tampabay.com

Hamilton puts on huge power display

A day after being given "limited privileges," the former top pick hits 12 homers in a workout.

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published June 3, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Josh Hamilton had just finished batting practice Friday morning at the Devil Rays spring training complex when another member of the team entered the dugout. After shaking his head, the player turned to a teammate.

"Did you see that?" he asked. "He hit one at least 150 feet over the fence."

In all, Hamilton, a talented but troubled Rays prospect suspended since February 2004 for repeated drug policy violations, hit 12 homers - many of the Ruthian variety - in his return to the field. Thursday, Major League Baseball officials granted him "limited privileges" to work with the extended spring training squad.

"Honestly, I thought I'd never be back out here," Hamilton said. "It's exciting for me. It's real emotional for me. I've got that little nervous feeling in my stomach right now."

The Rays' No.1 pick in 1999 started the session with a harmless popup, but on his fifth swing, the powerful left-handed outfielder, with wife Katie watching from the side, blasted one over the centerfield wall, 400 feet away.

From there, Hamilton seemed to find his groove. At one point, he homered on three straight pitches. During one shot, several players standing in rightfield turned their heads at once as Hamilton launched one well over them and out of the park.

"I'd never seen him before today," Devil Rays vice president Andrew Friedman said. "I'd obviously heard lots of stories. It was pretty impressive. And it was even more impressive in light of the fact of how much time he's missed."

Hamilton, 25, has not played in a game since July10, 2002. He will be allowed to participate for the remaining two weeks of the extended spring program. His status beyond that is unclear, though he could be given the chance to continue his comeback with one of the Rays' low-level minor-league teams.

"It's something the commissioner's office and the doctors and everybody involved will decide," Friedman said.

After Friday's practice, Hamilton spoke at length about his battle with drug addiction. He said he has been clean since October and takes three drug tests a week. But, he added, kicking the problem won't be easy.

"It's always going to be there," Hamilton said. "It's hell on Earth. It's a constant struggle. You've got to come to grips with it. This is the last chance, and that's the way I want it. That's what's going to give me that drive to do it. I was to the point there where I was so frustrated that I felt like I couldn't get back on the field. I got pretty bad for a while."

While away from the game, Hamilton, who looked as physically chiseled as a football player, tried to stay sharp by making somewhat regular trips to the batting cage. This spring, he came to Clearwater to work with former Rays minor-league coach Roy Silver at the Winning Inning baseball academy.

Hamilton said the support of his family and friends has helped. At times while addressing the media Friday, he seemed overcome with emotion. Standing a few feet away, his wife had similar sentiments.

"It's a feeling that I can't really describe," Katie said. "I'm just overwhelmed with joy. It's been a hard, very long road. Being down here is a huge step. It's a leap. It's awesome."

And, Hamilton hopes, it's only the beginning.