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Rangers’ star Josh Hamilton: Out of hell, into Hall of Fame?

Texas Rangers v Chicago White Sox

Texas Rangers v Chicago White Sox

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Updated: August 7, 2012 6:36AM

When Josh Hamilton’s name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot sometime within the next 15 years, voters won’t be burdened by any of the did-he-or-did-he-not speculation that is now part of the Hall discussion as products of baseball’s steroid era become eligible for Cooperstown.

Hamilton is no drug cheat. His status as the most rigorously tested player in the game’s history offers proof.

A true five-tool outfielder for the Texas Rangers, Hamilton will warrant serious Hall consideration as one of the game’s most dynamic and productive players. He’s also a recovering drug abuser, which accounts for those thrice-weekly tests.

A debilitating plunge into the abyss of addiction — painkillers, recreational detritus and booze — cost Hamilton three full years of a can’t-miss career before he reached the major leagues. The residual damage to his body, along with an all-out, instinctively reckless playing style, has cost him an average of 44 games each season since Hamilton debuted with the Cincinnati Reds in 2007; amid five trips to the disabled list, he has played in more than 133 games only once.

Moreover, a commitment to ministry and the service of others is the linchpin of Hamilton’s recovery; how long he intends to play beyond this year’s expiration of his contract is one of baseball’s more intriguing questions.

Every day he toes a risky line between recovery and relapse, which Hamilton readily acknowledges. But when he’s healthy enough to take the field, there isn’t a player blessed with more talent. And his record-setting vote total in this year’s All-Star balloting speaks to Hamilton’s unrivaled stature as an attraction.

In other words, nobody goes for a hot dog when Hamilton is due to unleash that prom-queen-pretty left-handed swing. It’s not likely anybody has since his epic 28-homer performance in the first round of the All-Star Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium in 2008.

“I don’t know how much longer he’s going to play, but if he sticks around long enough and keeps doing the things he’s doing, he’s got to be a serious Hall of Fame candidate,” said Ron Washington, Hamilton’s manager with the Rangers. “He’s one of the most productive hitters in the game.”

Washington said he would never consider asking Hamilton to tone down his wall-crashing, dive-for-everything style for the sake of self-preservation and a more consistent presence in Texas’ formidable lineup.

“Between the white lines, Josh plays the game the way it was meant to be played,” Washington said. “He wouldn’t be the player he is if he played any other way. I think you’d increase the risk of injury if you asked him not to do some of the things he does naturally.”

Hamilton, 31, has been an All-Star in each of his five American League seasons. He was the AL MVP in 2010, when he won the batting title with a .359 average and slugged 32 homers with 100 RBI in 133 games. He had a league-best 130 RBI while hitting .304 in 2008. Although a .223 June has curtailed his Triple Crown chances this season, he’s on pace for 40-plus homers and 145 RBI, and he has been leading the MVP discussion since hitting four homers in a 5-for-5 game May 8 against the Baltimore Orioles.

Hamilton’s numbers seem to come in short, spectacular bursts, interspersed with trips to the disabled list.

“He may have Hall of Fame talent, but the question is whether he’ll play long enough to accumulate Hall of Fame numbers,” said White Sox TV analyst Steve Stone, who has spent nearly 40 years in baseball. “Sandy Koufax had a relatively short career, but he was the best pitcher in the game hands down, at a time when there were a lot of great pitchers. I don’t think you can say Josh is that dominant, and the injuries are always a factor.”

Hamilton was viewed as a Junior Griffey-level prospect when the Tampa Bay (Devil)Rays took him with the first pick of the amateur draft in 1999. Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn was his teammate when Hamilton finally reached the majors with the Reds in 2007. They worked out together before that, and Dunn, mindful of what Hamilton has been through, is happy to see his friend’s talents in full bloom.

“He can do things on a baseball field that not many people can do,” Dunn said, “and when you think of him doing it after being away from baseball so long, it’s amazing.”

Daily sobriety is Hamilton’s most challenging goal in life. Achieving it will be a true Hall of Fame accomplishment.

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