The Return of Josh Hamilton

Josh Hamilton waits on deck during a May 14 Triple-A rehab game. (via John Paschal)

Josh Hamilton waits on deck during a May 14 Triple-A rehab game. (via John Paschal)

In the minutes just prior to the doubleheader against the Omaha Storm Chasers at Dell Diamond on Thursday night, Josh Hamilton of the Round Rock Express is stretching in the grass along the left-field line while dozens of fans press against the rail, trying to get as close to the former big leaguer as this minor league ballpark will physically allow.

His size – you notice it quickly. He is an enormous specimen, broad and thick chested, with a bold athletic swagger. You think it immediately: He doesn’t belong here, among the ads for Rooster’s Paint Center and King’s Pest Control and near the Fun Zone where kids are clinging to a climbing wall. The vortex he has created, the extra gravity he has produced, suggests that he belongs somewhere else – somewhere bigger, with brighter lights. The fans are staring at him as they would a Hollywood star, fixed on the form that once delivered the kind of excitement that a suburb might never have matched. Here he seems an avatar of himself, an embodiment of his name and his career, or at least the parts of it that the fans have chosen to remember.

As the first inning is set to begin, he jogs toward his position in center field with that familiar – or, now, familiar again – stride, part center fielder and part strong safety. The shoulders are wide, wide enough to handle the name Hamilton, all eight letters, with ease, and the legs appear just as powerful as they were when Hamilton rocketed into the baseball consciousness with five stellar seasons in Texas before he spiraled down in L.A.

Facing the American flag now, he stands between left fielder Jake Smolinski and right fielder Ryan Strausborger. And you think again: He doesn’t belong here. Beside him, two professional athletes look like kids who won a contest. The anthem has now begun, the melody the same as ever but somehow carried on a different wind, and you wonder if this expression of freedom is really an irony made of tricolor fabric and the twilight’s last gleaming, if, deep down, buried in silence beneath the solemn pose and the big league physique, he can’t believe he’s here, trapped in Triple-A Round Rock, just down the grassy slope from the quad-bungee bounce and waiting to return to a much greener pasture.


In the bottom of the first inning, after the recently demoted Rougned Odor leads off with an opposite-field homer, Hamilton stands in the box as Hamiltonian as ever – the weight balanced, the hands calm, the big forearms imprinted with the permanence of bygone days. The past is never really vanished, and one man’s tattoos are just a material nudge to the clarity of our remembrance: the drugs, the alcohol, the fall, the climb, the pinnacle, the slide, the spiral … and maybe one more climb. Now here he is again, having been cheered up the summit and booed off the stage, ready to inhabit a tale of resurrection.

The fans lean forward, watching in the wake of their loud applause.

Five pitches later, after whiffing on his bete noir of a low and outside slider, he heads back to the dugout. Though familiar in failure, he still seems out of place, a man in exile from who he was – five-time All-Star, batting champ, MVP, home-run hero – but still a man who must obey the dictates of the moment by descending the dugout steps. In the stands above him, the kids and grown-ups in Hamilton jerseys – some faded, some new – wait with grudging patience for this flawed man to enter the bunker and reemerge as the superhero that their memories and imaginations have already pieced together. He just needs to put on the uniform – not the uniform of the Round Rock Express but, rather, that of the old Hamilton, the old Hambone made new and right before their eyes.

A hum – a sort of collective “hmm” – has settled over the ballpark, a suspension between the cheers (and not the boos) with which they greeted him and the “c’mon, Josh” and “keep your hands back, Hamilton” exhortations with which they’ll greet him again. In the low light of a partly cloudy evening, their faces register the possibility Josh Hamilton really isn’t here, that he hasn’t returned and isn’t coming back. There is always the next at-bat, though, always another chance. But it will have to wait, not only for eight other players to step to the plate but also for the Party Patrol to launch T-shirts into the stands.


The game has reached the fifth inning, and the crowd appears even more anxious now that Hamilton has not responded favorably to their forgiveness. Betrayed by his defection to L.A. – a betrayal preceded by his poor performance down the stretch in 2012, and inflamed by his notorious “baseball town” comments – the fans have watched him ground out weakly to second base and pop out to the shortstop in his second and third at-bats, a display that hasn’t squared with even the affordable cost of admission. That his teammates have exploded for eight runs, all without Hamilton’s help, is a second punch to expectations and a stain on a returning hero whose villainy has been expunged by this generous pardon.

If all these scrubs can hit this pitcher, why can’t Hamilton, especially after we’ve gone so far to embrace him?

More uneasy now, the crowd sits through a scoreless inning while waiting for Hamilton’s fourth and probably final at-bat – one last chance to redeem the redemption he’s been offered, one last chance to honor his amnesty by becoming the superhero he’s meant to be. Finally, after watching two men spin 10 times around the knob of a baseball bat before racing dizzily to the finish line, the fans hear the name again: Josh … HAMilton! It still seems out of place, as if the name Willie Nelson were just announced in the Velvet Room of the Ramada Inn off Exit 72. And yet when Hamilton whiffs again, this time chasing a change-up low and away, the weight of actuality – possible actuality – thuds onto the crowd, and maybe onto fans and management 180 miles north: Maybe he belongs here after all.


A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Though at odds with Hamilton’s performance, a group of kids is crowding the rail along the left-field line and shouting toward the center fielder as he begins jogging to his position at the top of the seventh (and final) inning. In stride, he glances at the kids and then keeps on, as if to say, “I can’t sign your hat, kid, I’m in the middle of a baseball game.”

Meanwhile, even as the Round Rock mascot joins the Party Patrol to do the Chicken Dance atop the dugout, you wonder if the kids want the autograph of a 33-year-old minor leaguer or of someone who once existed but no longer does, an artifact of an artifact.

After Odor starts a 4-6-3 double play to end the game, Hamilton jogs toward the infield while fireworks explode above the Dell Diamond scoreboard. On the infield grass, he lines up with his Triple-A teammates and high-fives them one by one. Then, as the team begins toward the clubhouse entrance in the corner of the left-field wall, the center fielder jogs ahead of them, the first to disappear. In the minutes that precede game two, fans begin lining up along the rails on either side of the exit, waiting for Josh Hamilton to return.

John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Jim S.
8 years ago

VERY nice writing.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jim S.

Seconded, this is poetry befitting the occasion.

John Paschal
8 years ago
Reply to  Sam

Thank you for the kind words, gentlemen. They are very much appreciated.


8 years ago

Well, it sounds like going to Round Rock games would be significantly more fun and exciting than going to Rangers games.

John Paschal
8 years ago
Reply to  Wildcard09

You make an excellent point.

Paul G.
8 years ago



John Paschal
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Thank you, Mr. G.!