tampabay.com

Go ahead, kick yourselves

The story is too perfect, the emotions too genuine.

By JOHN ROMANO
Published May 8, 2007


The story is too perfect, the emotions too genuine.

How can you not cheer for second chances? For redemption? For wishes coming true and endings heading for happy?

How can you not cheer for Josh Hamilton?

Even if it's with gritted teeth.

The nation is infatuated with Hamilton's revival as a Cincinnati Reds rookie, and here in Tampa Bay we must nod and applaud. Albeit, politely and gently.

Goodness gracious, do you know how long we waited for this? How much the Devil Rays invested in this? A No. 1 draft pick. More than $4-million. Rehabs and appeals. Disappointments and heartaches.

All so we can watch his major-league debut from afar, and see his star rise in the uniform of another color?

Hamilton's return from cocaine addiction is threatening to become the story of the major-league season, and the blunder of Tampa Bay's blunderful history.

This could be worse than Wilson Alvarez. Worse than Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla. And, yes, worse than Bobby Abreu.

In his first five weeks in the majors, Hamilton hit over .300 with eight home runs and was named the National League's top rookie for April. He is stealing bases, drawing walks and generally looking like a franchise-type player.

Just for the wrong franchise.

The Rays allowed the Reds to snatch Hamilton via the Rule 5 draft in December for $50, 000, and a lot of angst to be named later.

It was, needless to say, a huge mistake.

Oh, the Rays had their reasons, some legitimate and some discovered in hindsight. But Gen. Custer had reasons for riding through Little Bighorn, and John Lennon had reasons for giving Yoko a microphone.

Doesn't mean they weren't big mistakes.

The problem was not a lack of forethought by the Rays front office, but perhaps a case of out-thinking themselves. The Rays were worried about procedural issues with a player who had already been taken off the 40-man roster once previously. They were banking that no team would take a chance in the Rule 5 draft where a drafted player, by rule, has to remain on a major-league roster all season. They were thinking of a lot of angles, while forgetting one important fact:

This was the most gifted athlete the team had ever drafted.

Sure, B.J. Upton was a great prep player. Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young were, too. But none had the potential of Hamilton. When he was the top pick in the 1999 draft, he was considered the best prep prospect since Alex Rodriguez.

Naturally, that potential had dimmed considerably over the years. Hamilton had been injured or suspended for nearly four full seasons. He had struggled to maintain his sobriety after numerous attempts at rehab. And when he resumed his career in the low minors in 2006, he was slow to get untracked.

So, yes, the odds were long in his comeback. And few people, myself included, could have foreseen him restarting his career with such a bang.

But that's not the point.

This guy simply had too much upside to risk losing. Even if there were only a 10 percent chance that he would fulfill his potential, he remained more valuable than most of the players on the 40-man roster.

And that's where Tampa Bay's rationalizations fall apart. No matter how many issues were surrounding Hamilton, he could still be a special talent. And you do not let special talents knowingly slip through your fingers.

Maybe, if Hamilton cools off down the road and becomes a routine major-league outfielder, this won't seem such a gosh-awful episode in Rays lore.

And maybe, if vice president Andrew Friedman keeps coming up with gems such as Al Reyes, Aki Iwamura and Ty Wigginton, it will be easier to swallow.

But this morning, it doesn't look good.

The Rays are rightfully lauded for assembling an exciting young outfield of Baldelli, Young and Carl Crawford. Yet imagine how that outfield might look with Hamilton, who has a higher batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage and more home runs than any of the other three.

Imagine how much excitement there would be in the bleachers of Tropicana Field for a player who survived a living hell to reach the major leagues.

That's the story showing up in headlines and magazines. That's the story that has people talking Rookie of the Year. That's the feel-good story of the year.

So, yeah, it's our duty to follow the rest of the nation and applaud the minor miracle that is Josh Hamilton's life.

But it's also our right to lament what might have been.