By Marc Topkin
February 18, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.–Major League Baseball suspended troubled Devil Rays outfielder Josh Hamilton for 30 days and fined him an undisclosed sum for multiple violations of its drug policy.
The discipline handed down Tuesday is the first official confirmation that Hamilton’s problems, which led to him missing last season, are drug-related. The severity of the punishment indicates Hamilton has tested positive for at least one of baseball’s banned substances more than once.
Under the rules of MLB’s joint drug treatment and prevention program, a player suspended for 25 or more days has failed at least two drug tests after being entered into the program and was using a “prohibited substance” deemed by MLB more severe than marijuana. Under the rules, players cannot be suspended for use or possession of marijuana.
He was also fined up to $25,000, with the exact amount not revealed.
Hamilton, who told the St. Petersburg Times last month he was looking forward to rejoining the team in spring training, did not return telephone messages Tuesday. Neither did his parents nor his agent, Casey Close. MLB officials had no further comment, and the Rays released a statement saying only, “The organization is not in a position to make any further statement concerning this issue.”
Hamilton, 22, will be eligible for reinstatement March 19, although his return is not automatic. He would have to make it through the 30 days without any positive tests, and he would continue to be subjected to urine tests beyond that, and possibly for years. Discipline is progressive, with a third failure leading to a suspension of 50-75 days and a fourth infraction drawing at least a one-year suspension.
Even though Hamilton has not played in the major leagues, he is subject to MLB rules because he is on the Rays’ 40-man roster. Suspensions are without pay, but that is moot as players are not paid during spring training.
When the Rays made Hamilton the first pick of the 1999 draft (ahead of Marlins righthander Josh Beckett) and paid him a $3.96 million signing bonus, they expected him to be a star by now. Considered by their scouts to have immense raw talent, more than current starting outfielders Carl Crawford or Rocco Baldelli, he was considered as close to a can’t-miss prospect as there could be.
But injuries, including a spring training 2001 truck accident, slowed Hamilton’s progress through the minor leagues, and his off-field problems have now threatened his career that consists of 251 minor league games, only 23 as high as the Double-A level. He last played in a game on July 10, 2002.
When asked about the powerful lefthanded hitter last week, Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said he was still hopeful Hamilton would develop, but LaMar made it clear the organization was going forward without him.
“You always hold optimism when you have someone with his God-given talent,” LaMar said. “We talk a lot about Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, Aubrey Huff, Delmon Young, B.J. Upton. Josh Hamilton is physically as talented as any of those young men and would have a chance to be a piece to a championship club.
“However, we’ve all been around players who’ve been gifted and not used that talent, and that’s where Josh is. He’s got to get back on the field and he’s got to use that talent. Do we hold hope out? Absolutely. You would, too, with someone with that talent.
“This game is a humbling experience, and you’re only as good as the last ballgame you play. He’s got to get out there and win a spot on the club. That’s why we signed Jose Cruz for two years and drafted Delmon Young. If Josh comes around, obviously we can deal from strength, but if not, obviously (the organization is) heading in the right direction.”
The first public signs of trouble came last spring when Hamilton showed up late to workouts twice within a week. He was reassigned, not unexpectedly, to minor league camp March 10 and about 10 days later mysteriously left the team, saying later he went to stay with a friend in Bradenton before returning home to North Carolina.
He resurfaced six weeks later to work out with the Double-A Orlando team, saying in a statement he needed the time away “to address some personal issues and problems” and had “a better support system in place” to go forward, insisting in an interview that he didn’t have a drug problem.
He disappeared again nine days later, and the team announced then he would take “a personal leave” for the rest of the season “to address certain private non-baseball matters” and was placed on the restricted list.
He returned to the field in August to work out with the Triple-A Durham team for a few days. At the time Close said it was a first step back.
The Rays reinstated him to the 40-man roster in November, agreed to terms with him on a one-year contract and were expecting him in spring training, his No. 31 jersey hanging in a locker at the Naimoli complex.
In his first public comments since May, Hamilton told the Times last month he was hoping to get back on the field and put his troubles, which he refused to disclose, behind him.
“Put it like this: There’s things I’ve worked past and I’m still working on to keep in the past, and just leave it at that right now,” Hamilton said.
During the Jan. 22 interview at his home, he also said getting back in a baseball environment would help him deal with his off-field issues.
“That would be real good,” he said. “That will be the best thing, for me to stay busy.”
Last week, he said by telephone he was still hopeful of participating in the first full-squad workout Friday.
“I haven’t heard anything,” Hamilton said. “I’m just chilling. I’m still working out and still hitting, but I’m just waiting.”
There was no indication from MLB as to what, if any, type of treatment Hamilton would undergo or whether he would attend a residential rehab clinic.
Topkin covers the Devil Rays for the St. Petersburg Times.