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February 3, 2012
The BP Broadside
Josh Hamilton and His Persecutors
Having reached the age of 41, I can state honestly that I have never been drunk or high. I drink socially and consume the odd glass of wine at home but have never had more than I could handle and have never touched a joint or any medication that wasn’t prescribed by a doctor or available over the counter at a drug store. When I tell people this, they either don’t believe me or ask, in so many words, if I am some kind of abstemious, moralistic prude, a question that I always feel like answering by gesturing towards my exceedingly ample body and asking, “Does this suggests abstemiousness to you?”
In fact, I have nothing against tying one on (with whatever substance—our definitions of legal and illegal drugs are highly arbitrary) if that’s what you choose to do; it’s your body, and so long as you abuse it in such a way that you’re not hurting anyone else, I don’t see where I have any kick coming. My reasons for not overdoing it stem from one of my earliest memories. At a very young age, I was introduced to a man who was trying to put his life back together after a long period of drug abuse. He seemed very old to me at the time, the way all adults seem old to young children, but thinking back, I realize he was probably no older than 25. He simply looked much older. More frightening though, was his dissipated air and distracted way of talking. “He… left long spaces… between words… and tended to trail off… in the middle of what he was…” Most of his attempts at speaking ended with him staring off into space.
I was told that this young old man once had a brilliant mind, but years of habitual drug use (I was never told what kind) had left him a shell of what he once was. Somehow, despite my youth, a message got through to me that I never forgot: “Better not to start.” Over time, as I observed my own psychology and also watched friends and acquaintances in various states of inebriation and debauchery, I realized three things:
Unfortunately, many people do start, and some percentage of them find that they cannot handle it, perhaps because their brains are wired for addiction. In the same way that dieters find that their bodies fight to put the weight back on, success or failure in maintaining sobriety is not just a matter of discipline and willpower, although there is undoubtedly some of that, but also a matter of defeating predilections that are encoded into one’s brain or body chemistry. That is not to excuse the fact that they dabbled in the first place, but barring an obvious family history of addiction, most of us would not have reason to assume that their first drink would be fatal, or even their fifth or tenth. There are some drugs we know are almost instantly addictive, such as crack cocaine, and perhaps there should be a different level of opprobrium reserved for those who trifle with such a deadly substance, but for most people, knowledge that you are prone to addiction only comes after the fact.
On Thursday evening, reports began circulating that Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, a recovering drug and alcohol addict, had been seen consuming alcohol. At this writing, we don’t know any specifics or even if the reports are substantially correct. It has been reported that Hamilton was in a bar, where he should not have been, was drinking, and that perhaps he called Ian Kinsler, who subsequently tried to rescue him from the situation. If all of this proves to be true—and so far there is no reason to believe it is not—in the coming days there will be much ink spilled as to Hamilton’s perceived weakness and moral failings, as well as the more complicated baseball question of how the Rangers, who will shortly be challenged to decide if they should re-sign the four-time All-Star, should react to his fall off the wagon. Hamilton is already fragile, perhaps in part due to his substance abuse problems, perhaps not, and will play this season at 31; extending him a long-term contract offer might not be the wisest baseball decision even without the danger that Hamilton’s addictions may get the upper hand at any time.
Insofar as the baseball issue goes, I would have voted “no” even without this possible lapse; Hamilton’s age and difficulty staying on the field, combined with the high salary he would justifiably demand for his excellent bat-work, would make him too much of a risk for an extended Albert Pujols- or Prince Fielder-style contract. The current Basic Superstar Package is foolhardy to begin with, and when the stakes get that high you can’t bet on a player who already has too many DL days on his resume.
As for the moral issue, I simply say this: Shut up. Judge not, for addiction is never simple and is rarely just a matter of mere disregard of self or weakness. There but for the grace of God go you, and I as well: I was lucky enough to have had an object lesson that I was unable to rationalize away, or I might be there myself. You, though, maybe you are made of sterner stuff. Maybe you were just too smart to get snared—or maybe you’re just not built the way someone like Hamilton is, where your body craves intoxication from your very first beer onward. Whatever the cause, that smugness, that easy superiority, can come at a high human cost.
Back in the 1980s, the San Diego Padres had a second baseman named Alan Wiggins. He wasn’t a great player—having converted from the outfield at the major-league level, he was a miserable defender at the keystone, with 32 errors in his first full season there. He was almost purely a singles hitter, and though he took a few walks, his batting averages were unexceptional. The one thing he could do was fly around the bases, and in 1984 he helped the team to an unexpected pennant with 70 stolen bases. He also had a history of cocaine abuse and had been in rehab in 1982. Wiggins opened the 1985 season hitting .054 and vanished from the club while in the midst of an 0-for-19 streak. He had, for the second time in his career, succumbed to the lure of cocaine.
The Padres sent Wiggins to rehab, but he was not welcomed back after completion of the program. Then-owner Joan Kroc refused to accept him. “At the time , we asked Alan to keep us posted—if he thought the problem was recurring to let us know. That did not happen. At some point a person has to be responsible for his own actions. Whatever it takes, we’re going to have a clean team.”
There’s that easy moralizing again. The truth was, Kroc was embarrassed. Having completed his 1982 rehabilitation, the Padres had used Wiggins as an anti-drug public speaker, sent him to schools, had him do public-service ads. She was also an idiot, because addiction is a lifetime condition with no cure. “Insiders say [Kroc] will never forgive Wiggins for the breach of faith his backsliding represents,” the Sporting News reported. See, it’s not about the addict committing slow-motion suicide before our eyes or trying to stop him from doing so, it’s about how much offense we can take, how far down our noses we can look. Most journalists merrily joined in the condemnation party; even Peter Gammons wrote that Wiggins had “turned his back on his teammates.”
Wiggins was given medical clearance to return, but the Padres spent a couple of months fighting the Players Association’s demands for his reinstatement, then dealt him off to the Orioles for a couple of players they didn’t want. They also reportedly absorbed some of the cost of the four-year contract he had just signed during the offseason. He played some of the best baseball of his career for them over the remainder of the season. That was about it for him, though. His limitations as a ballplayer were just too great. He fell into a reserve role with the Orioles and was even sent down for a time by Earl Weaver in 1986. The Orioles released him in 1987. There was a year to go on his contract.
Wiggins never played again. He mostly disappeared from view. Occasionally one would hear rumors of more drug problems, and there probably were some. Mostly, though, he was just gone. We didn’t hear his name again until January 6, 1991, when we learned he had died of AIDS, likely picked up as a result of his drug use. He was only 32 years old. Wiggins certainly bears some of the responsibility for his fate, but it was also true that it was much easier to mock him, call him a “druggie” (as the infamous columnist Dick Young did), and shun him the way the Padres did than it was to help him.
The same is true of Josh Hamilton. From now until he signs his next contract, we are going to be hearing endless mooing about this moment. It was a moment of poor judgment, a moment of weakness, yes, but one impossible to understand without also attempting to comprehend how strong the urge to relapse must be. It’s so easy, so tempting, to talk about things we don’t know about, like the quality of a man’s commitment to his own well-being. That’s a temptation too, just like that drink you shouldn’t have, but somehow there is no rehabilitation clinic for the holier-than-thou—no one to wag their finger, to say “tch-tch,” and to remind them that their lapses are also matters of human weakness, selfishness, and myopia. And unlike the addict, they can just stop, if only the would learn some patience and generosity.