By Dave Sheinin
SARASOTA, Fla. - The Devil and the Son of God are waging war from opposite corners of Josh Hamilton's body.
As he guides his Chevy Tahoe onto Interstate 75, for a 45-minute drive that weaves through a minefield of ugly memories, Hamilton, the Cincinnati Reds' newest outfielder, rests his once-prized left arm on the door, and suddenly the Devil's menacing face appears, etched in dark ink in the crook of Hamilton's elbow.
As the truck speeds toward Clearwater, where Hamilton will spend another day working out in preparation for the best and possibly last opportunity of his baseball career, the tattoo devil peers out the windshield.
Below the freeway sit some of the very tattoo parlors and crack houses where Hamilton years ago squandered his enormous potential. A few miles ahead, in St. Petersburg, the big league stadium where Hamilton was supposed to have been a star rises from the horizon to mock him.
The tattoo devil, having long ago survived a bloody, failed attempt at removal, stares intently, gently prodding Hamilton to pull over and have some wild, wicked fun. Like in the old days.
But on the back of Hamilton's right leg, the beatific face of Jesus Christ, superimposed over an enormous cross -- one of the last of the 26 tattoos Hamilton got during his dark period, that nearly four-year stretch when he was out of the game -- pushes Hamilton's foot down on the accelerator, and the Tahoe rushes on.
"Out of sight, out of mind," Hamilton says with a deep Piedmont drawl, smiling confidently. He tugs on his shirt sleeve, pulling it down below the elbow, and the Devil disappears.
On this day, God is winning the battle. Matter of fact, He's been unbeaten now for 16 months.
Before the Reds plucked Hamilton from the baseball scrap heap in December with the intent of putting him in the big leagues for the first time, before he and his family left their North Carolina home and rented a house in Sarasota last month to get a jump-start on his first spring training in four years, and before the clock on his sobriety began its uninterrupted march on Oct. 6, 2005 -- before all those good things happened, Josh Hamilton was a junkie.
Here, in the sport-utility vehicle cruising toward Clearwater, Hamilton peers into his rearview mirror, waiting until his wife, Katie, secures headphones on Julia, 5, her child from a previous relationship, and makes sure Sierra, 17 months, is occupied with some animal crackers. Only then does he begin to tell his story.
Josh already has been drug-tested this morning, as he is three times a week. As he heads north out of Sarasota on I-75, the green exit signs beckon toward Bradenton. It's a good place to start the story, because this is where it all started to go bad.
"My first drink -- my first drink ever -- was at a strip club down there, with the tattoo guys," Hamilton says. "Pretty soon, I started using. First the powder. Then crack. I was 20. I wasn't playing. I was hurt. My parents left and went back home. I was by myself for the first time."
Until spring 2001, Hamilton was the golden, can't-miss prospect, but even that tag doesn't convey the immensity of his talent. He was 6 foot 4, 210 pounds, left-handed, with size 19 feet. He could throw 96 mph and was even better as a hitter.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays had made him the first overall pick of the 1999 draft -- the first high school position player to be so honored since Alex Rodriguez six years earlier -- and paid him a record signing bonus of $3.96 million.
His parents, Linda and Tony, quit their jobs to go on the road with him. They would follow the team bus in their truck and stay at the same hotels, Linda cooking Josh's meals, and Tony breaking down his performance after every game.
But on Feb. 28, 2001, two years into his pro career, Hamilton was riding in his family's pickup truck when it was slammed into by a dump truck that ran a red light in Bradenton.
With Josh unable to play due to a back injury, and Linda requiring frequent medical care, she and Tony returned home to Raleigh, N.C., leaving Josh alone for the first time in his life -- bored, flush with cash and naive about the ways of the world.
He got a tattoo: "HAMMER," his nickname. Then came blue flames snaking down his forearms, then tribal symbols whose meanings Josh didn't even know, then assorted demons. The tattoo parlor became a hangout; afterward, they'd all go out, get drunk and score some blow.
When he went home to Raleigh for a visit, his mother broke into tears. "What have you done to your beautiful body?" she asked him. "Tribal signs? What tribe are you from?"
One of the last tattoos he got was the one of Jesus, perhaps an odd choice. "I don't even know why I got that one," he says. "I think it was like spiritual warfare -- the Devil, Christ. I have tattoos of demons with no eyes. And I didn't realize it at the time, but no eyes means 'no soul.'
"That's what I was at the time: a man with no soul."
North of Bradenton, Hamilton crosses the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, and approaches the toll booth.
"Katie," he calls out. "You got a dollar?"
These days, Hamilton doesn't walk around with much money in his pocket. It's just better that way.
Soon the freeway veers left into St. Petersburg, and directly ahead stands the unmistakable tilted domed roof of Tropicana Field.
"Hey, honey," he says to Katie, suppressing a sly smile. "Who is it that plays there again?"
By now, Hamilton ought to be a perennial all-star, sharing the Tropicana Field outfield with Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli. Instead, he is a Cincinnati Red, and a Hail Mary project at that.
After investing eight years and millions of dollars in Hamilton, the Devil Rays decided to leave Hamilton unprotected for December's Rule 5 draft -- in which teams get to pluck away other teams' unprotected players, their leftovers -- figuring no one would take a chance on a 25-year-old outfielder who went four years without playing a game and whose last stop, last summer, was low Class A.
When the Reds snatched up Hamilton, Devil Rays executives expressed mild surprise but little remorse. But back in June 1999, it was a far different story. To re-read the press clippings now is to marvel at the juxtaposition of youth's sweet promise and life's dark reality.
"I think character may have been the final determining factor," Mark McKnight, the Devil Rays' regional scout, told local reporters at the time. "You read so many bad things about professional athletes these days, but I don't think you ever will about Josh."
Chuck LaMar, then Tampa Bay's general manager, still recalls his giddiness upon seeing the strapping youngster who could throw a ball from the outfield wall to home plate, then pick it up and hit it 500 feet. Plus, it was obvious the kid came from good folks. He kissed his mama and granny before every game.
During Hamilton's first couple years, the Devil Rays grudgingly accepted his parents' constant presence. But when he was promoted to low Class A Hudson Valley in 1999, they prodded him to stay with a host family in New York as the other players did. Still, Tony and Linda found a nearby hotel and traveled to every game.
"We disagreed with how they went about it, but it wasn't our place to say anything," says Al Stewart, who with his wife served as Josh's host family. "We both thought one of these days he was going to break out. We didn't think it would be anything like this, but we knew there was going to be a backlash."
Hamilton exits the freeway and pulls into a Chick-fil-A, where the clan piles out. Every head in the place turns when Josh, built like a Greek god, covered in tattoos, carries the tray of food to his family's table.
This body is what saved his life, more than likely, when Hamilton snorted down enough cocaine to stop an elephant's heart, or guzzled a 750-ml bottle of Crown Royal each day.
"There's no reason I shouldn't be dead or crippled," he says. "I did things to where I shouldn't be right today. It just lets me know there are bigger things out there for me to do."
Hamilton's long battle against drug addiction began in 2001, when the Devil Rays, concerned that his back injury was beginning to affect his mental state, sent him to a sports psychologist.
"Before I left," Hamilton says, "the guy asked me, 'Is there anything else you want to talk about?' I was naive."
Hamilton told the psychologist he had been experimenting with drugs for the last couple of weeks.
"The next day," Hamilton says, "I was on a plane to Betty Ford. But they tried to make me believe the reason I did what I did was because of my family. It pissed me off. So I left after eight days."
So began a four-year pattern of rehabs and relapses: More injuries led to more free time, which led to more drugs, which eventually led to a suspension from baseball that grew by another 12 months with every failed test.
For a long while, after moving back home to Raleigh, he quit the fight. From spring training of 2003 until July 2006, Hamilton did not play an inning of organized baseball.
"Baseball, life in general, it wasn't a priority," he says. "It was basically getting high. I'd go six, seven, eight months without even swinging a bat." His days were filled with booze and cocaine, his nights with more of the same.
Late one night in September 2003, for reasons he still doesn't understand, Hamilton found himself on the doorstep of Michael Dean Chadwick, a Raleigh homebuilder who spoke to Christian groups about his successful battle against drug addiction. Hamilton had once briefly dated Chadwick's daughter, Katie.
"I took one look at him," Chadwick says now, "and I knew exactly what I was looking at."
They talked for hours. "I told him: 'There is no middle ground. You either die or you get well,'" Chadwick says.
Hamilton started dating Katie again, and started trying to beat addiction. He married Katie in November 2004. At the time, he was clean.
"I thought (his drug problem) was over," she says. "I thought when he said, 'It's over,' that meant it's over. But when he had his first relapse, I knew it was going to be a long road."
Josh and Katie collected what was left of the $3.96 million signing bonus, around $200,000, and managed to buy a house before he squandered the rest on drugs.
"I went through about $70,000," he says, "in a month and a half."
Within six months of being married, Josh and Katie were separated. And when Katie brought Sierra home from the hospital in September 2005, Josh was out getting high.
One day, Hamilton wrote a check to a crack dealer. When the check bounced and Josh started to feel the heat, Chadwick stepped in.
"I called to tell the guy I was coming," Chadwick says. "He said, 'Are you going to be packing heat?' I said, 'Do I need to?' When I got there, I told him, 'Look, I understand, business is business. Here's your money.
"'But if you ever sell Josh crack again, I'll be back here, and it won't be pretty. I'm not scared or intimidated by you or your pals. And I'm just a little bit crazy.'"
In Clearwater, Hamilton guides his SUV into the parking lot of old Jack Russell Memorial Stadium, now the site of a Christian baseball academy called Winning Inning. With less than two weeks until the opening of the Reds' spring training camp, Hamilton has come to work out and visit some old friends.
It was here, in January 2006 when he had been clean for more than three months, where Hamilton had begun to reclaim his career. The morning he left Raleigh, he gathered his belongings from his grandmother's house, where he had been staying for the previous few months, and left a letter behind on the kitchen table.
"Thank you, Granny," he wrote. "You didn't show me tough love. You showed me true love."
Mary Holt still remembers the night when Josh showed up on her doorstep, gaunt and weak.
Family members had warned her not to take Josh in if he came calling. "But I said 'I can't do that. Somebody's got to help that boy,'" she says. "I gave him my credit cards, and if he used them, he'd bring me the receipt and the card back."
But eventually, even Holt's faith began to run out. It was in her house, on Oct. 6, 2005, when Hamilton got drunk and got high for the last time.
"I all of a sudden realized I had nothing in my life," Hamilton says. "Baseball wasn't in my life. I had Katie and the kids, but they weren't in my life, because of the drugs. My parents weren't in my life, because of the drugs. Right then, I quit. I started going to meetings again, started working out. But this time it felt different."
Two months later, Roy Silver, one of Winning Inning's owners, read an article in a local paper about Josh's battles to stay clean.
One time, a college team had pitchers throwing in the bullpen when Hamilton asked if he could throw a couple. It was clear at that moment that Josh Hamilton still had the ability to cause the jaws of baseball men to drop off their hinges.
Last June, Major League Baseball reinstated Hamilton after more than three years of suspensions. Letters on Hamilton's behalf from the Devil Rays and Chadwick helped convince the league even though he'd been clean only eight months, four months short of the mandatory period.
The Devil Rays got Hamilton ready quickly and shipped him back to Hudson Valley. Before playing his first game in four years, Hamilton walked barefoot through the outfield grass -- "Just taking it all in," he says.
Now, back in the Hamiltons' rental house in Sarasota, Hamilton finds a text message saved on his cellphone, dated Dec. 6, 2006, at 1:42 a.m.: "Jesus never fails. Send this message to nine people except me and you will get good news tomorrow. Don't take this as a joke." As soon as he got it, he did as instructed.
The next morning, baseball held its annual Rule 5 draft. Hamilton got a call later that day from a scout he knows. "Hey," the voice said, "you got taken by the Cubs." A little while later, another call: "Check that. The Cubs just traded you to the Reds."
It turns out the Reds had made a deal with the Cubs whereby the latter would draft Hamilton with the third pick -- thus keeping him away from other teams rumored to be interested -- and trade him to the Reds for cash.
The whole thing cost the Reds only $100,000, but by rule, they must now keep Hamilton -- who has only 89 career at-bats above Class A -- on their 25-man active roster all year or lose him.
"The amazing thing to me is, the night before the draft (Reds GM) Wayne Krivsky asked me what I thought about Josh Hamilton," said Reds manager Jerry Narron, a North Carolina native who, unbeknownst to Krivsky, has known Hamilton since the latter was a teenager.
"He said, 'We're thinking about drafting him.' My jaw just dropped. I was so excited about it, knowing his history and knowing him personally. It just killed me to see the difficulties he had. But I want to give him every chance in the world to be successful and get his life back on track."