Hamilton headlines top '08 story lines

January, 1, 2009
Today, a look back. Tomorrow, a look ahead.

On the night of July 16, President George W. Bush hosted a dinner honoring baseball, a joyous evening that before it was over included Kevin Millar's singing backup to Kenny Chesney in the Rose Garden beneath a glorious moon.

During dinner, Bush asked, "Is Josh Hamilton real?"

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The president was assured that, indeed, Hamilton is very much real and told that, after his show-stopping performance in the Home Run Derby on July 14, Hamilton asked for the cell phone number of Marlins farmhand Jeff Allison, who came back from fighting his own demons to make the Florida State League All-Star Game. Hamilton wanted to reach out and possibly help Allison in his battle.

"Then we should make Josh Hamilton a symbol for what young people in this country can overcome," Bush said.

Everyone but perhaps Sarah Palin and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright knows that the outgoing president does know baseball. This summer, as he began his exit after sharing a private, personal hour with Tim Russert's family at the wake of the late, great journalist, Bush turned to Russert's dearest friend, Mike Barnicle, and said, "Did you see what Chase Utley did last night? What a great ballplayer."

In two private moments, Bush got what made this past season special. He didn't ask about the Mitchell report or whether the Yankees would give three free agents more than the federal government gave General Motors or about Manny Being Manny or about A-Rod dating Madonna.

The president made it clear he understood the demons to which young people in our society so often fall prey, and that Hamilton's missing nearly four years, coming back, hitting 32 homers, knocking in 130 runs and enacting his own meteor shower in Yankee Stadium is a symbol of triumph against great odds. The president probably watched "Baseball Tonight" in lieu of "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" and understood in mid-July what the Mets media and fans couldn't grasp -- that Utley is one of the game's great superstars playing on a team that would beat the Mets two years in a row, rather than succumbing to the New York perception that the only reason the Phillies won is because the Mets lost.

The Rays, who had never won 71 games and who got to the World Series by beating the world champion Red Sox in two crucial September series and one monumental ALCS, were one of the season's best story lines. The Phillies, with their resolute determination and "Upstairs, Downstairs" combination of Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge, clearly deserved what they won. We all enjoyed the rides provided by the leagues' winningest teams, the Angels and the Cubs, and the rise of the Brewers and Twins -- who after trading Johan Santana won one less game than the Mets.

But in terms of individual story lines, Hamilton's was the best of 2008. To do what he has done in two years, both mentally and physically, is astounding. What Rick Ankiel has done, coming back from years of mental and physical nightmares to become an All-Star-level player, is remarkable, just as it is to see Ryan Ludwick -- who in years of injuries once nearly bled to death -- hit 37 homers and post a .966 OPS.

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