By Marc Topkin
March 19, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.–The depth and severity of Josh Hamilton’s drug problems has now made it more a question of if he will ever play again for the Devil Rays than when.
Hamilton on Friday was suspended without pay for the entire 2004 season as a result of additional multiple violations of Major League Baseball’s drug program. Hamilton, 22, had already been serving a 30-day suspension for failing at least two drug tests. Based on the rules of the program, the additional discipline indicates he has failed at least two more and has been using a “prohibited substance" deemed by MLB more severe than marijuana.
Hamilton signed with the Devil Rays for a $3.96 million bonus as the top pick in the 1999 draft. After a promising start, he has been a huge bust, missing considerable time with injuries and all of last season with what were described then as personal problems.
Even if Hamilton is reinstated from the latest suspension when eligible next spring, he will have gone more than 2 1/2 years since playing in a game, making it difficult, if not unlikely, to resume a career that once saw him ranked as the top prospect in baseball.
“He needs to get well. I don’t want to see him just throw his life away," said Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, a former minor-league teammate. “Who knows what (this news) does to him. …
“Another year? My goodness, what happened? I had talked to him like two weeks before spring training and he told me he would be here and I was really looking forward to seeing him. But he’s suspended another year? I know that crushed him."
Hamilton, who told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in January he was planning to reestablish his career this season, could not be reached for comment Friday. His cell phone number was disconnected and messages left with his parents, brother and agent Casey Close were not returned. MLB officials had no comment beyond a two-sentence news release.
General manager Chuck LaMar said the Devil Rays will continue to support Hamilton.
“All we can do is hope that Josh Hamilton will be ready to participate in the 2005 spring training," LaMar said. “We all know the God-given baseball talent that he has and we will continue to do everything we can as an organization so hopefully he can fulfill his dream to play in the major leagues."
Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli, another former minor-league teammate, said Hamilton could still turn out to be a success.
“He’s dealing with some things that most people are fortunate enough not to have to deal with," Baldelli said. "We hope to have him back as soon as he can get back and get everything in order. He could still be a hell of a ballplayer. The faster he is back, the better for everybody."
It was not clear Friday where Hamilton was or what type of treatment, if any, he was receiving. In January, he was living at the family home in Garner, N.C., and helping his brother, Jason, in his tree-service business.
Players who are suspended under terms of the program are evaluated by doctors, tested regularly, receive counseling and/or psychiatric treatment, and may be placed in a residential rehab facility. A published report in Charleston, S.C., said Hamilton has already been in a rehab clinic at least one previous time.
When the Rays chose Hamilton ahead of Florida pitcher Josh Beckett in 1999, they expected him to be a star by now. But repeated injuries, some stemming from a spring training 2001 auto accident, kept him off the field. In five years he has played 251 minor-league games, only 23 above Class A, and his sudden fascination with tattoos (he had 26 at one time) raised eyebrows, if not questions, about his makeup.
The first public signs of trouble came last spring when Hamilton showed up late to workouts twice within a week. After being reassigned to minor-league camp, he mysteriously left the team a few days later. He resurfaced six weeks later to work out with the Double-A Orlando team, said in an interview he did not have a drug problem but may have been depressed over family issues (such as an illness to a close relative), then disappeared again nine days later. The Rays announced then he would take "a personal leave" for the rest of the season “to address certain private non-baseball matters." He came back in August to work out for a few days with the Triple-A Durham team.
During a Jan. 22 interview with the Times at his Garner home, Hamilton said he was confident he could regain his stature as a top prospect but refused to disclose or acknowledge the depth of his problem.
“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.
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."
Crawford thought things were good when he talked to Hamilton in early February.
"He told me everything was great so I was looking forward to seeing him," Crawford said.
Hamilton is the first player to be suspended by MLB for a full season for drug-related violations since Darryl Strawberry in February 2000. Hamilton joins an infamous list that includes Dwight Gooden (November 1994), Pascual Perez (March 1992), Eddie Milner (March 1988) and Steve Howe (December 1983).
A one-year suspension is the fourth and most severe punishment specified in the drug program. Discipline for any additional violations would be up to the discretion of the commissioner Bud Selig but likely would be for at least another year.
Topkin covers the Devil Rays for the St. Petersburg Times