By Jason Keidel
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Josh Hamilton said he’s ready to return to the Texas Rangers for the playoffs. This season, Hamilton is batting .361 with 31 home runs and 97 R.B.I. in just 130 games. He may also win the American League MVP Award.

It’s impossible to appreciate how far he’s come unless you know where he’s been. Imbued with biblical skill, Hamilton essentially left his talent at the door of the American Dream to become a junkie, vanishing from baseball on a three-year cocaine crusade.

By the end of his descent in 2006, Hamilton could consume the contents of an entire prescription pad, losing his dignity in the desolation of a crackhouse. One night he ran out of gas on his way to a drug deal, so he abandoned his car and walked the rest of the way. By his account, he entered eight rehabs. That he didn’t die is miraculous. That he has become perhaps the best player in baseball is a fact normally reserved for fiction.

New York is not a stranger to the athlete-turned-addict. Gooden and Strawberry were the Big Apple emblems of the ‘80s. They feel more personal to us because if you’re my age (40), you viewed Doc and Darryl through the prism of your childhood – a time when our heroes were perfect, briefly untainted by the tentacles of stardom.

Some think addiction is an adjunct of celebrity. It isn’t. But for stars it’s magnified by the ubiquity of endless reportage, where a binge is brought to our bedroom by YouTube. Lindsay Lohan is tragic because we feel we know her, whereas the poor guy in a Harlem shooting gallery is trivialized by statistics.

“How can someone who has it all throw it away?” you ask. It’s a silly question that presupposes that “having it all” can be measured by a bank statement. If I had the time and desire I could list the lottery winners who have filed for bankruptcy.

Too many talkers who pose as pundits can’t fathom addiction, too often seeing it as weakness rather than illness. Tell Lawrence Taylor and Mike Tyson that they’re weak. Before you judge, realize that at least 10 percent of Americans are addicted, proof that at least one branch on your family tree is wet with whiskey.

Josh Hamilton matters, not because he’s big, or because he runs like Mantle or swings like Ruth, but because he is the quintessential fruit of American soil. No matter your political leanings, part of you knows that something and someone like Hamilton could only happen here. Sure, he was blessed with more baseball gifts than the rest of us combined. But all of us can be brilliant when we finally realize that achievement need not be framed by a television screen.

Largely clean since October 2006, Hamilton distills his recovery to a short mantra: “It’s a God thing.” Lots of folks in recovery credit a higher power for their sobriety, a way to thwart their narcissism. He slipped in 2009, caught by cameras in some bar with a few floozies. He owned up to drinking and passed a drug test the same week. That is part of the process. Addiction is a microcosm of our day, knowing night always comes, with dusk being the metaphorical axis of our freedom to choose.

Hamilton, like other stars whose skeletons glow in the media machine, knows he isn’t safe. Maybe he never will be. His handlers still literally take his lunch money, knowing that $500 in this millionaire’s pocket will find its way to an unlit corner in the projects.

Some guys mean more than their stats. And that’s why we love sports. We know there’s flesh under the laundry, and when his faults are more glaring than his gifts, we understand we’re looking at a mirror more than a movie.

Few Americans understand this more than New Yorkers. Beneath our scowling facades we’re suckers for redemption. You wanted Doc and Darryl to succeed in their sequels even if you hated the Yankees. You wanted Namath to get sober after drooling over Suzy Kolber on national television. How else can you explain why our eyes bubble with tears every time we watch Secretariat gallop to victory in Belmont?

Some lessons are timeless. The shrieking, mop-haired boy stretching his small hands out for an autograph is you. It’s me. It’s the notion that no matter our age there’s time for a comeback.

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