Josh Hamilton, Give And Take

Josh Hamilton's free agency just made him very rich. Now will he use that money to change the world?
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“Guys, it’s me, it’s Josh – it’s going to be something weird.”

There’s a story behind this particular Josh Hamilton quote, one that involves missing games in a pennant race and ocular keratitis and Red Bull. We could get into that, too, but it would be beside the point; the details are at once germane to the quote’s context and completely irrelevant to its meaning.

Rather, the point of revisiting that quote, and the reason why it’s important, is because no tidier encapsulation of the Josh Hamilton Experience exists than those 11 words, the last half dozen in particular.

Hamilton is weird in the most glorious ways. It’s weird to see a 6’4’’, 240 pound man inhale whole tracts of outfield grass the way he does with every stride, and it’s an equally apt descriptor for the way he destroys opposing pitching without even bothering to study film. Uncanny is maybe better, but weird works. Hamilton hits home runs straight out of the circus, baseballs launched into the air with kind of ease that would be better sound-tracked by a carnival barker’s bombast than the measured tones of a play-by-play man’s narration. There are other adjectives, too; words like ‘freakish,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘unreal,’ or ‘superhuman.’ Yet all those rhetorical extravagances are, at their core, window dressing for the same concept. It is profoundly unusual to find a baseball player able to do all the things Josh Hamilton can. That’s what we keep saying, and trying to find new ways to say. It’s weird that he is the way he is, and as good as he is.

But Hamilton is also weird in other ways. His spectacular personal testimony of addiction, failure, loss, redemption and so on aside, there’s a jarring erraticism accompanies that outsized talent. The uppercut swing responsible for his famous moonshots is also what he uses to hack, whack, and flail at anything remotely near the plate with such mindless gusto that Rangers president Nolan Ryan wondered aloud during one particularly dismal slump in Hamilton’s pogo stick of a 2012 season whether his best player was mailing in at-bats. Check the monthly splits and it’s almost comical to see how perfectly Hamilton’s art imitated the life behind it. There are three herculean months and three horrific ones and zero in between.

There’s more than a small chance that the real culprit behind Hamilton’s whimsical approach at the plate isn’t effort, but Attention Deficit Disorder. Hamilton’s been diagnosed, but stopped taking the medication a couple of years ago. As in that allusive quote, it doesn’t matter so much why he stopped taking the meds – he blamed lethargy and excessive weight loss – as it does the implication of that decision. Hamilton opts to treat his A.D.D. with Christianity, the same remedy he used to surmount drug addiction, alcoholism, tobacco addiction, marital troubles, survivor’s guilt and other (comparably frivolous) baseball issues. Hamilton’s faith is his means of blunting the extremes, his method of temperance. When he says things like “[God] is my recovery. That’s what works,” he means that literally.

Which, depending on your perspective, is maybe also weird. But it works for Josh Hamilton and in some ways probably saved his life. As a fellow human being, much less a fan, I’m happy that’s the case. But the fact remains: if I told someone who knew nothing about baseball of a guy who metamorphosed from ‘junkie who pawned his wife’s wedding ring for cocaine’  to ‘evangelical Christian who ruminates for hours at a time over the Bible and considers religious faith to be an all-encompassing panacea, including as an occasional alternative to modern medicine,’ they would be hard-pressed to classify any of that, good or bad, as typical human behavior. It is not uncommon, but that does not make it rational.

The irony in all of this is that the very device Hamilton uses to repair those extremes has become the biggest of them all. It’s a better compulsion, certainly, but something ultimately cut from the same swath of fabric. By applying his faith to such a wide cross-section of problems, Hamilton is simply playing a shell game; instead of allowing several apogees to regulate his life, he's attempted to consolidate them under one ruling paradigm. It’s tempting to say ‘whatever works.’ It’s especially tempting because of how brilliant and beautiful and great Josh Hamilton is, when it works.

***

Now, that paradigm is the driving force behind a scenario so implausible that even in the vast expanse of the interwebs nobody’s bothered discussing it. That could be because there’s never been a suitable framework for such a discussion. It could be because no one would know how to react if it somehow occurs.

In the waning paragraphs of S.L. Price’s SI cover feature from this past June, Hamilton and his wife Katie spelled out their goals for Hamilton’s free agency as a contract waltz in two parts: first, sign for the absolute highest dollar amount, and then proceed to confer an unprecedented amount of that money to charity.

“It's more the giving away part," Hamilton said. "That's in the forefront of any kind of thought we have about our next contract. The bigger it is, the more we can give away. It's cool to think about all the different ways you can help people by playing baseball. Who couldn't live on a million, two million, three million?

"We've prayed about it, and God's revealed a lot of stuff to us. Which is going to be shocking to the world when it happens. It's real big."

After taking him at his word, then crunching the numbers of the windfall he claimed on Thursday – five years, $125 million, from (come on now) the Los Angeles Angels – you wind up here: Josh Hamilton apparently intends on donating upwards of $100 million to charity.

No one, probably, is quite expecting this to happen, if only because of our limited experience with people who give away eighty-some-odd percent of their annual income, especially when that percentage sprawls into the nine figures. Price also notes that, in spite of Hamilton’s annual salary remark, he “refused to say” whether his plan meant signing over one year’s worth of income or something considerably larger.

Yet, as we’ve already established, doing stuff other people deem absurd is more or less Josh Hamilton’s bag; if anyone has the requisite zeal and complete disregard for societal norms to write a check that large, he’s the guy. It’s hard not to hope for it, if only because the spectrum of potential ramifications is so astounding.

In a vacuum, it’s pretty much impossible for Hamilton not to take flak for executing the first part of his plan. Among the more hypocritical things society expects of its athletes is the fortitude to resist the lure of “selling out” and accepting those guiltily lusted-over, fully mind-boggling, idly enraging riches. Five tools are not enough, here: real heroes come equipped with a martyr’s moral compass; when they fall short, we lash out, sometimes more in sorrow than in anger, but it depends. Yet this is the height of blushing prudishness; we set them atop that pedestal, so their choices reflect on our judgment; when they do what we ourselves would almost certainly do if presented with a similar choice, we recoil, not a little guiltily.

But business is business, and Josh Hamilton’s talent is the commodity he has for sale. It no longer behooves anyone aside from cranky old sportswriters to grouse about this, unless it’s an especially unapologetic case. As a hypothetical that is not hypothetical: a recovering drug addict and self-made pariah eschewing any strand of loyalty to the organization that stood by him through a pair of embarrassing public relapses and kept an accountability partner on the payroll to help said recovering addict remain on the straight and narrow.

For those so inclined, it doesn’t take much of a mental leap to envision Hamilton as a self-centered mercenary for allowing a team other than Texas to pay him that money. He has been through hell, or something as close to it as exists; he put himself there and pulled himself out. This is all human and admirable, but if you want him to be a grandiose proselytizer preaching the gospel of himself from a hollow pulpit, it’s easy to make his new contract a last, tragic twist that proves that Hamilton forgot all those lessons he learned. Our hero is prostrate now before the golden calf. The narrative practically writes itself. The problem is that it’s mostly nonsense.

***

This is especially true, though, if Hamilton does indeed give his riches away. Placing Hamilton’s decision in that context goes beyond stripping the power from that fallen-hero narrative; he’d reverse its polarity, with its core elements – greed, hubris, vanity – recast as a vast and pragmatic civic-mindedness. Hamilton would get to play Robin Hood, robbing the feckless rich of free agent megabucks and doling them out by the fistful to starving children in the third world; he would be lauded for an act that in any other circumstance would get him scorned. The reverberations from the sheer mass of dollars he’d hand over would be staggering. Donate a million bucks, and you’re a charitable soul; donate 90 million, and you’re a foreign aid program, a muscular NGO with an MVP trophy on the mantle. We don’t have a context for that.

But we do have this particular transaction, and that contract, and Hamilton jumping from the Rangers to their biggest divisional rival. Fans will, and already have, howled about this. Would, or could, they do this if the greater part of Hamilton’s salary built schools and hospitals and wells and roads in parts of the world currently without those things? We are deep into an abstraction, here: would it be less bad if Hamilton had signed with the Cubs but given less money away? Our fan-context ensures, perversely, that the insignificancies are in the foreground and the matters of actual importance on the periphery.

And while we’re in this abstraction, there’s the matter of precedent. What if some other civic-minded star piggybacks on Hamilton’s grand experiment should it take off? What if several do, or if it becomes pro forma? Would athletes become competitive about this, too, and swap Ferrari collections for constellations of free clinics in Bangladesh? Or is this one frontier where even professional athletes, with their profligacy and endless slake for competition, shy away from the challenge of matching extremes?

We are now, clearly, someplace weird. Josh Hamilton will change professional sports if he follows through on his promise. The weird part isn’t that he may well be unaware of that, or that he’s doing it for his own reasons. The weird part, the wonderful part, is that, even if he were aware of all that, he wouldn't know how to do it any differently. 


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