Space Between: The Gospel of Josh Hamilton

Josh Hamilton could do anything on the baseball field. (via Keith Allison)

In the space between the mound and home plate — the space where four-seam fastballs and 12-to-6 benders went spinning, once upon a time, toward their particular histories — Josh Hamilton’s own history had just been made immutable, and evermore distinguished, with the unveiling of a plaque.

That plaque, all gold and black, stood atop a pedestal on the infield grass at Globe Life Park, the place where Hamilton, in his five full seasons as a Ranger, had launched unfortunate heaters and disastrous yakkers into the moment we now witnessed: his induction into the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s your first look at his plaque,” said master of ceremonies John Rhadigan to the crowd of 25,000. “Now watch the screen for one last look back at his meteoric career.”

Beyond the fence he had often crashed into, and far beyond the plaque that called him an “offensive catalyst” with “power and speed,” the video board began to highlight the history-in-the-making moments that inspired the enshrinement: wall-crash catches and walk-off dingers; wicked liners and on-a-line throws.

Supplementing the montage was the voice of GM Jon Daniels. “People talk about five-tool talents…. This guy literally has the ability to do just about everything he wants on a baseball field.”

These were his words, now revived, on the day of the 2007 trade that brought Hamilton to Texas, where, in a storybook redemption that seemed almost make-believe, Hamilton resurrected the ridiculous talent that addiction had wrecked to turn himself into the game’s greatest player — if only for a time, meteoric indeed.

On the screen now, so swift that it begged for slow-motion, was that Hamiltonian swing. Once upon a time it came, then twice and again, a burst and a blur made discernible by the flesh that tattooed it into consequence. Off the bat, which seemed in his fingers a tool of both brutality and fine art, the ball cut a path through the clear night air, long and arcing, and dividing the blue darkness to find the brightness of the New York lights.

When it landed in the distant seats of that famed stadium, when at last it came down from the heavens he had made people believe in, the ball found the fans in celebration, leaping, thrusting arms heavenward and high-fiving one another in the realization that they were witnessing a mythical figure made real by his flaws and made better by the mercies he had found.

So what if he didn’t win the derby. So what if the outcome didn’t square with the moment or the memory of it. He had won his place in some tomorrow, soon or in a far-off year, when people would find this night in the mind’s most magical and mythmaking eye. The scenes it conceived it had also preserved, turning those accelerated swings into the most enduring display.

The montage continued. Here he was again, launching a ball beyond the fence, and again, crashing to the grass, and again, lifting the trophy that all those heroics had earned. His fingers were wrapped around the prize.

Only in hindsight, because you never know when the end will arrive, would we know how the montage concluded. It concluded with the final home run of his four-homer night. He appeared then as now. In batting gloves of red-white-and-blue, and gray, his hands grip the handle of the 34.4-ounce bat. His fingers, for the time being, are fixed to the curve. This is the moment between moments, the space that divides the feats we hold on to from the debris we do not. His pinky is an arc of gray fabric at rest against the knob.

An instant hence, after O’s reliever Darren O’Day has released the 0-2 pitch, those fingers go with the hands to lift the bat from the shoulder. In another instant, here for history to keep, the hands become a Hamiltonian blur. They describe an arc much larger than the pinky’s, whipped into place and wide, and as the barrel crosses paths with a fastball whose history is written now in the air, he lets fly the top hand and lets go the lumber and takes his path to the plaque.

Years later, in another on-field moment, Hamilton reaches down to give that plaque a playful shine. Near the bottom of the inscription, in golden letters, are these words: “belted a career-best 43 homers with 128 RBI in 2012, including 16th four-homer game in major league  history on May 8 at Baltimore.”

***

Beating the Odds: When Teams Outperform Their Projections
When it comes to outperforming projections, some teams are better than others.

Precisely an hour before Hamilton’s induction began, a program called Texas Rangers Classics appeared on the network that would televise both the ceremony and the Twins-Rangers game to follow. Given the dispiriting fact that there aren’t many Rangers classics to begin with — Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter comes to mind, and Kenny Rogers’ perfect game, but after that it’s mostly tumbleweeds — I had decided to record the production for later viewing. Grudgingly, because I loathe formal ceremonies and all the cringe-inducing speeches that defile them, I also recorded the induction.

In addition, and lastly, I recorded the game. I often record the games. Why? While it’s true that live viewing can give the witness an in-the-moment sense of inclusion and all the instant thrills that follow, it also imposes on that witness the ad-nauseam iterations of Ford F250 commercials. Yes, I’m aware it’s “built Ford tough.”

So there it was, on my DVR, a convenient trio of baseball recordings: a classic, a commemoration, a contest. I’d soon realize and later appreciate that this trio had created an unplanned exercise in time travel, a surprising trip through the tenses. Indeed, though I would view them in chronological disorder, they’d make for a manifold journey into the past, present and future.

At present, my Rangers aren’t good. They certainly aren’t as good as those 2010-2012 teams that Hamilton carried to the playoffs, or even that 2015 team that carried Hamilton, diminished upon his return, to October. As such, the 2019 Rangers entered August as the usual mix of aging veterans and “young hopefuls.”

Against Minnesota, the Rangers fielded a lineup that included four players in their 30s and five in their 20s — four of them 26 or younger. In addition, they started 23-year-old Ariel Jurado on the mound. A pair of rookie relievers, Brett Martin and Ian Gibault, followed. Late in the game, 24-year-old Willie Calhoun pinch hit for second-year catcher Jose Trevino.

If they weren’t exactly prospects, they weren’t exactly has-beens.

And so in this game, as in many games, I watched a bunch of old guys past their prime and a bunch of young guys who hope to have one — a prime, that is, a time they might someday wrap their hands around and hold close, as though it’s the last thing they would ever let go of, a time that on some future evening they might recall with pride and even with the plaque that affirms it.

Like Hamilton, I’ve long recalled with clarity the events of that four-homer night. I’ve recalled the first homer, just beyond the glove of centerfielder Adam Jones, and the last, far beyond his reach. I’ve even recalled the two Baltimore cops, in uniform, only yards beyond the fence where the final blast had just made history and unable to do anything about this crime against pitching.

What I had forgotten, until I watched that Texas Rangers Classics, were all the little details — big at the time, and some still big today — that gave rise to the night and now give definition to its passage. They fill the spaces left behind by memory.

Neftalí Feliz was the starter. This I did not recall. The telecast opened with a shot of Feliz, whose Game Six pitch the previous October had set in motion the 10th-inning Hamilton homer that would fade into a footnote, crossing the pregame grass with catcher Mike Napoli and pitching coach Mike Maddux. In time they would all move on.

Following this game, Feliz would get two more starts on the season — and for the rest of his career. What happens to an elbow can shape what happens to a life.

On the mound to open the game stood a starter with an equally unknowable future: Jake Arrieta. As one might expect, he looked a lot younger than he does today, not nearly as big and broad-shouldered, and, with just a five o’clock shadow across a face marking time like all faces, far less of a lumberjack.

It’s easy to forget, with the team so terrible today, that the Orioles were good entering this one. Like the Rangers, they were 19-10 and in first place in their division. It’s easy to forget, too, that Arrieta, unlike the fireballing Feliz, was bad. He had finished the previous season with an ERA of 5.05 and would finish this one with a potentially career-killing mark of 6.20.

Still, you never know until you know.

Now, with Elvis Andrus on first base after a one-out walk, Hamilton stepped to the plate. Above him, the sky had draped the stadium in a darkening twilight, so bruisingly gray-blue that the lights served as more than needless ornaments. To the screen came a graphic, more memorable now than then.

Temp: 68
Humidity: 73 percent
Wind: SW 15 mph
Forecast: possible showers

“Cool, very overcast,” announced Rangers play-by-play broadcaster Dave Barnett. “In fact, it looks like it’s about to open up at any moment.”

Who knew — who would remember — that Hamilton’s historic night had ever been at risk? And who could have predicted that five weeks hence, Barnett’s Rangers broadcasting career would abruptly end after his bizarre and still unexplained utterance in the eighth inning of a Rangers-Padres game? “The go-ahead run is at fifth on what Adams is insisting on calling a botched robbery. What actually happened was … his henchman took a piece literally out of…. ”

You never know until you know, and sometimes you still don’t know.

I know now, just as you might, that Arrieta hung a first-pitch slider in Hambone’s wheelhouse, belt-high, a bit inside, like this was batting practice. The ball erupted off the bat and took on a trajectory that predated the phrase “launch angle” but that might as well have inspired it: sharp, obliquely sloped, the kind that causes the pitcher’s head to whip around in a quick and dizzy lamentation, like, May I have that one back? Please? Just this once?

History is made quickly, though, with cause-and-effect staking its immediate and non-negotiable place in both the real world and the records it keeps, and as Hamilton circled the bases another graphic appeared.

2-RUN HOME RUN
Josh Hamilton, 11th homer this season

At the time, that graphic seemed a definitive archive that reliably documented the event and the outcome it countably yielded. It’s odd, though, how quickly things can change, even when the evidence they’ve left behind does not. It was a two-run home run, his 11th of the season, and still is. Yet it was only his first homer of the game.

***

I remember it now. I was watching it live.

As opposed to all those games I’d recorded, all those games I had put on hold in deference to my distaste for F250 evangelism and all the towing capacity you could dream of, I watched events as they happened.

On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, facing the first batter of the sixth outing of his career as a starter, Neftali Feliz blew a full-count two-seamer at 97 mph past a flailing Endy Chavez. This was the same Chavez who, had he been inserted as a defensive replacement for right fielder Nelson Cruz in Game Six just eight months earlier, might well have caught the deep drive off the bat of David Freese and thus prevented Josh Hamilton’s 10th-inning homer from ever happening. Hamilton, with his teammates, would have wrapped his fingers around that trophy and not let go.

As it stood, though, Chavez had not entered for Cruz. And here he was now, having moved on, returning to the dugout as the victim of a wicked heater.

Years removed from the night, I remembered the moment. And even if I had to watch a Texas Rangers Classic to bring into focus that memory and others like it, I remembered that right arm. How could I forget it? Feliz had arrived as a 21-year-old rookie blowing triple-digit gas like he was playing backyard catch, easy, effortless, and within a year he had become an All-Star reliever.

Now, four seasons in, he had overcome the psychic scars of that Game Six catastrophe to become a starter as promising as the closer he’d been. This guy was golden — and would be, no doubt. By contrast there was Arrieta, four years older than Feliz, likewise throwing a two-seamer but leaving it right in the wheelhouse.

Mastering time, I turned back the clock. I pressed rewind. Here’s Hamilton, in the box, as locked-in as any guy could look. Is it only in hindsight, or, more accurately, with the knowledge of what the future holds, that I’m certain of the readiness he bears in his stance? I don’t know. But, standing calmly at the plate, he looks as though he’s glimpsed the future and knows what’s coming.

What’s coming is homer No. 2

I remember it now as I did then: the power, like Feliz’s, so absurdly unrehearsed, and the talent so secure in its courier that it could never just slip away.

***

Adrian Beltre, batting fourth, stepped to the plate immediately after Hamilton’s second homer and hit a homer himself. On a 1-2 pitch from Arrieta, he stroked a sharp liner that barely cleared the right-field wall.

Beltre is my all-time favorite player, a guy I hold in the highest regard, but even I did not remember that he homered on Hamilton’s four-homer night.

What might also be lost to memory, at least on the part of some people, is that Hamilton doubled in his third at-bat. He drove a hanging curve from Arrieta to the gap in right-centerfield. It bounced off the wall on one hard hop.

“How disappointing,” said Barnett, couching sarcasm in mock sincerity.

But here’s the thing: It really was disappointing. I remember.

It seemed a tease of what might have been, a hint of potential unrealized. Given the colossal power behind it, it seemed to have cheated a destiny that Hamilton’s talent had not only promised but also initiated and made inevitable.

“Hamilton will have to settle for a double,” Barnett said.

In the bottom of the inning, on a 2-2 count, Feliz cut loose a running two-seamer that came back to catch the outside edge. At 97 mph, it smacked Napoli’s mitt with a pop that not only punctuated the whiff of Robert Andino but also echoed across the yard. Feliz had just struck out the side.

Walking off the mound, he pointed to the sky. He gestured to his heaven.

***

As Hamilton stepped to the dais between the mound and home plate, I felt a cringe coming on. I’m rarely comfortable watching any person give a speech, at any time or place, but especially an athlete. Athletes are performers, true. They’re entertainers. But generally, as any postgame cliche-a-thon will attest, they’re not public speakers.

Yes, I’m aware you were just “looking for a pitch.”

For Hamilton’s part, he had always struck me as a sincere if occasionally unpolished speaker. Open and forthright, he seemed almost incapable of duplicity. And if his words occasionally had the tinge of someone who does not read Camus — and whose do? — they invariably seemed genuine.

One concern for me, though, was this: I reckoned he’d read some Scripture.

***

I still remember that fourth home run. It’s vivid, as if I’m still watching it live.

Hamilton had hit his third home run when a reliever named Zach Phillips went from “who?” to history by hanging meat in Hamilton’s happy place, this in the seventh inning. Like any moment in baseball, big or small, it had cause-and-effect contingencies that reached deep in their own histories.

A lefty, Phillips had been called up from the minors earlier that day. Over the weekend, the Orioles had played 13-inning and 17-inning affairs in their three-game series in Boston. So fatigued was the Baltimore bullpen that the Orioles had used first baseman Chris Davis to pitch the 16th and 17th innings of the series finale. (For what it’s worth, Davis earned the win.)

And so Phillips, a former Rangers draft pick with just eight innings in the major leagues, delivered the pitch that put Hamilton in his familiar trot. Once again, upon replay, the dinger seems as inevitable as tomorrow’s red sun. But was it?

Consider: If former Ranger Jarrod Saltalamacchia hadn’t hit a game-tying sacrifice fly off former Ranger Pedro Strop in the eighth inning of that 17-inning game, would Baltimore have needed to call up the untested Phillips? If the Rangers hadn’t chosen Phillips in the 23rd round of the 2004 draft, would he have gotten the chance? If Phillips hadn’t done whatever necessary to become the only player from that 23rd round to reach the majors, would Hamilton have faced a nastier pitch?

Today, those questions hint at a history more counterfactual than actual. Unanswered, and unanswerable, they matter less in their gauzy abstraction than the verifiable fact that Hamilton not only hit the pitch but hit it really hard.

“That’s the ultimate hanger right here,” said color commentator Tom Grieve on replay. “But sometimes you can hang some pitches and a guy’s timing is off a little bit.”

Hambone’s timing wasn’t off, even a little bit.

It became clear in the top of the eighth that his timing couldn’t have been better. Not only had he faced a struggling starter in Arrieta, not only had he faced a green reliever in Phillips, and not only was he doing all this in a notoriously homer-happy ballpark and in a game that had not been rained out, now he was facing former Ranger reliever Darren O’Day, a right-hander.

Hamilton settled in for a potentially historic at-bat. I remember it clearly. I had moved from my armchair to a standing position. It seemed a better posture — better to direct my magical thinking toward live TV, better to bend the future toward the moment I wanted to see. Here it was.

Here it is. Off the bat, unlike the others, it’s a no-doubter, as inevitable as the one you imagined. The only doubt as it’s happening is that you doubt it’s really happening. For as long as the ball holds the air, you doubt it’s as real as the failures you’ve grown accustomed to, the disappointments that make up your life as a fan.

But as the ball soars beyond the fence and bounces past the policemen, you know that once upon a time — this time — reality has conformed to fantasy.

The graphic confirms it.

Josh Hamilton, 14th homer this season, fourth tonight

Inside the dugout, and knowing that history is now behind him, Hamilton is relaxed and smiling. Outside are the fans who know what they’ve witnessed. These are the moments that outstrip the allegiance to a team. At the instant the ball left the bat, Baltimore fans were jumping around and forgiven for it.

Back inside, Hamilton is sitting next to Beltre. It’s strange. Years from now, on the strength of the seasons to follow, Beltre will have his plaque not only in the Rangers Hall of Fame but also in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hamilton won’t. Following his 2012 season — when, as his plaque states, he “belted a career-best 43 homers with 128 RBI” — he, like Feliz, would fade.

But right now, even next to Beltre, he is the best player on Earth.

Watching the replay, I see a moment I don’t recall. For an instant, surrounded by teammates, Hamilton is alone in the shot. He is staring at the floor, a bit distant from the nearness of all that braces him. A discernible smile has crossed his face. So, too, has a look of momentary detachment, a pulling away from what is here now. It is as though he senses what he cannot yet know — that it will never be better than this.

***

For my part, and your mileage may vary, I’m a bit dubious about God’s involvement in professional sports. This is well-trod territory, of course, a topic that’s been done to death, but c’mon: If a Supreme Being doesn’t have better things to do than control the outcome of a baseball game on a Tuesday night in Baltimore, then something’s out of whack. After all, there is American Idol to tend to, not to mention famine.

And let’s get real: There are too many moving parts, too many cause-and-effect contingencies.

And so as Hamilton began his speech, I braced myself for a sermon. After he thanked many people, it came. “OK,” he said from the space between the mound and home plate, “I’m going to kind of preach a little bit.”

Despite my stance on the godhead’s place in the game, despite my rejection of providential influence on the trajectory of a major league home run, I listened to the message he wanted to share. Clearly, it meant a lot to him, and to disregard his homily would be to disregard the story of his triumph over addiction, the truth, as he and others see it, of his biggest victory.

And this is precisely what he spoke of. There was no mention of God’s breath on a 440-foot dinger, no mention of divine intervention on a wicked two-seamer. There was only the premise of his own evangelism — the towing capacity, if you will, of the faith that pulled him from his personal hell.

“I just want y’all to know that my life wouldn’t have been anything close to what it is today,” he said, “if I hadn’t asked for Jesus Christ’s help.”

Above any other, this was the message he wanted to impart. From my seat, and with remote control in hand, I went back to a message he had delivered at the beginning of his speech, when he quoted Hebrews 4:16.

“Now that we know we have Jesus, this great high priest, with ready access to God,” he recited, “let us not let it slip through our fingers.”

Those words resonated, and still do. When it comes to Josh Hamilton and his once-upon-a-time talent, I can never quite find the answer. Did he wrap his fingers around it, or did it slip through the spaces between?


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.

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Trey Baughn
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Trey Baughn

Enjoyed this. Hamilton was one of my all-time favorite players. His biography about his conversion and talents is excellent. Probably one of the most talented (raw) players to ever play.

Brian
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Brian

Yeah, well, there was enough purple prose in that piece to turn an acre of white wine grapes red.

Doug
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Doug

People talk about five-tool talents… this was a five-talent tool.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

Man, I’d forgotten about Dave Barnett. That was a strange story in itself.

My Dad DVRs the games for the same reason.

You need to stop posting in the Friday slot. It seems to draw…different sorts. Always worth the read, though.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Excellent work as usual.

As to the ultimate question of your piece, it may be the wrong question. I’m not sure what the question is exactly. But I think I know the answer: if not for his talent, he would probably have been long dead of a drug overdose by now. I suppose his talent wrapped around him and, despite his best efforts to slip away, refused to let him go.

jdtTX
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jdtTX

I’ve never loved and hated watching a player more than Hamilton. Greatest talent I’ve ever gotten to watch personally and there’s a reason my son (born 2012) is named Josh. I don’t think of that 4 HR game as his peak, though. By 2012 he was a more traditional slugger. My favorite Hamilton moment was the summer 2010 game against Boston where he was a triple short of the cycle with a couple great CF grabs and the score from 2nd on an IF single from Vlad. Reckless, controlled chaos on the field.

California Baseball
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California Baseball

What an enjoyable read. Reading your prose made me think that Kurt Vonnegut would have sounded something like this if he had been a sportswriter. I was half expecting your recalling of the ghost of Dave Barnett to end with a “So it goes”, and the whole article to be capped with a “Poo-tee-weet?”.