To let you know how far I've come, let me tell you where I've been.
Not that long ago, there were nights I went to sleep in strange places praying I wouldn't wake up. After another night of bad decisions, I'd lie down with my heart speeding inside my chest like it was about to burst through the skin. My thinking was clouded, and my talent was one day closer to being totally wasted.
I prayed to be spared another day of guilt and depression and addiction. I couldn't continue living the life of a crack addict, and I couldn't stop, either. It was a horrible downward spiral that I had to pull out of, or die. I lay there—in a hot and dirty trailer in the North Carolina countryside, in a stranger's house, in the cab of my pickup—and prayed the Lord would take me away from the nightmare my life had become.
When I think of those terrible times, there's one memory that stands out. I was walking down the double-yellow of a two-lane country highway outside Raleigh when I woke up out of a trance. I was so out of it I had lost consciousness, but my body had kept going, down the middle of the road, cars whizzing by on either side. I had run out of gas on my way to a drug dealer's house, and from there I left the truck and started walking. I had taken Klonopin, a prescription antianxiety drug, along with whatever else I was using at the time, and the combination had put me over the edge. It's the perfect example of what I was: a dead man walking.
And now, as I stand on the green grass of a major league outfield or walk to the batter's box with people cheering for me, I repeatedly ask myself one simple question: How did I get here from there? I've been in the big leagues as a member of the Cincinnati Reds for half a season, but I still find myself taking off my cap between pitches and taking a good look around. The uniform, the ballparks, the fans—it doesn't seem real. How am I here? It makes no sense to anybody, and I feel almost guilty when I have to tell people, over and over, that I can't answer that one simple question.
I go to sleep every night with a clear mind and a clear conscience. Every day, I walk into an immaculate clubhouse with 10 TVs and all the food I can eat, a far cry from the rat-infested hellholes of my user past. I walk to my locker and change into a perfectly clean and pressed uniform that someone else hung up for me. I grab a bat and a glove and walk onto a beautifully manicured field to play a game for a living.
How am I here? I can only shrug and say, "It's a God thing." It's the only possible explanation.
There's a reason my prayers weren't answered during those dark, messed-up nights I spent scared out of my mind. There's a reason I have this blessed and unexpected opportunity to play baseball and tell people my story.
My wife, Katie, told me this day would come. At my lowest point, about three years ago, when I was wasting away to skin and bones and listening to nobody, she told me I'd be back playing baseball someday. She had no reason to believe in me. During that time, I did nothing to build my body and everything to destroy it. I'd go five or six months without picking up a ball or swinging a bat. By then, I'd been in rehab five or six times—on my way to eight—and failed to get clean. I was a bad husband and a bad father, and I had no relationship with God. Baseball wasn't even on my mind.
And still Katie told me, "You're going to be back playing baseball, because there's a bigger plan for you." I couldn't even look her in the eye. I said something like, "Yeah, yeah, quit talking to me."
She looks pretty smart, doesn't she? I have a mission now. My mission is to be the ray of hope, the guy who stands out there on that beautiful field and owns up to his mistakes and lets people know it's never completely hopeless, no matter how bad it seems at the time. I have a platform and a message, and now I go to bed at night, sober and happy, praying I can be a good messenger.
Addiction is a humbling experience. Getting it under control is even more humbling. I got better for one reason: I surrendered. Instead of asking to be bailed out, instead of making deals with God by saying, "If you get me out of this mess, I'll stop doing what I'm doing," I asked for help. I wouldn't do that before. I'd been the Devil Rays' No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft, supposedly a five-tool prospect. I was a big, strong man, and I was supposed to be able to handle my problems myself. That didn't work out so well.
Every day I'm reminded that my story is bigger than me. It never fails. Every time I go to the ballpark, I talk to people who are either battling addictions themselves or trying to help someone else who is. Who talks to me? Just about everybody. I walked to the plate to lead off an inning in early May, minding my own business, when the catcher jogged out to the mound to talk to his pitcher. As I was digging in, the home plate umpire (I'm intentionally not naming him) took off his mask and walked around the plate to brush it off. He looked up at me and said, "Josh, I'm really pulling for you. I've fought some battles myself, and I just want you to know I'm rooting for you."
A father will tell me about his son while I'm signing autographs. A mother will wait outside the players' parking lot to tell me about her daughter. They know where I've been. They look to me because I'm proof that hope is never lost.
They remind me that this isn't really about baseball. It's amazing that God allowed me to keep my baseball talents after I sat out three years and played only 15 games last season in A-ball. On May 6, I hit two homers against the Rockies at home, and I felt like I did in high school. I felt like I could do anything on the field.
I've been called the biggest surprise in baseball this year, and I can't argue with that. If you think about it, how many people have gone from being a crack addict to succeeding at anything, especially something as demanding as major league baseball? If I hadn't been picked up by the Reds after the Rule 5 draft, which opened up a major league roster spot for me, I'd probably still be in A-ball. Instead, I'm hanging around .270 with 13 homers through 60 games with Cincinnati; not bad for a 26-year-old major league rookie. But the way I look at it, I couldn't fail. I've been given this platform to talk about the hell I've been through, so it's almost like I need to do well, like I don't have a choice.
This may sound crazy, but I wouldn't change a thing about my path to the big leagues. I wouldn't even change the 26 tattoos that cover so much of my body, even though they're the most obvious signs of my life temporarily leaving the tracks. You're probably thinking, Bad decisions and addiction almost cost him his life, and he wouldn't change anything? But if I hadn't gone through all the hard times, this whole story would be just about baseball. If I'd made the big leagues at 21 and made my first All-Star team at 23 and done all the things expected of me, I would be a big-time baseball player, and that's it.
Baseball is third in my life right now, behind my relationship with God and my family. Without the first two, baseball isn't even in the picture. Believe me, I know.
I'll never forget Opening Day in Cincinnati. When they called my name during introductions and a sellout crowd stood and cheered, I looked into the stands and saw Katie and our two kids—Sierra, who's nearly 2, and my 6-year-old stepdaughter, Julia—and my parents and Katie's parents. I had to swallow hard to keep from breaking down right there. They were all crying, but I had to at least try to keep it together.
I pinch-hit in the eighth inning of that game against the Cubs, and Lou Piniella decided to make a pitching change before I got to the plate. The crowd stood and cheered me for what seemed like forever. It was the best sound I've ever heard. When I got into the box, Cubs catcher Michael Barrett looked up at me from his crouch and said, "You deserve it, Josh. Take it all in, brother. I'm happy for you." I lined out to left, but the following week I got my first start and my first hit—a home run.
Whether I hit two bombs or strike out three times, like I did in a game against the Pirates, I never forget that I'm living with addiction. It's just part of my life. Johnny Narron, my manager's brother, is a big part of my recovery. He's the Reds' video coordinator, and he once coached me in fall baseball when I was 15. He looks after me on the road. When they pass out meal money before a trip—always in cash—they give mine to Johnny, and he parcels it out to me when I need it. I see no shame in that; it's just one of the realities of my situation. I don't need to be walking around with $400 in my pocket.
I know I'm different, and my teammates have been very accepting. Being a rookie in the big leagues, there are certain rituals involved, and one of them is carrying beer onto the plane. My teammates gave me that job on one of the first road trips, and I didn't do it. I didn't think it would be a good idea for me to be seen carrying beer onto a plane. They respected my decision.
I get a lot of abuse in visiting cities, but it only bothers me when people are vulgar around kids. The rest I can handle. Some of it is even funny. In St. Louis, I was standing in rightfield when a fan yelled, "My name is Josh Hamilton, and I'm a drug addict!" I turned around and looked at him with my palms raised to the sky. "Tell me something I don't know, dude," I said. The whole section started laughing and cheering, and the heckler turned to them and said, "Did you hear that? He's my new favorite player." They cheered me from that point on.
I live by a simple philosophy: Nobody can insult me as much as I've insulted myself. I've learned that I have to keep doing the right things and not worry about what people think. Fortunately, I have a strong support group with Katie, my family and Johnny. If I ever get in a bad situation, I know I would have to get out of it and give Johnny a call. The key is not getting myself into those situations, but we've talked about having a plan for removing myself just in case. It's all part of understanding the reality of the addiction.
In spring training, when I hit over .400 and made the team, there was a lot of interest in my story. I decided to be open about what happened to me; early on, I was doing long interviews before my first game in every city. It's been amazing how people have responded, and I think being honest helped. I can't avoid my past, so I don't try. It's not always easy, though. I got sick in late May and ended up on the disabled list after going to the hospital with a stomach problem, and I knew I'd have to answer questions about whether I was using again. I can't control what people think, but the years of drug abuse tore up my immune system pretty good. I get tested three times a week, and if it comes back positive, I know I'm done with baseball for life.
Aside from our struggles as a team, this season has been a dream for me. And that's fitting, because in a way I had to learn how to dream all over again. When I was using, I never dreamed. I'd sleep the dead, dreamless sleep of a stalled brain. When I stopped using, I found my dreams returned. They weren't always good dreams; most of the ones I remember were haunting and dark. They stayed with me long after I woke up.
Within my first week of sobriety in October 2005—after I showed up at my grandmother's house in Raleigh in the middle of the night, coming off a crack binge—I had the most haunting dream. I was fighting the devil, an awful-looking thing. I had a stick or a bat or something, and every time I hit the devil, he'd fall and get back up. Over and over I hit him, until I was exhausted and he was still standing.
I woke up in a sweat, as if I'd been truly fighting, and the terror that gripped me makes that dream feel real to this day. I'd been alone for so long, alone with the fears and emotions I worked so hard to kill. I'm not embarrassed to admit that after I woke up that night, I walked down the hall to my grandmother's room and crawled under the covers with her. The devil stayed out of my dreams for seven months after that. I stayed clean and worked hard and tried to put my marriage and my life back together. I got word in June 2006 that I'd been reinstated by Major League Baseball, and a few weeks afterward, the devil reappeared.
It was the same dream, with an important difference. I would hit him and he would bounce back up, the ugliest and most hideous creature you could imagine. This devil seemed unbeatable; I couldn't knock him out. But just when I felt like giving up, I felt a presence by my side. I turned my head and saw Jesus, battling alongside me. We kept fighting, and I was filled with strength. The devil didn't stand a chance.
You can doubt me, but I swear to you I dreamed it. When I woke up, I felt at peace. I wasn't scared. To me, the lesson was obvious: Alone, I couldn't win this battle. With Jesus, I couldn't lose.
I get cravings sometimes, and I see it as the devil trying to catch me in a weak moment. The best thing I can do is get the thought out of my mind as soon as I can, so it doesn't turn into an obsession. When it happens, I talk to him. I talk to the devil and say, "These are just thoughts, and I'm not going to act on them." When I talk like that, when I tell him he's not going to get the best of me, I find the thought goes away sooner.
Believe it or not, talking to the devil is no harder to explain than many other experiences I've had since that day last December when my life changed. I was working for my brother's tree service in Raleigh, sending limbs through a chipper, when I found out I'd been selected by the Cubs and traded to the Reds in the Rule 5 draft.
But there is one story that sticks with me, so much so that I think of it every day. I was driving out of the players' parking lot at Great American Ball Park after a game in May, with Katie and our two girls. There's always a group of fans standing at the curb, hoping to get autographs, and I stop to sign as many as I can.
And on this particular night, a little boy of about 9 or 10, wearing a Reds cap, handed me a pen and something to sign. Nothing unusual there, but as I was writing the boy said, "Josh, you're my savior."
This stopped me. I looked at him and said, "Well, thank you. Do you know who my savior is?"
He thought for a minute. I could see the gears turning. Finally, he smiled and blurted out, "Jesus Christ." He said it like he'd just come up with the answer to a test.
"That's exactly right," I said.
You see, I may not know how I got here from there, but every day I get a better understanding of why.
[This story originally appeared in ESPN the Magazine on July 16th, 2007]