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With Baseball Career On Hold, Hamilton Works To Beat Addiction

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RALEIGH, N.C. — For the first time, former Athens Drive High School baseball star Josh Hamilton has spoken on camera about the drug abuse that sent his career into a tailspin.

In high-school, Hamilton was the proverbial boy next door. Well-mannered, he stood out because he could hit a baseball farther than anyone else.

But since signing with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999, Hamilton has had little chance to demonstrate his considerable baseball skills. He has battled injury and -- for more than a year -- an addiction to cocaine.

Hamilton, 22, wants to turn his life around. He told WRAL that his health comes first.

Major League Baseball suspended Hamilton for the entire 2004 season after he failed multiple drug tests. After hitting rock bottom, Hamilton decided to get clean. He has moved back to Raleigh and continues with drug rehab.

How long ago it seems that Hamilton was chosen first in the Major League Baseball draft and received a signing bonus of $3.96 million out of high school. And how long ago it must seem for the player whom the Devil Rays targeted for stardom in June of 1999.

He has not played in a game since July 10, 2002, and reportedly has begun his sixth attempt at rehab.

Hamilton told WRAL he has put baseball on the "back burner" as he tries to kick his addiction. He said cocaine overtook him powerfully and quickly.

"It's the first time in my life I couldn't get a handle on something," Hamilton said during a break in a workout at a local facility. "I was always growing up being able to do everything with ease. My addiction hit me hard. I didn't know how to handle it. It had me frustrated.

"Cocaine doesn't discriminate. It'll get anybody. It got me quick. It got me real quick."

Hamilton said he knew he needed help as soon as Major League Baseball suspended him.

He previously had been suspended for 30 days. That suspension had been scheduled to end March 19, 2004. But on March 19, it was announced he would be suspended for the entire season.

He is not eligible to return until 2005 spring training.

"I read the paper and saw that I was suspended for the year," Hamilton said. "At first, I thought: 'Why get sober?' I had self-pity. At the same time, a light went on in my head. I said I had to get sober for baseball, for my family, for myself.

"That's when I checked myself in."

Hamilton said he left his most recent treatment program a week ago. Meanwhile, he works fulltime for a local construction company and goes to the batting cages after work.

"When things aren't going well on the outside, I can come in here and work out," he said. "It's nice to be able to go somewhere to get my focus back."

Covered in tattoos that define him almost as much as his talent, Hamilton aims for a spring-training return -- provided he first gets his off-the-field life back in order.

"I take it a day at a time," he said. "I have to. It begins with: 'I woke up today. I'm breathing. I'm sober.' I can't look to the future. I have to stay in the present."

Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar recently said he was still hopeful Hamilton would develop as a player but added that the organization was going forward without him.

"Josh Hamilton would have a chance to be a piece to a championship club," LaMar told

Baseball America.

"However, we've all been around players who've been gifted and not used that talent, and that's where Josh is. He's got to get back on the field, and he's got to use that talent.

"Do we hold hope out? Absolutely. You would, too, with someone with that talent."

Hamilton said he developed his cocaine habit in Florida after injuries in a 2001 truck accident sidetracked his career. He began spending time at a local tattoo parlor, eventually getting 26 tattoos.

"At some point I crossed a threshold," he recently told ESPN The Magazine.

"After the accident, it went downhill," he told WRAL. "It always had been uphill for me. I didn't know how to handle the hurt. I couldn't be who I was before."

He came back to Raleigh earlier this month, he said, because he knew he had a strong support system in his family.

"I came back here to focus on what I need to do," he said. "I have my parents, my grandmother. They can get me back on track and hold me accountable.

"Each day, I wake up, I ask for the strength and the will to stay sober that day. If I think I can't handle it, then that's when I reach out to my family.

"I've got a lot of people who will support me if I don't play baseball anymore, who support me as a person," Hamilton said. "Baseball is just something that I did."

Embarrassed a little is Hamilton. He is more proud -- proud of what he's accomplished, yet cognizant of the long road ahead.

"I know people who have battled cocaine for 15, 20 years, and they still don't have the strength to beat it," Hamilton said. "I don't have the strength, either, right now. I can't go back to the places I went to before, or that remind me of anything that happened to me -- unless I'm with somebody who knows me, or knows what my problem is.

"I made the choices to do the things I did. I can't blame anybody but myself. I robbed myself of where I could be right now -- maybe in the major leagues. But I think everything happens for a reason, and this is all going to make me a stronger person. Every day, I'm doing a little better."


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