Former top pick continues battle against cocaine

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Josh Hamilton has put baseball on the "back burner," returning to his hometown of Raleigh to continue with drug rehabilitation with the support of his family.

Hamilton, who hasn't played since July 2002, is battling to overcome a cocaine addiction.

The No. 1 pick in the 1999 amateur draft had been undergoing treatment at a center in Tampa, Fla. until a week ago, at which time he returned to North Carolina where he works full-time for a local construction company and goes to the batting cages after work.

There were no additional details on his latest course of treatment.

"When things aren't going well on the outside, I can come in here and work out," he said in an interview late last week with WRAL-TV in Raleigh. "It's nice to be able to go somewhere to get my focus back."

Hamilton became addicted to cocaine after he was injured in a 2001 truck accident that sidetracked his career.

"It's the first time in my life I couldn't get a handle on something," Hamilton told the TV station. "I was always growing up being able to do everything with ease. My addiction hit me hard. I didn't know how to handle it. It had me frustrated.

"Cocaine doesn't discriminate. It'll get anybody. It got me quick. It got me real quick."

Hamilton, a former prep star at Raleigh Athens Drive, was suspended for the season in March for violating baseball's drug policy. He is not eligible for reinstatement until spring training next year.

He received a $3.96 million signing bonus out of high school. In 251 minor league games, he's hit .295 with 33 homers and 166 RBI.

He took six weeks off for personal reasons during last year's spring training and later was granted permission to leave the organization for the rest of the season to handle unspecified personal problems. Hamilton later said he had sought counseling for depression caused by a serious illness in his family.

Earlier this year, Tampa Bay general manager Chuck Lamar said the team hopes Hamilton can participate in spring training in 2005.

"I made the choices to do the things I did," Hamilton said. "I can't blame anybody but myself. I robbed myself of where I could be right now -- maybe in the major leagues. But I think everything happens for a reason, and this is all going to make me a stronger person. Every day, I'm doing a little better."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.