By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Josh Hamilton has a new support system and a real shot to play ball this year.
Josh Hamilton starts each day with two simple thoughts.
The first is about remaining sober, about staying away from drugs and alcohol - as he says he has since Sept. 21. The other is about returning to the baseball field, about putting his troubled past behind him and getting back to working on what was a once-promising future, hoping a suspension that was extended through the 2005 season is cut short for good behavior.
"Each day is different, and I'm taking it one day at a time," Hamilton said Thursday. "It's been going good."
Hamilton, 23, has made what appear to be significant changes to get his life back in order.
He is married with a 3-year-old stepdaughter and a baby on the way. He has moved away from the parents that were omnipresent in his life and found tremendous support and kinship in a father-in-law who happens to run a ministry that counsels teens and athletes on the dangers of drug abuse.
He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and private counseling sessions on a regular basis. He speaks to youth groups. He gives hitting lessons to little kids.
"It all starts with the program I'm in," Hamilton said from North Carolina. "I tell myself I'm not going to drink or do drugs for a 24-hour period, and I can do that. And each day I start a new 24 hours."
Now he hopes to get back his career with the Devil Rays.
Hamilton's one-year drug-related suspension that was due to end March 18 was quietly extended by Major League Baseball through the 2005 season because of additional violations.
But Hamilton has shown enough progress that MLB officials have told him that if he continues to stay sober, there is a chance he will be reinstated during the season.
"I think about it every day," Hamilton said. "That's the main focus, besides my family and my program, is getting back to that, because that's what I do best. I know it will be pretty emotional for me to get back on the field."
Hamilton may look the same, with the bulging muscles and flaming tattoos, but he is different now. According to his father-in-law, he is much more responsible and mature, someone who finally understands that his transgressions are his responsibility.
"He has adapted to this whole concept of, "I've got a problem and I'm going to deal with it. I'm not going to hide from it and run from it,' " said Michael Dean Chadwick, president of nonprofit Mike Chadwick Ministries and owner of 1st American Land, a North Carolina real estate, building and development company.
And just as quickly as skeptics may say they've heard that before, Chadwick says they would be wrong: "This time around is different. He's working for it this time; it's not being handed to him."
This Hamilton, according to Chadwick, dotes on his family, having married Katie in November, becoming a willing stepfather to her daughter and awaiting the September birth of their own child. He has been faithful about attending his AA meetings and counseling sessions. He has joined Chadwick in speaking at Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings. He has volunteered his time to feed the hungry and help the homeless.
He understands that the bad things he has gone through could bring good to others.
"Joshua is so much a better person than he was a year ago," said Chadwick, "He's done some very humbling things that help him be a better person. Whether he ever plays baseball again, I don't really care. I do care that he is a good dad. I do care that he is a good husband. I do care that he is a good person."
Hamilton, however, cares deeply about getting back on the field. He has taken up golf to channel his competitiveness, but baseball remains his primary focus and he works out feverishly in anticipation of returning, having not played in a game since July 2002.
"He wants to come back pretty bad," Chadwick said. "At 8, 9, 10 o'clock at night he's still at the batting cage, or he'll be up at 6 or 8 in the morning and be in the batting cage. I think he wants to come back for lots of reasons.
"Most of all, I think he wants to come back to show everybody all over the planet that counted him down and out that they were wrong. He was down and he was out, but he ain't gone, and he ain't forgotten.
"I think he wants to get back so bad he'll do whatever he has to. I think he goes to the mailbox every day hoping they'll say come on back."
Chadwick wrote a letter to commissioner Bud Selig detailing Hamilton's progress. He also told him that Hamilton could be "the next poster boy for Major League Baseball, that there's an opportunity to do wonderful things with Josh Hamilton, the banner he carries for athletes who fall down and trip, that "I came back and you can, too.' "
Chadwick said he got a nice reply, but no commitments. MLB officials wouldn't comment on Hamilton's situation.
"It's unfortunate they don't see what I see, that they don't know what I know," Chadwick said.
"Baseball probably saved his life by kicking him out. If they ever let him come back, it would be a great thing for them."
When the Rays made Hamilton the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft and rewarded him with a nearly $4-million signing bonus, they expected great things, projecting him as the most skilled member of a homegrown outfield alongside Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford.
But injuries slowed Hamilton's progress through the minor leagues. Mysterious absences and a fascination with tattoos raised eyebrows and questions. And serious drug problems eventually sidelined him and put his promising future in doubt, if not jeopardy.
Hamilton initially was suspended 30 days in February 2004 for failing at least two drug tests and using what MLB considers a prohibited substance, such as cocaine. Failing at least two more tests before the end of that term led to the March 19, 2004, announcement of a one-year suspension.
Because of subsequent additional violations, MLB officials several months later extended Hamilton's suspension through the 2005 season. The additional punishment was not publicly announced.
However, MLB officials are believed to be pleased enough with Hamilton's progress that, if no additional violations show up on his regular testing over the next several months, they would be open to reinstating him around the middle of the 2005 season.
"I've got my fingers crossed," Devil Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli said. "His family situation has really helped. He married into a wonderful family and they're giving him support. I'm going to keep praying for him."
Hamilton said he works out every day, and if he gets the chance to come back, he still can be every bit as good as once promised.
"Even better," he said. "I ain't never hit a ball like I am now. Physically and mentally, it's going good."
Chadwick said he has seen tremendous growth and progress in Hamilton in the 10 months or so he has been around him. Hamilton knew Chadwick's daughter, Katie, from going to school together at Athens Drive High in Raleigh, N.C., but Chadwick said he isn't sure exactly what led Hamilton to knock on his door late one night.
"I don't know how he heard about me," Chadwick said. "He showed up at my house nine or 10 months ago. It was late, I don't know, 11 p.m., midnight, 2 in the morning, I was in bed.
"I looked in his face and I saw a broken boy who was lost, lonely and desperate for someone who knew where he was. We sat out on my deck most of that night and talked about life and stuff, about, "What do I got to do?' I told him, "It's not about, Can you?, it's about, Will you?' We've spent a lot of time together between then and today."
Chadwick speaks to teams, students and business groups about the influence God had in his life and delivers a strong antidrug message.
Sometimes, Hamilton will go with him.
"I'll say, "Don't tell me it can't happen to you, because it happened to him,' " Chadwick said. "Josh will stand up there and share with the kids what he's been through, and it's with such conviction, such power. It's so compelling. It's so real. It's so relevant. It's so now.
"And every time, he's pushed his healing process a little bit. He's made himself accountable to this group of kids, and to this group of kids. Accountability is a wonderful thing."
Chadwick said what happened to Hamilton is not that much different than what has happened to other young men and women who experience success at an early age and don't have the proper support to help them through it.
"Unfortunately when you're an athlete, anyone in the public eye, you don't have the luxury of just tripping along life's trail. You trip and stumble down the mountain and the whole world sees it ... " Chadwick said.
"When you stumble in life and you don't have anything to prepare you and it's never happened to you, and the people you surround yourself with are either co-stumblers or they haven't recovered from stumbling themselves, they can't help.
"What happened to Joshua is he took a fall. He was condemned and he was criticized. No one could try to get Joshua to rescue himself until he could rescue himself. Sometimes you have to let a person take a little journey on his own before he wants to be rescued, and I think there's a little bit of that."
Chadwick, who details his own struggles with substance abuse on his Web site (www.mc-m.org) knows enough about the recovery process to say that Hamilton "has done incredibly well but he has an incredibly long way to go."
But that said, Chadwick likes his chances.
"When I met Joshua I took him to the toughest, meanest AA guy I could find," Chadwick said. "At first he said, "This kid has a 90 percent chance of not making it.' Six weeks later he said there's a 50 percent chance. Today, he'll tell you there's a very, very, very good chance of making it. ...
"I think you've just begun to write the Joshua Hamilton story."
Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.