Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why sports can still be great sometimes

I sat down to watch the home run derby last night, an exhibition event in conjunction with the major league all star game. I'm a sports fan but I won't sit down and watch whatever game happens to be on. It's kind of hard to be a sports fan these days. There's a lot not to like, with greed and cheating and frankly, just too many games and teams to keep track of, and I can't blame anybody who doesn't get into it. Personally, I have to have either some sort of emotional investment or there has to be some kind of intrigue or I tune out too. Normally something like a home run hitting contest wouldn't even rate turning on the tv in the first place. But tonight, I wanted to see what happened when Texas Rangers (and former rays) outfielder Josh Hamilton came up.
In case you don't know, here's the (very) short story on Hamilton (I encourage you to read more when you get a chance): Drafted first overall by the Rays in 1999, he got injured, made some really stupid personal decisions, became a drunk and a drug addict and was suspended numerous times which resulted in him not playing professional baseball at any level between 2002 and 2006. The Rays stuck with him for as long as possible but lost him to the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 2007 season. He was traded by the Reds to the Rangers prior to this season.
The fact that he's even alive is a happy ending to this story as it stands so far. How far down was Hamilton when he was down? Try losing days at a time and waking up in crack houses with strangers. For example:
"I was walking down the double-yellow of a two-lane country highway outside Raleigh when I woke up out of a trance. I was so out of it I had lost consciousness, but my body had kept going, down the middle of the road, cars whizzing by on either side. I had run out of gas on my way to a drug dealer's house, and from there I left the truck and started walking. I had taken Klonopin, a prescription antianxiety drug, along with whatever else I was using at the time, and the combination had put me over the edge. It's the perfect example of what I was: a dead man walking." - Josh Hamilton, ESPN Magazine, July 2007
The fact that he made it to the big leagues after what he put himself through elevates the ending from merely happy to downright miraculous.
Of course, the story isn't over yet. There's no such thing as a former drug addict, which means he'll never be completely out of the woods and he will continue to struggle with addiction on one level or another for the rest of his life. But at least things are looking up for him now. He's hitting .310 with 21 home runs and 95 runs batted in. If you're not a baseball fan, those are very good numbers. In fact, he is currently among the American League leaders in all three of those categories. I've rooted for Hamilton since he was with the Rays, in spite of the fact that he never even wore the uniform shown in the picture above during a major league game. The fact that he is so obviously a human being with flaws who has battled and so far persevered makes me want to root for him automatically. Don't get me wrong; people like Cal Ripken should be admired for their high character and squeaky clean resumes, but as far as examples for people (and yes, children) to emulate, I think there's a lot more practical value in following the example of someone who's screwed up colossally and not let that define them than there is in someone who doesn't really know what it is to royally fuck up. Let's be honest, more of us are going to fall on that side of the ledger than the other at some point. Basically, I'm just a sucker for underdogs and heroic comebacks.
So when Hamilton stepped into the batter's box at Yankee Stadium, I was already hooked. This was before I even knew that he had brought his old American legion coach, 71-year-old Claybon Counsil, with him to pitch to him. When he hit his first home run on the second pitch, I could feel a grin breaking out on my face. By the time he had hit his 10th, I was laughing loudly. And when he was hitting 20, 21, 22 and on, with over 50,000 people on their feet chanting his name "HAM-IL-TON! HAM-IL-TON!", I'll readily admit I was choked up. He finished that round with 28 home runs, a new derby record, including one that travelled 512 feet. In all, he hit 2.36 miles worth of homes runs in that round.
The fact that Hamilton didn't win the home run derby doesn't even matter. He got tired late and Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins took the title. It doesn't detract from the drama and emotion that sports, when it's at it's best, can still produce organically. The kind of drama and emotion that someone in Hollywood will try, and fail, to reproduce when they get around to making a movie about Josh Hamilton, simply because nobody can make up stories as good as the ones that still happen organically in sports.

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