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A child gone astray

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2003

He was, technically, still a kid the day we met.

It was the evening before Josh Hamilton's 18th birthday. A few weeks before the Devil Rays would make him the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft.

He was 6 feet 4, wore size 19 shoes and was the best teenage outfielder in America. And a kid, nonetheless.

We were in his parents' house off Mid Pines Road in Raleigh, N.C. For two hours, we sat in the living room and talked. Mostly, his parents and me. Josh would answer questions from time to time, but seemed accustomed to letting his father, Tony, or his mother, Linda, do the talking.

He would look at me and roll his eyes or tilt his head whenever he thought they went too far. He seemed happy, if a bit embarrassed. Boyish, even though he was a month away from a payday larger than the rest of us would ever know.

Later, we would stand outside by his car and talk alone. I asked about his friends, hobbies, social life. And pretty much heard no, no, no.

He was devoted to two things.

Baseball and his parents.

* * *

He has been missing for more than three weeks. Although missing is probably the wrong word. People know where he is, they just choose not to say.

His parents won't talk. Neither will his agent, nor the Rays. Players say they have been told not to talk about him. That, alone, says much.

So in the absence of facts, concern is the alternative.

Concern for a player the Rays have tied much of their future around. Concern for a player for whom they have invested better than $4-million and the first No. 1 pick in the franchise's history.

Mainly, concern for an endearingly sweet young man.

For, no matter what else you say about Josh Hamilton, you must know he was every bit the pleasant and shy Southern boy you had always envisioned.

Polite. Sincere. Confident in a way that was not annoying. Devoted to the game as if he had been plucked straight out of a cornball, 1940s film. He was, one team executive said, like Joe Baseball.

And the Rays were ecstatic about getting him.

In the summer of '99, there were three players worthy of the No. 1 pick. Catcher Eric Munson of the University of Southern California, was closest to being ready for the majors, but had a lower ceiling of potential.

Josh Beckett, a right-hander from Spring, Texas, was a prep player every bit as celebrated as Hamilton. He was a big, hard-throwing, cocky son of a gun. He also alienated Rays executives during a home visit by calling Vince Naimoli by his first name and lounging around on a couch, as if he already had the world licked.

Not Josh Hamilton. This kid was too grounded for that.

He seemed perfect, and that's no exaggeration. His skills were remarkable, his love for the game appeared genuine. He had the physique of an athlete and the outlook of an ingenue. Sturdy perhaps, but still an ingenue.

For two years in the lower minors, he was everything the Rays wanted. Publications were calling him the top prospect in the game.

Even when injuries began to intrude, the future looked bright. Even as Munson arrived with the Tigers and Beckett pitched for the Marlins, Hamilton was still the player the future was designed around.

This is what we believed. This is what the Rays insisted.

But, somewhere in the past year, the whispers started. Talk that, somehow, Hamilton had lost his way. It was nothing drastic, just some signs that were inconsistent with his past.

There were the tattoos. Up and down, and around his body. There was talk among the players that Hamilton had acquired an affinity for the night life. He showed up late for two spring workouts. Then he failed to show at all.

This was a player who was supposed to be the stuff of legend. And, before it could even start, the legend has turned into a mystery.

There are few answers and plenty of gossip. Some of the rumors are outlandish enough to be dismissed. Others are real enough to be worrisome.

For more than three weeks now, we've awaited word.

Perhaps, though, he has been missing longer than that.

* * *

Early this spring, reporters were talking to Lou Piniella about the Rays' outfield prospects. About the day, in the not so distant future, when Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Hamilton could star in the same outfield.

Piniella suggested this might be wishful thinking.

It was not an allusion to any player in particular. It's just the way the game works. Prospects have a way of disappearing. Too many injuries, too little heart. Not enough work on the field, too much running around off it.

Whatever the reason, too many young players fall by the wayside.

To have three All-Star caliber players show up at roughly the same time in the same organization would be a reach.

They arrive, after all, as kids.

You never know how they'll turn out.

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