Josh Hamilton's comeback story has landed him in the postseason. He will be in the starting lineup this afternoon in center field for the Rangers as they open their American League Division Series against the Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
It is yet another step on the way from drug-induced oblivion to the cusp of superstardom. Hamilton figures to be a leading candidate for American League Most Valuable Player honors after leading the league in VORP (80.5) and True Average (.346), and tying Rays third baseman Evan Longoria for the lead in WARP (8.2).
While Hamilton's comeback story from drug abuse and three suspensions for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy has been widely reported since he made his major league debut in 2007 with the Reds and the show he put on in the All-Star Home Run Derby in 2008 at old Yankee Stadium is legendary, he will be stepping onto the post-season stage for the first time in his career. Hamilton couldn't be more excited or at peace with himself.
"Mentally, spiritually, family, all those things are in a good place," Hamilton said. "I think that showed on the field this year. When those things are where they needed to be, God first, and really pursuing that relationship with Christ, everything else in my life is taken care of. It's just been a really good year."
Great things were expected of Hamilton since the Rays selected him with the first overall pick in the 1999 amateur draft. Hamilton, by all accounts the All-American boy growing in Raleigh, North Carolina, veered off course and fell into drug and alcohol abuse. He finally became sober in 2006 then was selected from the Rays in the Rule 5 draft following that season. The irony of playing his first post-season game in St. Petersburg is not lost on Hamilton.
"It's amazing how full circle it's come," Hamilton said. "It's good to see the guys that I've played with over there. During the regular season, we kind of meet up behind second base (before the game) and warm up and cut up and talk with each other and kind of catch up a little bit. So it's good to see that factor of it. But at the same time, now we might give a little wave, but it's not going to be the buddy-buddy, how-you-doing type of atmosphere;it's going to be more competitive, win or lose, winner-takes-all type of deal."
The Rangers' chances of taking the series are improved with Hamilton in the lineup. He suffered broken ribs while crashing into the outfield wall during a game against the Twins at Target Field in Minneapolis and missed 24 games. Hamilton returned to the lineup for the final three games of the regular season and pronounced himself good to go, though he is wearing a flak jacket to protect the ribs. Rangers manager Ron Washington was pleased with what he saw.
"I thought Josh was very surprisingly almost Josh," Washington said. "I certainly didn't see his rhythm that bad. Of course as you continue to see pitches when you haven't seen them in a while, that usually kicks in. But we have other guys in that lineup to pick up the slack until he gets going. The fact that he's in that lineup, he's made our lineup 100 percent better because he can put the ball in play, beat the back end of a double play, play tremendous defense. He plays with a lot of energy. And just his presence back in that lineup will make a difference."
Tropicana Field, as the last of baseball's completely domed stadiums, brings about its own unique set of challenges. Most notable among them are the four circular catwalks that support the structure's tilted roof.
Major League Baseball has implemented new rules regarding the catwalks that go into effect today. If a batted ball hits the A or B catwalks in the infield, it is considered a dead ball, even though it would be in fair territory. If a batted ball hits the C or D catwalks in the outfield, it's a home run.
The catwalks were considered a funny quirk of Tropicana Field when the Rays were a bumbling expansion team. However, things changed this season on August 5 when the Twins' Jason Kubel hit a 190-foot popup that bounced off the B catwalk for an RBI single in the ninth inning, snapping a 6-6 tie and pinning the Rays with one of their toughest losses of the season. Rays manager Joe Maddon was vocal about the ridiculousness of the situation following the loss.
"I'm not smart enough to know if it's the best possible solution," Maddon said of the new rules. "I do know I was upset when Kubel hit the roof and we lost the game. I really got on the Trop a little bit verbally. Since then I've apologized to the Trop. We're back on good terms. So even if the rules had not been changed, I thought we could have coexisted well in spite of it. The do-over is always an interesting concept, more than likely whoever hits the ball is going to be out or would have been out but now he's going to get another chance. So from that perspective it's kind of awkward. That's just the way it is. That's where we live, and so you know the rules before the game begins. So there's no sense in complaining afterward if it goes against you, like I did."
The Trop did indeed appreciate Maddon's contrition. It helped the Rays to a victory over the Blue Jays on September 1 and every victory made a difference this season, as Tampa Bay won the AL East by one game over the Yankees.
"(Blue Jays catcher John) Buck with two outs hit a high fly ball to left field," Maddon said. "I thought it may have been out and it was going to hit one of the catwalks, but it actually moved about six inches and it averted being hit and we ended up winning that game. So I really thought the apology helped in that regard in that particular game."
The Phillies will be making their fourth consecutive post-season appearance when they host the Reds in Game One of their National League Division Series at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia today. While some teams seem to get complacent after having a certain amount of success, the Phillies haven't.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel shared the secret of why his club continues to stay hungry despite winning four consecutive NL East titles, back-to-back NL pennants, and a World Series championship in 2008. Part of it has to do with a passion for the game and part of it is the manager knowing when to leave his team alone.
"I love baseball and I like to be around it," Manuel said. "I think my players see how much I pull for them and how much I want them to do good, and I want them to be the best players in baseball. I let them play, and when I feel like I have to talk to them on or say something, I do. But at the same time when they do things right, I definitely applaud them and pat them on the back and tell them how good they are. I think that's kind of the atmosphere that we've set and the attitude"
Manuel, though, did feel the need to call a team meeting on June 15 after the Phillies lost to the Yankees at Yankee Stadium to fall to 32-30. Phillies ace pitcher Roy Halladay said that particularly meeting was inspirational. The Phillies went on to finish with the best record in the major leagues and made up what was a seven-game deficit in the NL East on July 22 to overtake the Braves.
"I say a lot of things but what I say usually definitely comes from the heart," Manuel said. "A lot of times I don't know what I'm saying. What I say just kind of comes out, and it's honest. And I kind of keep it in line on our philosophies and our focus on how we play. Most of the time, it's all about our team and winning."
The Padres will be sitting at home today when the postseason begins after getting the closest to qualifying without making it. They were eliminated in both the NL West and wild card races on Sunday, the final day of the regular season, with a loss to the Giants.
While it was certainly frustrating to go 90-72 and have to sit at home in October, the Padres say they will also look back on the 2010 season with pride. They were the surprise team of baseball after beginning the season with a $40 million payroll, the second-lowest in the major leagues.
"It's a great feeling to walk away from the season knowing that you were the talk of the game," outfielder Matt Stairs said. "No one ever gave us a chance. We made a lot of people nervous. Teams like us aren't supposed to win."
Added right-hander Chris Young, "This is the most proud I've ever been to be part of a team. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, this team achieved the most of any team in baseball this season. Everyone in here put the team ahead of themselves. You know how many times you see that? It's a first for me."
MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Former Indians and Rangers John Hart is emerging as the early front-runner for the Mets' GM job, one that has many potential candidates scared off because they feel COO Jeff Wilpon meddles too much in the baseball operations. … Former major league outfielder Matt Murton figures to be in demand as a free agent after setting the NPB record for hits in a season in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers/ … While Eric Wedge was the first candidate to interview for the Pirates' manager's job, there is speculation that another former Indians manager, Mike Hargrove, might also get a look. … The Blue Jays are considering re-signing Buck and having him split time at catcher with prospect J.P. Arencibia. … The White Sox are expected to make another run at designated hitter Johnny Damon as a free agent this winter after losing out to the Tigers last offseason. … The Tigers aren't expected to try to re-sign Damon as a free agent and are also not likely to make offers to right-hander Jeremy Bonderman and catcher Gerald Laird. … Indians GM Chris Antonetti is considering hiring former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes as his assistant. … In addition to likely trading either closer Heath Bell or first baseman Adrian Gonzalez this winter, the Padres are expected to let second baseman David Eckstein and left fielder Scott Hairston walk as free agents. … While it's no secret that the Angels plan to make a big push for Carl Crawford on the free-agent market, there are indications that owner Arte Moreno wants to make an even bigger splash and attempt to also sign Jayson Werth or Adam Dunn. … The Dodgers plan to re-sign left fielder Scott Podsednik before he reached free agency. … Look for former Mariners and Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin to be a candidate for the Brewers' managerial opening.