What do Don Larson, Dallas Braden and Josh Hamilton all have in common? Before this week, probably nothing, besides that whole we’re-all-human thing. But now, after Hamilton’s four-shot bird hunting trip in Baltimore Tuesday night? Now they’ve all played perfect games.
Hamilton went 5-5 against the O’s on May 8th, a night that saw him smash four home runs, drive in eight runs, collect eighteen total bases, log in a few late night hours at the soup kitchen and personally kill Joseph Kony, all while wearing two neutrally colored sweatbands branded with the words SAY NO TO DRUGS, which were sewed on by his blind, biracial grandmother. Not much to find fault with there.
These days there hasn’t been much to find fault with at all in Hamilton, formerly the most morally judged man in baseball. A public relapse with alcohol in February got his army of doubters talking again, and now the All-Star outfielder is shutting them up, one, two, sometimes four shots at a time. After a monster week at the plate he now leads the world in every statistical category except ERA, and is doing so with the quiet aloofness of a shy guy at a bar, just ordering the usual.
Just how spectacular Hamilton’s usual has become can be seen in the media, who in just four days ditched the Matt Kemp comparisons and started mentioning his name next to Barry Bonds’. Who’s Matt Kemp again? Oh, he’s just that guy in L.A. who everyone was calling the best player in baseball a week ago. Last Sunday Kemp’s batting average sat almost ten points higher than Hamilton’s, and he was out slugging the Ranger outfielder by 125 points with three more homers and the same number of RBI. Seven games and nine home runs later Hamilton is outhitting Kemp by 37 points, six jacks and has driven in 14 more runs. Hamilton has been everything Kemp was in April and more. The 36-ounce Louisville Slugger he swings looks like a wiffleball bat right now, and when he swings it you think he’s playing Backyard Baseball.
This is what we were promised when Hamilton was drafted #1 overall by the Devil Rays in 1999, except that we thought we’d being seeing it at Tropicana Field. What Tampa didn’t know was that their future star preferred harder liquor to orange juice. Drug and alcohol use led to Hamilton being banned from baseball in 2003. He was reinstated in 2006, fought back to the big leagues and emerged as a five-tool player, Home Run Derby Champion and eventually, an MVP. He says he still battles addiction everyday.
What’s incredible is how closely Hamilton’s play resembles addict behavior. Heavy drinkers and drug users experience waves of unfathomable highs and devastating lows, both of which Hamilton describes in his tell-all autobiography. His career has taken a similar trajectory, featuring peaks like his draft day, the 2008 Derby, his 2010 MVP award, his home run in the 11th inning of Game 6 in last fall’s World Series, and now this past 13-hit, nine homer week. On the flip side sit the years Hamilton battled addiction, being banned from baseball, the injury-plagued seasons of 2009 and 2011, losing two World Series, the death of a fan last year who fell out of the stands trying to catch a ball he tossed, and his two offseason relapses.
Right now we’re in the middle of one of the highs, when watching the real Natural reminds us of a man amongst boys, not of the guy who lets us down whenever he has a beer. So wherever you are, stop what you’re doing and watch Josh Hamilton come to bat, whether you’re in the stands, on your couch or at the bar. You’ll probably see something unbelievable. Just sit back and drink it in.