Since the dawn of humankind, the sun has been an object of mystical amounts of infatuation and worship. Claiming something is "the center of (insert a team, person, something)'s universe," is a common phrase. Blame Aristarchus and Copernicus for pushing the heliocentric theory. Blame the giant star ablaze with enigma and life for being the first super star that most encounter. Call it a cliché, an adage, a literary device, but here's fact: Josh Hamilton is the Rays version of the sun.
Entering June of 1999 the Devil Rays held the first selection in baseball's amateur draft. Two prep players stood out above the rest of the crowd. The tantalizing arm of Josh Beckett was met with an attitude that set some off. The young Texan flame-thrower, capable of pumping upper-90s fastballs and mid-70s curves alike, was too arrogant and looked upon as having character flaws. Beckett was still a top draft pick, no doubt; however this was no ordinary draft since there was an equally sensational talent available.
A young outfielder from North Carolina represented the paragon of the all-American boy. Josh Hamilton hit home runs, prayed to Jesus, loved his parents, and was destined for greatness. Comparisons to Mickey Mantle spread rampantly. Of course, those comparisons were based on baseball and would unfortunately extend to Mantle's off-field demons, but at the time Hamilton was a heaven-sent baseball-mashing gift.
He batted and threw left-handed. He didn't just throw, he threw. Pre-draft workouts saw him hitting 96 with regularity. Not many left-handers who can hit 96 are moved off the mound though, and that remains a testament to just how promising his bat was. Hamilton's power made scouts swoon. Batting practices often repeated the same scene: a silent, carefree swing gave way to a thunderous crack and a long-gone baseball.
The thing people really raved about though? Hamilton's strong devotion to baseball. He loved the game. Truly, deeply. Loved it. Backed by strong family support and a modest, humble nature about his talents, Hamilton perfected the face-of-franchise role well before he could ever ascend to the throne.
Baseball America ranked him the Devil Rays best prospect three years running and ranked him second in 2003 behind Rocco Baldelli - citing constant injuries and plate discipline issues as the reason for dropping him a slot.
A year later Hamilton's name would disappear from the prospect rankings for good.
At the end of every day the sun settles beyond the visible border, not to be seen again until the forging of a new day. In this act, a sunset is usually created, except for on days with cloud cover or rain. Hamilton would take 235 trips to the plate in 2002 then disappear from baseball for the following three seasons. His plight to hell and back is well documented, for which the focus during this period should be elsewhere.
During this time the Rays would remain miserable. The odds are good that Hamilton, much like Baldelli and Carl Crawford, becomes a starting outfielder by 2004. The Rays probably win more games with Hamilton in the outfield. With Aubrey Huff playing first base. With Delmon Young and B.J. Upton soon up. Playoff contenders? No, but mediocrities much like the present day Houston Astros isn't a far stretch. 70-80 wins annually. Maybe every little thing breaks right. Maybe they win 85 one year. The exact totals are meaningless.
To allow for further crimes against imagination:
If that comes to fruition then in 2004 the Rays don't take Jeff Niemann fourth overall; instead maybe Bill Bray. Wade Townsend never happens because the Rays are too busy taking Brandon Snyder. Evan Longoria, David Price, and Tim Beckham are likely never possibilities. Chuck LaMar isn't fired and Vince Naimoli still owns the team. Andrew Friedman? You mean the Rays Director of Baseball Development who was hired by the San Diego Padres as assistant GM?
The wayward possibilities are endless and - to an extent - terrifying.
During one the shortest days in 2006, Hamilton re-emerged and wound up landing with the Cincinnati Reds via a Rule 5 pick-and-trade with the Chicago Cubs. Knee surgery upon his return to the Rays' minor league system convinced the Rays to leave him unprotected. After all, no way he sticks in the majors for a full year, right? Not many weeks later Hamilton's star illuminated the baseball world as an in-game spring training home run reportedly went over 500 feet.
Hamilton became the toast of the Reds throughout his season. The Rays, meanwhile, were still poor. Their supreme outfield of Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Delmon Young had yet to take form, and the calls for Hamilton were plentiful. Shortly after draft day, a story was published by a writer in Cincy documenting a smudge in Hamilton's now-seemingly perfect character. During the ESPN broadcast, Friedman was interviewed, to which Hamilton reportedly yapped a quip about Friedman's intelligence and how Hamilton would be in the minors if it were up to him.
Beyond belief, indeed.
So, maybe it's ironic - or fitting even - that Hamilton's time to shine came during the Rays magical run and coincided with the team changing the imagery from sea creature to ray of light. He stole not from their attention. They were no longer the last team to give up on him and really they never were. Chicago and Cincinnati have those dubious honors - although Edison Volquez is nice. Hamilton put on a display at Yankee Stadium reminiscent of his glory days a decade earlier. This was all different though. Tattoos and scars cover his body, essentially turning into mouths which constantly taunt him of his shaky past. His image was that of redemption rather than purity. No longer was Hamilton someone with a bright future, instead the question was: how much longer could his body hold up to this? Hamilton's frailty was always the largest knock against him and it showed once more in 2009 as he played in only 89 games; cementing 2008 as the only season throughout his entire career that he topped the 100 games played mark.
Scientists expect the sun in which we take comfort in to undergo a metamorphosis into a red giant in a few billion years. During which, there's a distinct possibility that all of Earth's water will evaporate - seemingly ceasing life as we know it. A cruel reminder that even the most ballyhooed stars fade.
Any bitterness on this side should cease. Hamilton's addiction - and excuse this for sounding cold-hearted - changed the course of the Rays for better.