The spotlight is on Angels’ baseball and the story line is risk vs. reward.
A year ago in the Cactus League, the conversation was about Albert Pujols and the mega-contract it took to get him to leave the St. Louis Cardinals and come to Anaheim, the length of the deal, his age and his injuries.
Substitute Josh Hamilton’s name this year and you get the same circumstances — age, injury, dollars, and, in his case, substance abuse.
The newest Angels slugger was pilfered away from the Texas Rangers, making him the highest paid player on the roster. With a five-year deal worth $125 million, a cool $25 million per season, he sits atop one of the top payrolls in the American League.
Pujols had that honor a week ago this year, after signing a 10-year $240 million package.
There had been pain in Pujols’ career the last couple of years — elbow problems and a drop-off in production.
But, Hamilton’s life and career have been about personal pain — the pain of addiction.
Pujols has been a great citizen, not just for his on-the-field accomplishments with the Cardinals, but for his enormous charity work in that city with autistic children. His parting was not easy — he was smeared by the media and chastised by the fans for not finishing his career with the Redbirds.
Hamilton has not been a great citizen, far from it. But the story of his life, his resurrection, his religion and his ongoing battles, is an amazing testament to a desire to stay sober and stay clean.
A first round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in the 1990s and a high school phenom from North Carolina, the slugger could never handle the money and the freedom, much less the responsibility of being out on his own.
Beer turned to alcohol, then to street drugs, then hard drugs. Injuries took a toll and the time away from the game was numbing. So was the beer, cocaine and heroin. It was a catastrophic fall from grace. He couldn’t stay healthy, could not stay clean and then he was gone.
Games led to parties, which led to lowlifes, which led to him falling into the gutter. Tampa Bay saw him burn through $6 million in signing bonus money. His wife saw him disappear for days on end. Police said he hocked her wedding ring for money while on a cocaine binge.
The Rays did not have to give up on him — baseball did, handing out suspensions that covered three years. There were a total of six different suspensions and eight different stays in various rehab centers. His wife got a restraining order. He was out of baseball and appeared down and out on life.
Somehow, some way, religion saved Josh Hamilton — spiritually kicked in. Physically, he got well. Through rehab and counseling, friendships were formed. Peer pressure took hold, relationships grew and he reconnected with his wife and four girls.
The Cubs took a look, but were not sure of the trust issue. Cincinnati took a chance and he had productive season. He was dealt to Texas in a blockbuster trade and, as his sobriety took hold, his career took off.
Stardom was arriving fast. There were big seasons and a big splash with 28 home runs at Yankees Stadium in the All Star game home run derby. He had 100 home runs over the last three years. He finished last year with 43 homers and 128 RBIs. Then he went on the open market as a free agent.
The Rangers wanted to keep him, but the sunshine and cash took him to Anaheim.
Staying clean has not been easy. There have been two alcohol relapses in five years. His behavior has been erratic at times. There were incidents with chewing tobacco, wild mood swings and criticism from owners and management about his focus.
He has had an advocate — Johnny Narron, his accountability coach and a fellow recovering addict — and has made progress in achieving stability in his life.
But in all recovery story lines, there are lapses. Hamilton today remains clean, but that is day-to-day.
I have never seen someone so open about his failures and lapses, his struggles and his needs. He is a marvel to talk to.
So, the Angels have invested enormous money in the tainted slugger — different type of investment than the one given to Albert Pujols.
Both could be dominant, both could break down; one could fall apart and the other could fall off the wagon.
The Angels could score nine runs a game. The lineup includes superstar sophomore Mike Trout and fellow power hitter Mark Trumbo, two starting pitchers and a deeper bullpen.
But the season hinges on this interesting guy, intriguing story and final chapter yet to be written — Josh Hamilton, to hell and back, and now an Angel.