Getty Images

Until a few weeks ago, the scar on the back of Josh Hamilton's left hand was caused by a hot muffler. It's just the kind of burn you might get from accidental contact with the underside of a car—Hamilton's supercharged '73 Barracuda, for example. But now he's been asked an innocent question about the two-inch circle of gnarled flesh, and he's giving it serious thought. He looks at his hand and works it over in his mind: The muffler story ... or the truth?

He stares out across the Tampa restaurant, takes a deep breath and starts talking.

There was a drug dealer in one of his earlier rehab attempts ("Three treatment centers ago," Josh says) who was so obnoxious Josh couldn't stand to be in the same room with him. "It takes a lot for me to want to hurt somebody," he says, "but I wanted to hurt this guy." Instead, he left the session, returned to his room, packed up his belongings and sat on the bed. He didn't hurt the dealer, and part of him felt virtuous for that decision. But he had to hurt something. So he focused his anger on himself.

He lit four cigarettes, one by one, and laid them across the back of his left hand. The business ends rested atop the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. He set his jaw and watched as the embers burned into one of his most valuable assets. The disfiguring heat seared his skin. An acrid mixture of cigarette smoke and scorched flesh overtook the room. Josh saw it and smelled it. His fury blocked the pain.

The Devil Rays paid Josh Hamilton $3.96 million back in 1999, when he was taken one-one—the first player drafted in the first round. He was the golden boy, the polite kid from North Carolina who kissed his mother and grandmother before every game. He consistently threw 95 mph as a left-handed pitcher, yet was drafted as an outfielder. He was the best high school player since A-Rod, picked ahead of Josh Beckett, a five-tool myth sprung to life in the rolling hills outside Raleigh.

Josh Hamilton. Can't miss.

He looks at his damaged hand as he talks about the drug dealer and the cigarettes. He's nearing the end of his sixth stay in a treatment center, and he's got stories. Man, has he got stories. This is a tough one, one of the toughest. When it's done, he makes eye contact, gauging the table's reaction. "Before now, I've been telling people I burned it touching a muffler," he says.

He spits out a laugh, more relieved than amused. "It feels good to tell the truth," he says.

On March 19, four days into his current treatment program, Hamilton watched TV between meetings. The news crawl at the bottom of the screen told him that he'd been suspended for the season for violating baseball's drug policy. He is the first player since Darryl Strawberry in 2000 to receive such a harsh penalty.

His first thought as those words unfurled? Leave. Pack up, get out, screw it. He'd walked out of these places before, and with no baseball 'til spring training 2005, why get clean?

Then something stopped him.

"A light went on in my head," he says. "I don't know if it was God or whatever, but it just came to me. It's about time I did this for myself."

He hasn't played in a game since July 10, 2002, and he's essentially been out of baseball since the day in March 2003 when he showed up late for a spring training workout one time too many and Lou Piniella sent him home. Piniella told him to get his head and his life straight.

Lou didn't mention a word about baseball. For Hamilton, talent was never an issue.

The parents of the kids in his North Carolina Little League knew that. They called the commissioner to complain about this 7-year-old who was hitting and throwing the ball so hard. Nothing against the kid, they said, but he's a man among boys. Soon Josh was moved up alongside 10- to 12-year-olds, including his brother Jason. In one at-bat, 7-year-old Josh Hamilton hit a ball that flew 200 feet, up and over the outfield fence.

Jason, a catcher who peaked out at UNC-Greensboro, remembers being awestruck a few years later, watching his younger brother hit balls 400 to 450 feet—off a tee. At Athens Drive High, Josh was so good some folks wondered if he even needed the minor leagues. When scouts clocked his fastball at 95 in the late innings, his father, Tony, advised him to take a little off unless he wanted to be drafted as a pitcher. Even then, the only guy who could get Josh out was Josh.

Tony Hamilton worked two jobs and sometimes slept as little as two hours a night in order to coach his son and drive him to games. Tony's what they call "country strong." Family lore has it that Tony once bench-pressed 540 pounds when he was 19. Linda Hamilton is a legend in her own right, a softball player who, her kids say, could hit the ball 400 feet. Linda washed Joshs clothes at night, when the utility rates were lowest, to offset the cost of expensive camps and out-of-town tournaments. Life was family and baseball. You couldnt find the division on a dare.

When the Devil Rays took Hamilton one-one, area scout Mark McKnight said, "Character may have been the final determining factor. You read so many bad things about pro athletes these days, but I don't think you ever will about Josh."

He used part of his bonus money to pay off his parents' debts, and he bought them each a car. Tony took a leave and Linda quit her job so they could live with Josh as he navigated the minors. "We'll do this for two or three years," Tony told Josh. "By then you'll be in the big leagues."

Baseball didn't always look kindly on the family's tight bond. A man needs to be a man and all that. But Josh hit .347 in rookie ball and was the youngest player in the Futures Game and co-MVP of the South Atlantic League and the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year in 2000. He ate Linda's cooking every night and got tips from Tony after every game, and didn't care what anybody thought.

The legend grew. At Class-A Bakersfield (Calif.), in 2002, he threw a runner out at the plate after catching a fly ball on the warning track. He hit a 549-foot homer that splashed into the Kern River on the other side of the fence. "Five-forty-nine," Hamilton says, his Piedmont drawl stretching each syllable like taffy.

Hamilton is asked if the number is correct. He nods. Someone at the table points out that Mickey Mantle hit one 565. "Yeah, well?" Hamilton says. He bends his left arm 90, then flexes the wrist outward. A muscle the size of a ham hock bulges from below his elbow. "I bet Mantle had forearms like this too," he says.

If it can happen to Josh Hamilton, say the parents and the friends and the baseball men, then it can happen to anybody. But how? How did Josh Hamilton go from can't miss to cautionary tale?

It began with a sudden injury. On Feb. 28, 2001, a dump truck ran a red light near Bradenton, Fla., and collided with a Chevy Silverado pickup driven by Linda. Josh was in the passenger seat; Tony was in the back. Nobody was seriously hurt, but Josh suffered a lingering back problem that took nearly 18 months to diagnose. He played only 27 games in 2001. Which brings us to a tattoo parlor not far from the Bradenton house where Josh was living while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong with his back. His folks had returned to North Carolina to care for Linda's own spinal condition, unrelated to the accident. For the first time in his life, Josh was without his parents or baseball. He felt marooned.

Josh says his life to that point was "insulated," and with the insulation gone, his walls were flimsy and hollow. Any bad element was free to blow straight to his soul. "People say I was rebelling against my parents," Josh says. "Thats not true. If my parents had been with me, none of this would have happened. I needed something, and I looked in the wrong place."

The tattoo parlor became a hangout, and pretty soon his 6'4", 230-pound body became a human canvas. When he got the first tattoo—HAMMER—his mother said, "Okay, its just one." Next came a baseball, which also meant something. But then blue flames shot up his forearms, two devil heads sprouted on the inside of his elbows and a bunch of tribal signs materialized on his che'st and legs. Before long there were 26 of them. His mother cried when she saw what her son had done to his beautiful body. "Just what tribe are you from, Josh?" she asked.

He extends his arms and shows the devil heads. "I really regret these," he says. "They're a real hard reminder." It was one of the guys he met at the tattoo parlor who introduced him to cocaine. Soon he went from thinking, I can't do this, I'm Josh Hamilton, to thinking, I can do this because I'm Josh Hamilton. "At some point," he says, "I crossed a threshold."

Maybe its no surprise the tattoo parlor became his second home. Everyone wanted to be around Josh Hamilton, and why not? There is a resigned tone to Linda's voice when she says, "I know what he was doing in that tattoo place. He was trying to see the best in those people. He always did. A lot of people prey on someone like that."

So here's the hard part: how do you go from cautionary tale to can't miss? If you could see and hear 23-year-old Josh Hamilton, you'd swear it was happening right before your eyes.

In early May, he walked alone into a Tampa restaurant and placed his order for dinner. He glanced around at all the smiling people, every one of them drinking. Soon it felt like they were coming at him, a kaleidoscopic procession of happy people mocking his addiction with their joy. He called the waitress over.

"I need to change my order," he said calmly. "I need to get it to go."

Who is he? He's finding out. He isn't a baseball player or a legend or a son, although he's all of those things. Right now he's recovering, hard day by hard night, and it doesnt matter what he's driving or what he's got in the bank or how absurdly the muscles in his forearms bulge in their casings. Sobriety comes first.

Hamilton hasn't spoken publicly for about a year, unless you count the time the reporter from St. Pete showed up at his doorstep and Josh said some things he doesn't even remember. He wasn't sure he wanted to speak this time, either. Plenty of people advised against it. You're too fragile, they told him, a raw nerve. What if your picture and your story appear in a magazine, and then you relapse? "You know what I finally figured?" he says. "I can't live for the future. I can't think about what might happen. This way, maybe I can help someone. Maybe I can help myself."

His life is reduced to its smallest particles. A day lasts 24 hours, a craving lasts eight seconds. He can live through the day. He can outlast the cravings. He can go to meetings and lean on the people who understand. Life's prescription? Get up in the morning, don't use, go to bed at night, repeat.

To that end, he wrote a poem and titled it "We":
We is more than one
We are the people you can rely on
We know who each other really are
We are connected in mind and purpose
We thrive on each other and each other's imperfections
We are perfectly imperfect, and that's okay
We together are one, and a solid recovering one we are
We do not judge people on their pasts but their present
We can tell each other things everyday people could not understand
We are friendly, caring, loving individuals, combined as We to live a sober, clean life
We can do it! We will do it!
We can do this by leaning on and learning from one another
We are addicts and alcoholics AND
We are sober

Hamilton's program required he get a part-time job. So one spring day, he drove up to a batting cage off one of Tampa's main drags and found one of the owners in the front, hosing down the sidewalk. Hamilton parked his white 2001 Jaguar XKR, walked up to the man and asked, "Y'all hiring now?" Stuart McKown looked at this chiseled, tattooed man with the tight blond curls and the $140,000 car, and stammered, "Well, no, not really."

Hamilton took a breath and said,"Sir, can I explain my situation?"

He introduced himself, which brought a smile of recognition to McKown's face. He told his story with no apologies. McKown found room on the payroll, and now Hamilton spends his afternoons unloading trucks and fetching cans of soda for 12-year-old boys whose parents pay $40 a half-hour for the chance to dream that their little Josh will be half as good as this one.

Day by day, he's searching for himself, trying to recapture the time before his small, insulated life got big and drafty and hard to manage. There are rumblings that his suspension might be reduced if he completes the current program, which runs through June 14. That would give him several months of sobriety and, as Tony Hamilton says, "It's not in his best interest to sit around."

So here he is, baseball, at your disposal. He's cut and fit and smiling, and right now he's jumping over a fence at Hillsborough High in Tampa, flipping his size 19's—believed to be the biggest feet in the game—over the chain-link because he can't wait for someone to show up with the keys. He's got four brand-new black maple bats in his hands, courtesy of Devil Rays centerfielder Carl Crawford, who sent them to Josh through their friend and financial adviser, Steve Reed. Along with the bats came a message: Get better and get back.

He drops a drag bunt that skips down the third base line and dies a quick death halfway up the line. "Hoo-hoo!" he yells. "Base hit all day long." He drives a dozen mushy high school BP balls over the fence. Josh claims his bat speed has been clocked at 110 mph, faster than Mark McGwire's, and you can hear the baseball sizzle after it leaves his bat.

These baseballs talk. They're saying this guy can't be forgotten, not with this talent. They're saying what Crawford said one day five years ago, when he and Josh were minor league teammates shagging balls in West Virginia: "Hammy, you're the best ballplayer I've ever seen. Ain't nobody can do all the things you can do."

They're saying what his father tells him: "The real crime of the past two years is that you've denied people your talent."

The best Josh Hamilton story may be the one about Ashley Pittman, a young man with Down syndrome who served as team mascot/bat boy at Athens Drive High. After the team lost a tournament game in Hamilton's senior year, he found Ashley sitting alone on the team bus, crying. For a reason only he knew, Ashley was convinced he'd lost the game. You didn't lose the game, Ashley, Josh said. No one person ever loses a game. We lost this game as a team.

Suddenly, the tears stopped. Ashley looked up at Josh, maybe the greatest high school baseball player anybody had ever seen, a teenager weeks away from nearly $4 million, and swallowed back the sobs. The beginnings of a smile began to appear at the corners of his mouth.

"Josh?" he asked.

"Yes, Ashley?"

"Does that mean I'm part of the team?"

"Course you are, Ashley."

Ashley leaned over and gave Josh a hug.

At the end of that season, Athens Drive High awarded the first Ashley Pittman Award to honor the student-athlete who best exemplifies the qualities of compassion and sportsmanship. The recipient was Josh Hamilton.

The journey back begins with hope, and hope can be found in a small apartment tucked away in strip-mall Tampa. What you were or what you could be has no place here. What counts is what you are today, and today, a bright Florida day in late May, Josh Hamilton is sober.

Back home, a couple of times a month, Linda gets a call from a former special-education student from Athens Drive High. "How's Josh?" this young woman asks in her hopeful, eager tone. "When is he coming home?" She tells Linda the same stories every time. Linda listens politely, knowing the young woman will finish every call with the same innocent, heartbreaking sentence: "People were always so mean to me in high school, and I could never understand why Josh was always so nice."

Linda sighs as she repeats the story. This is Josh's story. The slow kids, the popular kids, the stoners—her boy saw the best in all of them. Still does, in fact. So. One question remains unanswered: will someone return the favor?

[This story originally appeared in ESPN the Magazine on June 21st, 2004]