Friday, August 14, 2009

The Curious Case of Josh Hamilton (…not to mention: Straw)

We’ve seen this story before, haven’t we? An athlete with ten tons of historical baggage -- drugs, boozing, women, etc. -- sobers up, “finds Christ”, toes the line for a season, and then falls off the wagon. And society looks on and says… well, people say a lot of things, but one of the bottom lines they come to… “Another phony.”

Josh Hamilton starred as a young baseball player in North Carolina, and when I say “starred” that’s an understatement, meaning the bluest of blue chips. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays deemed him worthy of the first overall pick in the 1999 Major League Baseball Draft. First overall. He started very well in the Minors until 2001, when he was involved in a car accident prior to the season. Additionally, his partying escapades began to include drug use that year, and his career started to twist and turn. By 2003, after joining and leaving the team several times, he ended up taking most and the rest of the season off for “personal reasons”. His early rehabs for drugs and alcoholism failed, and Hamilton was suspended repeatedly, and though he tried, he didn’t play baseball in 2004 or 2005 and only played a handful of minor league games in 2006. During that time until the fall of 2005, Hamilton suffered through addiction and health problems, while taking multiple rehab stints. Also, Hamilton married Katie Chadwick in 2004, and although they went through an estrangement period during one of his relapses, they reunited in 2005 when he “got clean”. One other event happened in that period: Hamilton claimed Christ. Since then, he’s been very public about his faith. In June of 2006, the Chicago Cubs took Josh Hamilton in the Rule 5 Draft and immediately traded him to the Cincinnati Reds for $100,000.00. Despite some medical issues, some involved with his alcohol and drug abuse and some normal baseball injuries, Hamilton’s career turned around in Cincinnati, and he had a very good year. After a trade where he moved to the Texas Rangers, Josh Hamilton became an All-Star in 2008, and his fabulous year had his life appearing to be turned around for good. Unfortunately, Hamilton struggled starting his 2009 season, and to complicate matters more, a sports blog,, posted photos of a carousing Hamilton shirtless in a bar, cavorting with women not his wife (not trying to glorify the Deadspin website here, but I think it's fair to show - choose with caution before going to the link). Witnesses claimed he had been drinking, asking for cocaine, and overheard him saying he would be going to a strip club later in the evening. All of which brings us fairly current.

What to make of this? I’ve been on Reds websites and other sports sites and seen what folks have and are saying about Josh Hamilton. Most people that aren’t Christians either see the “God-thing” as something that didn’t take or that the “faith-thing” was just the crutch he needed to get back into baseball and get his life on track.

Well, the first person the whole Josh Hamilton ordeal reminded me of was Darryl Strawberry (Straw). Straw had been a part of the ’86 Mets championship team, and he was considered one of the better players in baseball as his career progressed. Year after year, though, he gathered similar baggage to Hamilton. Drugs, arrests, women, etc. In 1991, he went to the Dodgers, and for a while, he fell under the wing of Brett Butler, a noted Christian player, and Darryl Strawberry that year said he believed on Christ that year and claimed to be a Christian. However, Straw fell off the wagon very shortly afterward, and his struggles with a lot of the same problems he experienced before claiming to be a Christian for the rest of his playing career and for a time after are pretty well chronicled. To most of the world, Christianity was a passing fancy with Darryl Strawberry.

While I can’t claim to know the hearts of either of these men, I’ll just say write what I believe. Along the way, God happened in the lives of both of these men. Christ happened. For whatever reason, the Father gave these men into the Hand of His Son.

Anyone seen what’s been happening in the life of Darryl Strawberry lately? He’s got a new book out, Straw. Over the past few years, Straw’s been in the community, reaching out to others, especially in the autism realm, and guess what… he’s continuing to talk about his faith in Christ and his spiritual journey. Not that there haven’t been a few past demons revisit along the way, and Straw's got a series of problems due to choices he's made in his life that will probably be with him until he dies. But you know what? I really think Jesus has a hold on his life, and that Darryl’s God is wild and scandalous enough to save a dirty, rotten sinner like Darryl Strawberry. Neither has Josh Hamilton recanted his faith. While some of his support group started out questioning the photos, Hamilton fessed up quickly about his relapse, and he said that his wife and members of his support group knew immediately after. You know what else? In my opinion, Jesus is right there with him. Josh’s God is busy saving a dirty, rotten sinner like Josh Hamilton.

What do I expect? Really, truthfully, and while I very much hope it doesn’t, I have a feeling that Josh is going to fall again. And again after that. Addiction is seldom an easy burden to unload. Added to addiction, and like anyone else, there is other Sin, and sins, in these guys’ lives with which they have to deal. Sin is serious. The Almighty, who knew no sin, made Himself a human being, became it, and died for it. And was Resurrected. If sin was little or of no consequence, why the one time, all-history changing event that is the Cross? No, sin is serious, deadly, and death-ly. God’s love and God’s grace, however, are more serious. By far. Or else a dirty, rotten sinner like me has no hope. None. Whatsoever.

I have my fingers crossed for the lives of Josh Hamilton and Darryl Strawberry because they’re in the public eye, and mistakes that they make are being sought by some for various reasons, become visible to all, and compound the public misconception of the Gospel of Christ. More than that, though, I have faith in a God that loves, with all his being, those two men and desires to save them. And me. And you.

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