As baseball season gets underway this week, we join other fans of the national pastime in wishing we could focus our attention solely on the beauty of a grand old sport that still moves with grace in a high-speed age. As with all the major sports, too often the story in baseball is about something that happens off the field of dreams.
But if we may digress, it seems as if the story of troubled star Josh Hamilton is worth exploring, in part because the arc of his life has been so compelling and in part because his experience may offer a moment from which we all can learn something.
Hamilton, 33, was a star high school outfielder from North Carolina on a fast track to the major leagues when as a young man he began abusing cocaine and alcohol. Drugs and booze nearly ended his career, but he sought help for his addictions, got clean and managed to resume playing at the highest level.
Hamilton won a batting title, hit 43 homers one year and was the American League’s Most Valuable Player. He played in two World Series with the Texas Rangers. He wrote a book about his rise from the ashes and seems to be popular among his teammates.
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But his path has not always been straight. Hamilton had relapses with alcohol in 2009 and 2012. Then this winter, a year after signing a huge contract with the Los Angeles Angels, Hamilton admitted to again using cocaine and alcohol.
Nearly everyone in baseball seemed to expect him to be suspended for a lengthy period. But last week an arbitrator ruled that baseball could not discipline Hamilton for his latest infraction. The reasons for the decision were not made public.
Baseball officials issued a statement expressing their disappointment with the decision, and even executives on the player’s own team, the Angels, said they were upset that he would not be punished.
But punished for what? Hamilton has a disease. He has been open and honest about it. By all accounts, he has tried everything to overcome it and, for the most part, has succeeded. It’s not as if he is cheating. He’s not taking steroids or testosterone.
We believe in personal responsibility. Ultimately, Hamilton is responsible for his own actions. But the desire to punish him reflects a strain in American society that sees addiction more as a criminal problem than a health issue. It’s a trend that has filled our jails and prisons and wasted the lives of millions of people.
So rather than rue the fact that Hamilton is getting off without another fine or suspension, we wish him the best. We hope he controls his demons, recovers from an injury he suffered last season and returns to the game as the star he’s capable of being.
That’s a story that would set a far better example for other addicts than hearing about another ballplayer sidelined for bad behavior. And it would be an inspiration worthy of the great sport we love, in spring, a time for renewal.