Times Staff Writer

Josh Hamilton can recite the date the way most baseball players recite their batting average or earned-run average.

“Oct. 6, 2005,” he says without hesitation.

That was Hamilton’s first day of freedom. That was the day the former No. 1 draft pick got his life -- and his dream -- back. That was the day he stopped using drugs.

And while that certainly marked the biggest step in Hamilton’s comeback, it wasn’t his last. After losing nearly four full seasons to his addiction, Hamilton is now competing for a spot in the outfield with the Cincinnati Reds, who took a $100,000 gamble by claiming him in baseball’s Rule 5 draft in December.


“It’s amazing,” he said. “People don’t get second or third or fourth chances very often.”

In fact few players in baseball history have fallen as far as Hamilton and been given the chance to pick themselves up.

“There’s many times I thought I’d never play again,” Hamilton said. “There were definitely times I felt down and felt like I’d never get back to doing the things I love.

“But God’s grace got me to where I am today.”

Even given divine intervention, it still marks an improbable career turn for Hamilton -- though probably not much more improbable than those that preceded it.

Baseball America’s national player of the year, Hamilton hit .529 with 35 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases in 25 games as a senior at Athens Drive High in Raleigh, N.C. And that was a drop-off from the season before, when he hit .636 with 56 RBIs.

On the mound the left-hander had a 96-mph fastball, going 18-3 with 230 strikeouts in 143 innings his last two seasons.

“You could tell when he was 15 years old that he had tremendous ability, tremendous talent,” said Reds Manager Jerry Narron, whose brother Johnny coached Hamilton as teenager.

Exceptional players, scouts love to say, have high ceilings. Hamilton, however, didn’t appear to have a ceiling -- which is why the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected him over Josh Beckett and Barry Zito with the first pick in the 1999 June draft. He was the first high school position player to go No. 1 since Alex Rodriguez in 1993 and Tampa Bay rewarded him with a record $3.96-million signing bonus.

At first Hamilton lived up to the hype, batting .347 in rookie ball and .302 in Class A, making the All-Star team both times and sharing the South Atlantic League’s MVP award.

Hamilton’s parents, Linda and Tony, were there for all of it, following their son from city to city. But that ended two weeks into spring training of 2001 when a dump truck ran a red light and slammed into the family pickup in Bradenton, Fla. Josh injured his back, delaying his season, while his mother had to be pried from the wreckage. When she got out of the hospital, doctors sent her back to Raleigh for further treatment.

“It was the first time I was by myself,” Hamilton says. “I had money. I just went to the wrong places.”

And over the next several months his high ceiling came crashing down.

His favorite haunt became a tattoo parlor hidden in a stretch of mini malls and convenience stores in an area of Bradenton known as “the strip.” Bored without baseball and his parents, Hamilton became a regular and, when they weren’t applying one of the 26 tattoos he would eventually acquire, the people Hamilton met there were taking the 20-year-old to strip clubs and buying him drinks.

Next came cocaine and crack. Less than two years later Hamilton, who squandered much of his bonus, was out of baseball.

Baseball wasn’t out of him, though, and periodically Hamilton would sober up, grab a bat and start hitting again, his talents seemingly impervious to the effects of drugs and alcohol. But just as quickly he’d relapse, going on four-day-long booze-and-drug binges.

The turning point came 17 months ago. Hamilton’s wife Katie had left him and was keeping the couple’s children, including an infant daughter, away from him. With nowhere to turn Hamilton, whose 6-foot-4 235-pound body had withered to a skeletal 180 pounds, showed up at his grandmother’s house at 2 a.m.

Mary Holt took the boy in and the two got along -- until Hamilton came home one night high on liquor and drugs.

“You’re killing your family, making them worry to death,” she told him.

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that.

But this time he listened. “It just made me stop and really think,” Hamilton says. “For some reason it hit home.”

The date was Oct. 6, 2005. Hamilton says he hasn’t touched a drink or a drug since -- though he freely admits it’s a battle he’s still fighting.

“You can have all the willpower in the world,” he said. “I’m just living every day trying to be a responsible man. Occasionally I’ll have a dream or something about using. [But] when I used to have dreams above using, I actually used. Now the drug test guy is in my dreams with me.”

The drug test guy visits when Hamilton is awake too. At least three times a week. Yet he’s not the one Hamilton credits for keeping him straight. Katie and the couple’s two children are also back and that has been helpful. So has the unfailing support of his grandmother. But it’s God Hamilton credits for saving his life.

“He’s guided me through the storm and He’s moving me in the right direction,” Hamilton said. “The devil’s going to come at me hard. Don’t know from where yet. But we’ll handle it when it comes.”

And if he needs it, Hamilton has a lot of places to turn for support in his comeback.

“I’m pulling for him,” says Dan Jennings, a Florida Marlins executive who pushed Tampa Bay to draft Hamilton No. 1 when he was director of scouting for the Devil Rays. “I think it would be a great story for baseball.”

Says Cincinnati coach Billy Hatcher, who spent a decade in the Tampa Bay system: “He’s a good person. He’s a good man. He’s just had some bad things that have happened to him. But he’s an outstanding person. And you root for people like that.”

Still, it won’t be easy. Hamilton didn’t face a pitch in organized baseball from the spring of 2003 until last July, when he hit .260 in 15 games for the Devil Rays’ affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League. No position player has ever come back from such a long layoff to win a big-league job.

“Somebody with average talent probably would have no chance,” said Narron, who worked with Hamilton twice a week during the winter. “But anybody who has ever seen Josh on a baseball field knows that he’s a very, very special talent. He’s still got great bat speed. He’s still got a great throwing arm. He can still run.

“The basic raw tools are there.”

But just as Hamilton once saw the devil working to destroy him, now he sees positive signs. The Reds train in Sarasota, Fla., for example, not far from the site of the car accident and the tattoo parlor that conspired to bring him down.

“It’s amazing that I would end with the Reds four or five miles from where it all began,” he says. “Sometimes God brings us back to times and places ... to remind you.”