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Keidel: Josh Hamilton, Lone Ranger Or Bronx Bomber?

(credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

(credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
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It’s altogether fitting and proper that his surname is stamped on a prominent member of American currency, because this fall Josh Hamilton will find a phalanx of suitors for his services, lugging suitcases of cash to lure one of the most talented baseball players of this generation. And the Yankees, who sit atop the small pyramid of privileged teams with the quid to capture Hamilton, could be first in line.

The Texas Rangers have doused a few pinstriped pennant dreams lately. And it doesn’t take Bill James to understand that the Rangers are still better than the Yankees. But that could change in a few months, depending on Hamilton’s free agency.

And it’s appropriate that Nolan Ryan, a refreshing face in the nouveaux world of stats over scouts, metrics over tested mantras, will fire the first shot in the Hamilton Sweepstakes. In the era of pitch counts and coddling, the iconic pitcher has thrown a bowtie under the chin of the cognoscenti, and his ability to keep Hamilton in his batter’s box could decide the American League pennant next year.

Hamilton has a Secretariat-like lead in home runs (21) and RBI (56), and trails only Paul Konerko in batting (.365). (And does anyone expect Konerko, 36, to keep hitting 100 points above his career average?)

Hamilton’s talent is clear. And if it were just a matter of measuring his age and wage against other players, it would be easy. Pay the man whatever he wants. But we know it’s a little more mottled than that.

Tattoos crawl up his arms, back, and chest like a vibrant, violent montage of his conflicted life. Is Hamilton the face of redemption or the avatar of squandered brilliance? For five years he has largely been the former. But the Yankees have to decide if he could ever be the latter.

When he essentially abandoned baseball, plunging into the Hades of alcohol and crack addiction, we expected to read about Hamilton in the obit section for former stars, buried in the appendix of appalling contradictions.

And as was the case with Junior Seau, everyone was quick to condemn Hamilton because he was squandering a life so many would die for. While it’s perfectly logical to consider Hamilton’s past the way you would gauge a pitcher’s shoulder or a shortstop’s knee, the team’s zip code should not enter the equation.

The most misguided argument against Hamilton coming to New York is his history of drug abuse. Every pundit I’ve heard on the matter has no idea what he’s talking about. And clearly none of them have ever been in recovery.

“He should stay in Texas, where he’s safe!” I hear.

Seriously? They don’t have beer, booze, and drugs in Dallas? Isn’t Texas renowned for its strip clubs? Hamilton’s legendary binge through the sewers and back-alleys of the drug trade never included the five boroughs. This idea that drug dealers are snatching New Yorkers into abandoned buildings and forcing them to gobble oxycontin is a little silly.

In fact, there are around 4,000 AA meetings in the five boroughs (along with hundreds of NA meetings) so you could easily argue that the Big Apple is among the safest places for Hamilton to continue his recovery. And if you care to pursue the matter, New York is considered among the ten best cities for sober living in America. Thumb through Time Out, among many papers, and you’ll see dozens of sober parties and gatherings.

Signing Hamilton should be based on his physical powers, not his metaphysical prowess. If he wants to stay sober, it won’t matter where he sleeps, for every city in America has sultry street corners selling temptation.

“Look at Doc and Darryl!” you insist.

Sure. And look at Gary Carter, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Don Mattingly, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, David Wright…

For every talented, tormented star who took the wrong prong when life forked, there are ten examples of regal play and righteous living. New York’s nightclubs didn’t swallow the transcendent tandem from the ‘80s Mets. Being 19, single, supernatural, and super-rich did. Simply, you all know some people who can have one drink and you know some people who can’t. Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, calls the dynamic, “an obsession of the mind that condemns one to drink and an allergy of the body that condemns one to die.” And geography has nothing to do with it.

Now it’s fair to ponder the perils of signing someone of Hamilton’s age (31) and injuries. According to Sports Illustrated, Hamilton has just played one full season out of five, averaging 118 games over his brief, bewildering, yet dazzling career. He’s been a walking triage, plagued with problems in his wrist, rib, thigh, arm, and back. Is he naturally injury-prone or were his problems spawned by his moonlit journeys to drug dens? The answer is beyond anyone’s pay grade.

But it’s seasons like this, a seemingly endless loop of highlights, like his four-homer outburst this month and his two-month feast on AL pitching, that make signing him such a tempting, but tough, proposition.

If the Yankees could convince Hamilton to sign a four or five-year deal in the $100-to-$125 million range, then any New Yorker would endorse it on the spot. But we know the power that stars and their agents have over teams who think they’re just one player from a pennant.

And while we can respect Hal Steinbrenner’s newfound prudence and accountant’s approach to the bottom line, it’s hard to believe that something as malleable as the salary cap would preclude the Bombers from making at least a phone call to Hamilton’s people.

Hamilton has ardently stated that his recovery, his sobriety and sobriquet as The Natural can travel. He has been clear that his sober posse is can pitch a tent in any market. Whether that’s just posturing to get Nolan Ryan to pony up or a real threat to renounce the Rangers if they play the hometown discount card is unclear.

Then there’s the matter of center field, a green acre well manicured by Curtis Granderson. No doubt the Yanks would gladly nudge Nick Swisher off the roster for a player of Hamilton’s heft, but as the forefathers of Dream Teams and Evil Empires, the Bronx Bombers should know that you can’t buy rings, even when you can outspend everyone for them.

If Hamilton, who has worked just as hard on his recovery as his RBI, recedes into his demonic past, violating MLB’s substance abuse policy, the Yankees won’t owe him a dime. They would chalk it up to a bad signing – something the Yankees have rehearsed, from Kei Igawa to Carl Pavano to Jaret Wright to A.J. Burnett.

But the Yankees are already saddled with A-Rod’s contract, and will spend the next few years finding places to hide the aging legend. Likewise with the Angels, who just signed Pujols to an obscene deal and will be forced to play hide-the-old-slugger in four or five years, with for or five years left on his bloated contract.

Every team knows that signing gifted 30-somethings include front-loaded deals, that you’re far more likely to get what you paid for the first four years than the final four. And thus the Yankees would be well within their rights to pass on an All-Star who is in a perilous place: the back-end of his prime and the front end of his richest contract.

The Yankees, who are increasingly stacked with expensive graybeards, have to think a few years ahead, when Hamilton will join their aching geriatrics in the seven-hole and respites at DH. Indeed, the idea of a $200 million payroll largely committed to a cadre of has-beens could be quite sobering.

Feel free to email me: Keidel.jason@gmail.com
www.twitter.com/JasonKeidel

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