When you have the history of Josh Hamilton, the history of drug abuse and experiences that nearly cost a promising baseball career, on-the-field problems become off-the field problems.
Hamilton, the left fielder for the Los Angeles Angels, is struggling this season, the second year of a five-year, $125-million contract after a stellar tenure with the Texas Rangers that resurrected his career.
He is hitting .263 with eight homers and 35 RBIs after going 0 for 3 in the Angels’ 4-3 win over the Red Sox on Tuesday night at Fenway Park. He was benched for two days by manager Mike Scioscia to provide a mental break, but when you have the history of Hamilton, who was suspended the entire 2006 season for violating the league’s drug policy, the speculation begins.
He heard it all, fielding a number of calls over the past 72 hours, asking about his welfare, whether he could have potentially relapsed or whether he is experiencing personal problems. His struggles at the plate couldn’t have possibly been mechanical or the fact that Hamilton has dealt with knee issues and a torn thumb ligament this season.
The rumors were not lost on him. He understands he will receive more than his share of scrutiny following every slump.
“I felt mentally fresh,” Hamilton said with sarcasm. “That cracks me up, what people report. I was eating [after the game], they showed a highlight up there and said I was 0 for 3 after two days off, I was mentally fatigued. I just needed to work on some stuff, you know? I felt good. I felt like I had good at-bats [Tuesday night], I put good swings on it. I just missed them. I’m pretty close.”
His .209 average since the All-Star break with just nine RBIs in 117 plate appearance has caused concern for Angels management. The 2010 American League MVP has a career low .414 slugging percentage and has hardly been the formidable bat Los Angeles projected when it nabbed him from rival Texas.
Still, Hamilton believes he is still capable of greatness and what bothers him is the rampant conjecture about whether his past issues have resurfaced.
“I don’t like when people think they know what’s going on and therefore write about it or speak on it, and they have no clue what’s going on,” he said. “It’s like [ESPN] said something about me going to the Angels and not having the same support system [as in Texas], that it wouldn’t work out and I’m like, ‘C’mon man, really?’ I just don’t like stuff like that. The people that come and talk to you, and report what you say, that’s cool. That’s the frustrating part of it. You don’t listen to it and move on and try to do what you want.”
When asked whether he feels undue pressure due to the size of his contract and his troubled past, he said: “No, none. My goal right now is to get myself right and be who I am capable of being. If I do that, it will help the team tremendously.”
The Angels (74-50) have the best record in baseball. They could be even more imposing if Hamilton resurrects his hitting stroke. He hit the Fenway Park cage at 1:45 p.m. to get in some early hitting, trying to use his extra time to work out some mechanical issues. He said he cherished the time alone, instructing himself in the bright sun while most of his teammates were still at the hotel.
It’s not that Hamilton felt he needed the days off, but he admitted he needed some work and reflection.
“It’s already fun, I enjoy winning, I enjoy watching these guys play but if I can do a little something every night to help, and a little something will turn into something big,” he said. “You want to play every day but I think the biggest thing that helped was coming out early today and swinging, the understanding and talking with some people.”
His cell phone understandably lit up over the past few days, with friends, aware of those speculative reports, asking about his mental state. With his history, he understands, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.
“I just told them simply, obviously don’t listen to what the media says, they’ll blow things out of proportion pretty quick,” he said. “Thank you for calling but I’m good and I’ll be OK. I’ll get out of this. But it was good, I had a lot of people call me. It lets me know I actually have some people that care about me.”
While the concern was appreciated, Hamilton is trying to relay that like every baseball player in this constantly humbling game, he is enduring a major slump. While age 33 is a prime age for many players, perhaps Hamilton is an older 33 because of his experiences, perhaps the body is starting to slip. But he would like to think the struggles aren’t as drastic as outside perceptions.
“It’s one of those things where I have maintained taking three drug tests a week, just for that simple fact that Major League Baseball and whoever has any kind of questions like that,” he said. “I just take care of it by that aspect but you know, at the same time I can’t care about what they think or how I look or how I’m playing. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to go out and not worry about other people — you worry about the people in this clubhouse and going about your business and I’ve had nothing but support from my teammates because they know what kind of player I am and what I’m capable of doing.”
Asked if he’s still capable of those Texas-sized numbers he compiled with the Rangers, he said: “Yeah, it would be nice to find out in the next month and half. Hopefully I can get rocking and rolling.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.