Rangers’ Hamilton seeking redemption amid a roller coaster season

BALTIMORE – Josh Hamilton stood alone Monday afternoon in the Camden Yards outfield, an empty expanse aside from a Texas Rangers trainer and a handful of stray Baltimore Orioles out for early practice. In a backwards hat and white sunglasses, Hamilton sprinted from foul line to center field, weaving in the form of the letter ‘S.’ He focused on controlling the length of his stride, intent on taking smaller steps.

“It felt easy,” Hamilton said. “Not awkward.”

Hamilton hopes the tortured, complicated beginning to his season will yield now to familiar, simple routine. Hamilton has succumbed to addiction, switched teams and shredded his hamstring. Between the trials he sandwiched a brief, joyful respite on a big league field. Hamilton rejoined the Rangers on Monday, and on Tuesday they will activate him and squeeze him into their lineup, likely in center field.

Hamilton spent a month on the disabled list, which came a month after the Los Angeles Angels traded him, which came two months after he admitted to major league officials he suffered a relapse in his battle with drug use and alcoholism. There are far more questions than certainties. How does his body hold up at age 34? Can he still hit? Will he keep his demons at bay?

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Hamilton’s torn hamstring interrupted the Rangers’ experiment of bringing back Hamilton, one of the most thrilling and most vexing players of his generation, to the place where he experienced his greatest success. Now it can restart. Now Hamilton has another chance at another redemption.

“I know he loves playing this game,” Rangers Manager Jeff Bannister said. “I’m sure there’s some peace in playing this game for him. I know just how much fun I saw him have, not only playing but in the clubhouse, on the field, in the dugout with the guys. It’s a special bond, a special player. I’m sure given who Josh Hamilton is, to be out on the field playing and doing what you were born to do, it’s pretty special.”

Hamilton’s return affords him an opportunity at stability, another stab at some semblance of routine. Both have been foreign this year.

As spring training opened, Hamilton’s relapse became public knowledge. The Angels publicly scorned Hamilton; they did not even grant him a locker at their spring camp. Tension between player and organization remained until they traded him to the Rangers in late April, ending a two-season union that didn’t work from the moment Hamilton signed his five-year, $125 million contract. The return to Texas refreshed Hamilton on and off the field. Only seven games into his comeback, he suffered a torn hamstring.

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After a brief minor league rehab assignment, Hamilton will exercise caution. He admitted he may only play “80 to 85 percent” and “manage” his injury before the all-star break allows for additional rest. He expects he will receive days off on a regular basis for the next two weeks.

“I want to be back,” Hamilton said. “I want to play, and play every day. I definitely want to be out there. I want to be here. Right now, that’s not the case. The ultimate goal is to be ready to roll after the all-star break.”

Even so, Bannister said, Hamilton “could be an option” to play center field Tuesday at Camden Yards, placing Hamilton at the most demanding outfield position, where he played only seven games last season.

“I think right now, it’s comfortable to a certain extent,” Hamilton said. “. . . If a guy leads off with a double and you could maybe catch it if you’re running 100 percent, you maybe need to back off at 85 and let him have it for now, until you get back to where you want to be.”

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Monday afternoon, Hamilton shuttled in and out of the batting cage with teammates, smashing balls to the gaps of the ballpark. The Rangers are counting on Hamilton to boost an offense that flagged as the Rangers lost seven of their last eight games, dropping them to five games behind the Houston Astros in the American League West.

While Hamilton collected six hits, including two homers, in his 26 at-bats this season, it remains to be seen how productive he can be. Hampered by injury his two seasons in Anaheim, Hamilton posted an unspectacular .741 OPS. At 34, Hamilton’s lack of plate discipline is catching up to him. In the past two seasons Hamilton swung at more than 40 percent of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone, making him one of the league’s 10 freest hackers – even as pitchers threw him fewer fastballs, by percentage, than any hitter in the league.

Bannister, careful not to place heightened expectations on him, referred to Hamilton as “one of 25” and “equally important” as anyone on the club. But he also acknowledged that Hamilton raises his team’s ceiling.

“The presence and the potential is obviously there,” Bannister said. “This is a former MVP. He can shrink a ballpark in all directions. I know that pitchers pay attention when he’s in the lineup.”

If Hamilton retired tomorrow, he would own one of the most fascinating career paths in baseball history. He is a former No. 1 pick, a generational talent suspended from 2004 to 2006 because of substance abuse, and the 2010 American League MVP. Hamilton’s story took another dark turn this year. He will try to veer back, small stride by small stride.