Josh Hamilton, who finished this past May with more home runs than anybody on the Seattle Mariners hit all season, soon will be mulling offers on where he’ll resume his uniquely turbulent baseball career.
Why not Seattle?
The Mariners are desperate for power. Hamilton personifies power. (Although his production dipped after hitting 21 homers during the first two months of 2012, he still wound up with 43.)
The Mariners are eager to upgrade an outfield whose only presumptive incumbent is Michael Saunders. Hamilton is an outfielder – an MVP-caliber outfielder – as opposed to Seattle’s “fourth outfielder” brigade of Trayvon Robinson, Mike Carp, Franklin Gutierrez, Eric Thames and Casper Wells, five players who combined for 72 extra-base hits in 2012. (Hamilton had 76.)
The Mariners need to give you a reason to follow them during the 130 games pitcher Felix Hernandez won’t be able to start. Hamilton not only is an All-Star, he’s among the few All-Stars casual fans regard as a household name. Given his made-for-a-movie-script story, it would be accurate to call him a legend, the real-life equivalent of Roy Hobbs.
The Mariners are seeking a free agent whose contract would be more reasonable than the big grabs from last year’s class of free agents, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Because of concerns about the durability of a body once ravaged by substance abuse, Hamilton, 31, figures to command no more than a three-year deal worth, say, $20 million per season. This qualifies as reasonable, or at least quite more reasonable than the 10-year, $240 million deal Pujols struck with the Angels, or the nine-year, $214 million deal Fielder struck with the Tigers.
A few months ago, the notion of the Mariners making a free-agent play for Hamilton would have bordered on the absurd. The face of a Rangers team that appeared to be girding for its third straight World Series appearance – a candidate to win the Triple Crown – Hamilton was deep in the hearts of Texans.
Then the soap-opera side of Hamilton’s life conspired to throw him a curve. He went into a funk that accompanied his abrupt withdrawal from a chewing-tobacco habit. There were eye problems he attributed to too much caffeine, and sinus problems that forced him to sit out crucial games during the Rangers’ wretched pennant drive.
Hamilton dropped a routine fly ball in the regular-season finale against Oakland, a muff that opened the door for an A’s comeback rally and, ultimately, their clinching of the American League West title. Home in Texas for the wild-card game, Hamilton was booed while going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.
No, it wasn’t pretty. He saw five pitches in his final three at-bats. He looked like somebody who wanted to get away, and stay away.
And this is a guy the Mariners should be interested in acquiring for three years, with $60 million guaranteed?
He went into a slump at the worst conceivable time. It’s baseball. It happens.
The Yankees went into a slump during the postseason, hitting a collective .188 as a team – lowest postseason batting average ever for a team that appeared in at least seven games. Alex Rodriguez, who appeared to be less interested in playing on the field than in, well, playing the field, endured the brunt of the criticism, but five teammates also failed to hit their weight. Robinson Cano, on a 24-for-39 rampage over the final nine games of the regular season, went 3-for-40 in the playoffs.
With elimination at stake, Cano’s explanations for his sudden struggle to hit were no better than Hamilton’s, but Cano doesn’t have the complicated history. Hamilton wasn’t extended that sort of leeway in Texas. There had to be something else, something deeper and more mysterious.
Hamilton, the No. 1 overall choice of the 1999 baseball draft, lost three seasons (2003-05) to drug addiction. The theory – and it makes sense – was that because such a strain was put on his body during those years, his immune system was impaired, leaving him susceptible to nagging injuries.
And yet Hamilton played 148 games this season (more than anybody on the Mariners’ roster except Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley) and drove in 128 runs. The last Seattle hitter with that many RBI? Bret Boone, who had 141, in 2001.
My apologies for using such an antiquated statistic. Here’s a newer and more comprehensive one: Hamilton’s OPS – on-base percentage plus slugging percentage – was .930. (Among the Mariners’ regulars, Seager and Saunders tied for the team lead at .738.)
Free agency, of course, must be a two-way street, which is to say Hamilton must be as intrigued by the Mariners as the Mariners should be in him. Toward that end, Seattle provides a softer landing for this spectacular but star-crossed talent than a major market does.
It’s difficult to envision a circumstance that would find Safeco Field fans booing a player who’s winding up a season with 43 home runs.
Hamilton, by necessity, is a high-maintenance type who’ll require some degree of supervision off the field. Again, Seattle hums in a key of low: He can be as public as he wants or as private as he wants. The spring weather might be cold at Safeco Field, but for a great player born to succeed at swinging a bat, everything else would be agreeably cool.
Josh Hamilton’s incredible baseball story still can have a happy ending. It awaits him in Seattle.firstname.lastname@example.org