Josh Hamilton ups the ante

BALTIMORE -- As a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton has learned to abide by a relatively simple set of rules. He takes things one day at a time and lets his faith in Jesus Christ be a perpetual compass.

"I think about what God has done in my life, and everything I've done to mess it up," Hamilton said late Tuesday night at Camden Yards. "What God has allowed me to do, to come back from everything I've been through and still be able to play the game at the level I play it -- it's pretty amazing to think about that."

On those special occasions when Hamilton takes over the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, or makes Baltimore fans who are so accustomed to dogging him stand up and cheer in unison, it's time to look at the big picture. The casual fan has to marvel at a player who swings the bat with such ease and hits the ball so far, time after time. And the Rangers die-hard, who has more of a personal stake in Hamilton's career path, can only guess what comes next and where his incredible story will end.

Hamilton treated a crowd of 11,263 to a show in Texas' 10-3 victory Tuesday, setting an American League record with 18 total bases and becoming the 16th player in history to hit four home runs in a game. The list of predecessors begins with Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt, weaves its way past Chuck Klein, Gil Hodges, Rocky Colavito and Shawn Green and ends with "Hard Hittin'" Mark Whiten and Pat Seerey of the 1948 Chicago White Sox at the mortal end of the spectrum.

After having the breath sucked out of them, Hamilton's Texas teammates struggled to put the evening in perspective. Michael Young, who was standing in the on-deck circle with Adrian Beltre when Hamilton went deep off Darren O'Day for home run No. 4, said they both "went ape" when the ball cleared the fence. Up and down the bench, the other Rangers did everything but bang their heads against the dugout wall in amazement.

"He makes it look easy," said catcher Mike Napoli. "He's the type of freak, I guess, who can pull stuff off like that. He's got a gift."

Hamilton, dog-tired, planned to grab some pizza with his father-in-law and some other friends and relatives who were in Baltimore for a visit, then respond to some text messages before collapsing from exhaustion. Over the next few days, the schedule will take him back to Arlington for a homestand against the Angels, Royals and A's and the pursuit of a third straight World Series appearance for the Rangers.

But baseball is a business, as we all know, and the questions surrounding Hamilton's future in Texas are about to increase in volume. He's a free agent after this year. The clock is ticking. And unless the price of a 1.298 OPS has been devalued, he gets more expensive every time he digs a toe into the batter's box.

Even before Hamilton punished the Orioles with four home run trots and a double, he was off to a rousing start. He entered Tuesday's game as the American League leader in home runs (10), RBIs (28) and slugging percentage (.691) and ranked near the top in numerous other categories. From one week to the next, a debate has raged over whether Hamilton or Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp is the best player in the game right now. But it's strictly a two-horse race.

Kemp is playing with the security of a new eight-year, $160 million deal that ensures he will be the face of the Dodgers for a long time. Hamilton doesn't have that luxury. In early February, he had a well-publicized alcohol relapse, rekindling all the old questions and doubts about the risks the Rangers face in signing him to a long-term deal, and ramping up the pressure on him to perform this season.

We don't know a whole lot about where things stand in contract talks except that Texas general manager Jon Daniels has maintained a dialogue with Hamilton's agent, Michael Moye. From an outsiders' perspective, a considerable gap needs to be bridged.

The Rangers have reason to be apprehensive because of Hamilton's history of addiction and the physical toll it has taken on him. He turns 31 in two weeks and he's averaged 114 games played over the past three seasons. So how long a commitment are the Rangers willing to make?

Hamilton and Moye have the ammunition for a strong counteroffensive. Albert Pujols signed for 10 years and $250 million. Joey Votto just landed 10 years and $225 million from Cincinnati. So why should Hamilton accept significantly less?

Barely a month into the season, Hamilton is a walking endorsement for a free-agent truism: The price rarely goes down over time. Hamilton is handling the process so well because he's oblivious to the stakes. His performance in 2012 is the polar opposite of a salary drive.

"Josh isn't a guy who cares about money," said outfielder David Murphy. "He's put the Lord first, and everything else goes from there. You see a lot of guys play well in their 'walk' year before they go to free agency, and it's obvious why they're motivated. I think this is more of a coincidence than anything. You're seeing a great player who is still getting better as a hitter. He's putting things together and amazing us all as we speak."

Given Hamilton's real-life ordeal, it simply can't be all about the money. He's found a home in Texas, with a great support system and a group of teammates who look out for him and regard him as family.

"I'm under contract with the Rangers for this season and that's the way I'm treating it," Hamilton said. "I'm getting paid to play baseball for the Rangers and I'm going to give them everything I've got and try to do the best I can for them."

During those odd, quiet moments of doubt and temptation, Hamilton looks deep within himself and finds a way to regain his equilibrium. No matter how much the talk radio callers bellow or the columnists opine, he'll be the calmest, most centered, perspective-laden guy in the room.

"God gives me peace, man," Hamilton said. "I want to be where He wants me to be, and if that's Texas, I love it in Texas. I pray a lot."

He's not the only one.