasting impression of the 2012 season. It was a routine fly ball, and Hamilton simply over-ran it. The ball nicked off his glove, and two runs scored to give the A's a lead they would not relinquish in the final game of the regular season, winning the AL West. If Hamilton had made that catch, the inning would have been over and the game still tied. Oakland had the momentum and might have won the game anyway, but at that point, it was a huge blow to the Rangers' chances.
Two days later, Hamilton went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a double play in the AL wild-card loss to Baltimore. He struck out on three pitches in the eighth inning as he represented the tying run. That might have been Hamilton's final at-bat in a Rangers uniform.
That's not to say fans don't see the value in bringing Hamilton back. They know his 43 home runs and 128 RBIs are nearly impossible to replace this offseason. They've seen what he can do on the bases -- he scored from second base on an infield single twice in one season. They've seen him deal with two public relapses with alcohol and his efforts to learn from them. They've seen how even when he takes batting practice, there's something different about the sound of the ball hitting his bat. You end up feeling sorry for the ball, the way he can smoothly yet effectively punish it into the deepest caverns of the park. But those same fans also have seen firsthand the past dozen or so years what overpaying and bad contracts can do to a team, even one that now has more money to spend with new ownership and a rich television contract.
Hamilton has said he wants to come back, and I believe him. He has a good support system in place and is used to life in Texas, where the scrutiny isn't quite what it is in Boston or New York or other markets. But this also could be his one chance to really get a big contract since he got to the majors so late (at the age of 25). He's going to look for the longest deal he can get, and that might mean something out of the Rangers' comfort zone.
No one knows Hamilton better than Texas. But more than anything off the field, it's Hamilton's injury history that will have Texas -- and some other teams -- hesitant to give him the same number of years a hitter of his caliber might otherwise receive in free agency. He missed a huge chunk of 2009 with a variety of strains (Achilles, groin and back), didn't play most of the final month of 2010 with cracked ribs and then missed six weeks early in 2011 when a headfirst slide on a tag-up from third base caused a shoulder injury.
The Rangers must decide what they're comfortable with in terms of guaranteed years. It takes just one team to blow that plan out of the water and for Hamilton to go elsewhere. But should the market not go skyward for this unique talent, the Rangers would be in the hunt as the team most familiar to Hamilton and his family.
If Hamilton leaves, though, I think fans can live with that in large part because there's a level of trust among fans in general manager Jon Daniels and his staff that doesn't exist for Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys, for example. If Hamilton doesn't return because the Rangers didn't want to pay the asking price, most fans will believe it's because Daniels is sticking with his philosophy of making moves that ensure the club's competitive window stays open for longer than just 2013 or 2014. And they'll be confident Daniels can at least try to replace Hamilton's big bat in other ways.
Interestingly, part of that trust was built when the club traded for Hamilton in the first place. Prior to the 2008 season, the Rangers sent Edinson Volquez, one of their pitching prospects at or near the big league level, to Cincinnati for Hamilton. Why? Because the Rangers felt Hamilton had MVP potential and they felt he was worth risking a valuable pitching commodity to obtain.
Now, five years later, they're faced with the prospect of losing that talent as he hits free agency. A few years ago, that would seem to be a public relations nightmare and something that might cause a bit of a revolt among fans. I don't get that sense now. Don't get me wrong: Rangers fans still love Hamilton. If he speaks at an area church about how his faith has helped him through the difficult times, it's a standing-room-only crowd. If he signs autographs, some fans will line up nearly a day in advance to be sure they get the chance to shake his hand and take a picture with him. Hamilton's willingness to do that has helped earn him a legion of fans.
But is that, combined with his amazing on-field feats and likeable personality, enough to secure his place among the annals of legends in Texas? It's too early to say. He's had a remarkable five-year run in Arlington. But as of now, it is only five years and doesn't include a championship. Hamilton doesn't have all the records Michael Young has or the longevity.
Unlike other big names in the club's history, Hamilton's ascension has coincided with the club's rise as a big league power. Hamilton is no Nolan Ryan, still the top baseball legend in the area by a country mile. But Ryan was the main draw on Rangers teams that weren't really contenders. Sure, Pudge Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez played major roles in AL West-winning clubs in the mid-to-late 1990s. But the Rangers hadn't won a playoff series -- in fact, they'd won just one playoff game -- before Hamilton arrived.
Judging Hamilton by what happened at the end of a five-year run isn't fair. Do the Rangers get to the World Series two straight years without Hamilton's exploits in the 3-hole in the lineup? Probably not. He's provided fans with plenty of memorable moments -- whether that's smashing a game-winning home run or smiling for autographs at spring training. But when it mattered most this past season, Hamilton didn't play up to the high standards expected of him.
If he re-signs with Texas, he'll have a few more years to make sure the final weeks of 2012 are just a distant memory when it comes to his legacy. If he doesn't return to Arlington, it'll be part of his Texas story. And perhaps time will allow the bad memories to fade, too. If this is indeed the end of Hamilton's tenure in Texas, he'll go down as one of the best players to ever put on a Rangers uniform. And one of the most interesting and confounding, too.