Hamilton playing like a top pick

From the Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Josh Hamilton was one of those can't-miss prospects, the clean-cut kid who was such a complete player that he was drafted No. 1 overall out of high school.

So it really shouldn't be a surprise how the Texas Rangers' center fielder is performing this season. It's just that to do it he's traveled a much longer and harder road than anyone could have imagined.

Hamilton reached 50 runs batted in faster than any player in American League history, breaking a record that had been shared by Joe DiMaggio. He's also blasting home runs, hitting for average and playing stellar defense.

"He's really a freak of nature," Houston Astros slugger Lance Berkman said, shaking his head in disbelief during a recent series against Texas.

"He's got tremendous talent, got unbelievable pop and he can run like the wind," teammate Gerald Laird said. "He's just got it all. . . . All you can do is sit back and say, 'Wow!' "

That exclamation applies on many levels when it comes to Hamilton and his inspirational comeback.

It has been nine years since Hamilton was drafted, including 3 1/2 seasons he didn't even play because of addictions to cocaine and alcohol, neither of which he tried until being on the disabled list in the minor leagues in 2001.

His life then spiraled out of control.

There were multiple failed drug tests, suspensions from baseball, eight stints in drug rehab and an estrangement from his family. He spent all of the more than $3.5 million in signing bonus he got in 1999 after Tampa Bay took him ahead of Josh Beckett and made him the first prep player picked first overall since Alex Rodriguez six years earlier.

But Hamilton has been sober since October 2005, when he was confronted by a loving grandmother after showing up at her door. He has also relied on his Christian faith, and never tries to hide from his past.

With the chance to play again, and finally having the opportunity to fulfill the lofty expectations that came with being a top prospect, Hamilton -- who turned 27 on Wednesday -- is relishing every moment.

"I mean I can't really put it in words," he said. "God's grace, his mercy is just so limitless really. To go from where I was to where I am now and the way I got here. Every day going on the field, it just reminds me to be a kid and have fun."

Like when he was the high school phenom in North Carolina before his lifelong dream became tainted.

"This is what I always envisioned, being in the lineup every day, playing," Hamilton said.

He was the American League player of the month in April, his first with the Rangers, when he hit .330 with six homers and 32 RBIs. He wasn't just a one-month wonder.

After Thursday's 8-7 win over the Minnesota Twins, Hamilton had a .335 average and 12 homers, both at or near the top in the AL. His majors-best 53 RBIs were nine more than NL leader Berkman and 15 more than the next-closest AL player. Hamilton had 10 multihit games in his last 12 starts and already has six more RBIs than he did during his breakthrough rookie season in Cincinnati last year.

"It just shows the kind of God-given ability he has. He's just got it. He's got what it takes to be an impact player at the major league level," Berkman said. "Given an opportunity, he's going to put up some silly numbers."

Hamilton was on pace to drive in 175 runs this season. In his 45th game Monday, he got his 50th RBI, one game earlier than DiMaggio did as a rookie in 1936 or Carl Everett did in 2000 after coming from the National League to the Rangers.

"He has certainly been a great surprise," Rangers Manager Ron Washington said. "I mean we knew he was talented. We had just never seen him on a daily basis."

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