Cautionary Tales

  • Josh Hamilton (With Tim Keown). Beyond Belief. Faith Words. October 2008.

The most striking pages of Beyond Belief tell the tale of Texas Rangers’ All Star Josh Hamilton’s astoundingly precocious talent. At the age of six, Hamilton could throw a baseball 50 miles per hour—his first peg from shortstop in Little League knocked his bewildered first baseman to the ground. Shortly thereafter, he was elevated to a “Majors” team in North Carolina’s Tar Heel League, where his manager (also his dad) batted him ninth behind boys twice his age for the sake of propriety. The first-grader punched his first home run over the left-center field fence off a pitcher who must have had at least the beginnings of pubic hair. It was Hamilton’s earliest spiritual moment: “It’s hard to explain, but on contact, I felt nothing. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

He would do it again and again. When he was 12, Hamilton hit five home runs in five at-bats in one game. In his senior year at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, he hit over .500 with 13 home runs in 25 games; pro scouts said he was better than Alex Rodriguez at the same age—possibly the best high school player of all time. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected him first in the 1999 draft. He hit .347 with 10 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 56 games in rookie ball when he was 18. A year later, a monster season in Charleston earned Hamilton Class A Player of the Year honors and prompted arguments amongst management regarding whether he should be promoted to the majors as a teenager.

Off the field, Hamilton was focused, cautious, and nerdy. He relates how he skipped his high school prom to avoid the possibility of being caught in a “compromising situation.” His first year in the minors, he lived with his parents, who moved to Charleston to take care of Hamilton and keep him focused. He abstained from beer until he was 21, as per the law.

On March 3, 2001, Hamilton “tweaked” his back in a car accident in Bradenton, Florida. Hamilton and ghostwriter Tim Keown simultaneously indulge and undercut the portentous significance of the injury. Shortly after the accident, Hamilton’s parents went home to North Carolina, leaving him alone to finish spring training in Florida for the first time. His injury limited what he could do on the field and isolated him from teammates. “I won’t downplay the importance of finding myself alone for the first time in my life,” he reflects. “I’ve always struggled with free time.”

Beyond Belief offers no more credible motivation for the shambles Hamilton soon made of his life and talent than free time. Hamilton did not know what to do with it. He began with tattoos. At first three or four on his arms and chest, then a new one almost every day. After a disappointing 2001 season in the minors, he hurt himself again before spring training the next year. Hamilton started hanging out at a tattoo parlor with the artists. One night they all got drunk, then went back to someone’s house and snorted cocaine. Hamilton describes the experience as revelatory: “I leaned over and inhaled a line. I didn’t know what to expect, but by the time I’d lifted my head I knew I liked it. The fog in my brain had lifted. I had energy and life . . . this was the surge of adrenaline I got from hitting a ball 450 feet with the game on the line.”

The story that follows is familiar. Highlights include the time Hamilton pawned his wife’s wedding ring, the time he put out four cigarettes with his throwing hand, the time he abandoned his wife and 4-day-old daughter for booze and crack, the time he blew through $100,000 in 6 days, the time he found himself wandering down the middle of a highway, then got a ride to his crack-dealer’s trailer, where he blacked out on the floor. Hamilton was suspended five times for missing or failing minor league drug tests, with escalating penalties culminating in a one-year ban from baseball in March 2004. Neither then nor in retrospect does he understand any of it: why he began using, why he kept using, what it meant or means. When Hamilton’s wife asked him why he abandoned her and their daughter for strangers and drugs, he told her, “I didn’t understand it either. I just did it. I never gave much thought to it.” When his dad asked him why he kept smoking crack, even though it hurt him and those around him, he couldn’t answer the question: “He didn’t understand it and I didn’t understand it.”

The title of Hamilton’s book suggests a territory outside its range. What lies beyond belief is thought. But like most sports biography, Beyond Belief expresses a conflicted attitude toward thought. The professional athlete, after all, is almost always a believer. Through no fault of his own, he was endowed with a spectacular talent, which must have appeared as a sacred bestowal or gift. If he cultivated it properly—if he nourished and believed in it—this gift carried him out of the blighted circumstances of his birth to the brink of great fame and fortune. From an early age, he had it drummed into him that he put this gift at risk through excessive reflection. This is particularly the case in baseball, a sport haunted by myths of debilitating psychological maladies: the second baseman who forgot how to throw to first, the pitcher who couldn’t find the catcher. For the baseball player especially, “understanding” is first and foremost an occupational hazard.

Yet a biography, even a celebrity sports biography put out by a Christian press, still demands facts, figures, dates, reasons. The athlete is called upon to describe his path to greatness, and, if relevant, his descent from it. He responds with clichés, apocryphya, and thinly veiled nonsense. The upshot of Josh Hamilton’s story is that Josh Hamilton cannot explain anything about his story; the most common phrases in the book are “I didn’t understand” and “It’s hard to explain.”

The chief thing Hamilton cannot explain or understand is the connection between the two main themes of his book: baseball and addiction. Luckily, that connection is implicit in nearly every page of Beyond Belief. Hamilton’s description of his feeling upon hitting his first home run already carries in it a hint of the incipient addict’s hedonism (“one of the best feelings in the world”), which reverberates in his first experience with cocaine, compared in effect to the adrenaline rush of hitting a baseball very far. The writer’s tic of using the same phrase to introduce both experiences (“It’s hard to explain”) is indicative of a deep and only apparently enigmatic symmetry. Hamilton calls the early tattoos the “first sign” of his “addictive personality,” but even the rudimentary life-outline provided by Keown suggests otherwise. In fact Hamilton’s ascetic dedication to baseball in his early years transitions almost gently into his ascetic dedication to crack cocaine. His refusal to ever question his talent becomes his refusal to ever question his addiction. Both his talent and his addiction begin as gifts (the talent, from God, the cocaine from “Kevin”) and evolve into burdens.

It is no accident that the best novel of our time, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, shuttles between a tennis academy and a halfway house. The juxtaposition indicated the complementary relationship between high-level athletics—which Wallace treated as a stand-in for any well-regarded American pursuit—and substance abuse. The novel suggested convincingly that our nation’s ethic of achievement directly encourages the cultivation of skills and habits of mind that tend ultimately to turn against the self. What should alone shock and awe us in the life-story of Michael Jordan, for instance, is not that he has turned out to be an inveterate gambler and serial adulterer (c.f. Michael Leahy, When Nothing Else Matters), but that he managed for so long and so effectively to subjugate his subsidiary addictions to a primary one: basketball.

But the virtues espoused in the sports biography—confidence, ambition, singleness of purpose, winning—are hardly eccentric. These are the American virtues. Their darker consequence can be seen in the obsessive and destructive hobbies that detain the high achiever deprived of the thing he has been trained to achieve. Hamilton had been “groomed since kindergarten” to play baseball; it was the only thing he was ever “really, really good at doing.” It never seems to have occurred to him to ask whether the cultivation of natural talent was the same thing as happiness. His failure to explain his four-year binge can thus be projected backwards: as he himself describes it, the binge coincided with a period in which he often failed to recall what he had ever wanted from baseball in the first place. To a man dragged down into Hamilton’s kind of hell, the question of steroids—how far one would go to get to the top—must seem the enviable privilege of those still convinced that the game has a point. Such a man, perhaps, has glimpsed the distinctly un-American possibility that excellence may not be its own reward. Hamilton tells us, near the end of the book, that his is a “cautionary tale.” This appears to be true, just not in the way he means it.

Hamilton was saved by his grandmother, but Jesus gets all the credit. In 2005, “When every other door closed, hers remained open.” “Granny” took Hamilton in and fed him. At her insistence, Hamilton began to pray. There was a Bible in his room. The first verse he read was James 4:7: “Humble yourself before God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Hamilton committed the verse to memory. He “white knuckled” his way through a sober week. He had been sober for a week before but this time there was “a different director in charge.” Granny? Not quite. Hamilton had a recurring dream in which he was fighting the devil with a baseball bat; after being reinstated into baseball he had the dream again, but this time he “turned and saw Jesus, fighting beside me … and suddenly I was filled with the strength of a thousand men. We kept fighting and finally I struck the devil and he did not reappear.” The devil, he realized, was “just thoughts.”

This victory precipitated others. It was not long before Hamilton was back on a baseball field. Despite the trials to which he had subjected his body and soul, he found little diminution in his skills. He trained at a Christian baseball institute, hit .350 in 15 games in an Independent League, then signed with the Cincinnati Reds. A year later he was traded to Texas.

Beyond Belief culminates with Hamilton’s record-setting performance during the Home Run Derby in front of 54,000 people at Yankee Stadium last year. Hamilton hit 28 home runs in one round, including on 13 consecutive pitches. In an interview immediately after, he said the performance followed the plot of a vivid dream he’d had two years earlier, during a period in which he was banned from baseball. As for the resilience of his physical gifts, Hamilton cannot explain it. “I came to the only ‘logical’ conclusion,” he says in the book. “It was a God thing.”

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