If, in the distant future, some baseball historian were to come across the box score for the Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day in 2007, he wouldn’t find anything that seemed particularly noteworthy. On that day, the Reds’ notched a 5-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs, with titular ace Aaron Harang allowing 1 unearned over 7 innings and Adam Dunn going yard in his first two at bats of the season. Nothing to write home about there. However, the biggest play in this game—which no box score could convey—wasn’t one of Dunn’s dingers or Harang’s strikeouts, but a routine line out to left field in the bottom of the 8th by a 26 year old pinch hitter who was getting his first taste of the majors. That 26 year old pinch hitter was Josh Hamilton, a man who would go on to become one of the game’s best outfielders and, perhaps more importantly, an inspiration to the hundreds of thousands of baseball fans who struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Almost eight years earlier, Josh Hamilton had been selected by the Tampa Bay Rays as the 1st overall pick in the 1999 MLB draft. Straight out of high school, the 19 year old Hamilton had his parents follow him around for his first two minor league seasons, until injuries sustained in a car accident forced them back home to recuperate and left Hamilton with a $3.96 million signing bonus and a lot of time on his hands. Fast forward five years and Hamilton had been on the DL for most of the 2001 and 2002 seasons with injuries and was suspended from baseball between February of 2004 and June of 2006. During his suspension from the game, Hamilton fell deeper and deeper into the morass of active addiction. Years of drinking alcoholically, abusing prescription pills, snorting cocaine and smoking crack had turned the one-time can’t miss prospect into a shriveled husk of his former self. Then, in October of 2005, Hamilton showed up in the middle of the night at his grandmother’s house in Raleigh, North Carolina while he was coming down from a crack binge and…he stopped using; not for forever, but for long enough to work himself into playing shape and make his way onto the Reds’ 25 man roster in 2007.
As Josh Hamilton was stepping into the batter’s box at Great American Ballpark for his first major league at bat, I was 125 miles away in my dorm room at Denison University in Granville, Ohio—watching the game on TV and popping a few Klonopin while trying to figure out a way to tell my parents that I had just been kicked out of school. Unlike Hamilton, I hadn’t come to terms with the fact that I was an alcoholic and an addict. At 20 years old, I was just unlucky…trapped in a world of what ifs where my inability to live my life without being arrested or blacking out on a nightly basis was always attributable to the machinations of an unjust world and not my inability to stop drinking, smoking and snorting myself into oblivion. Sure, there was a part of me that knew it wasn’t normal to be getting DUIs before you could legally drink or waking up places without knowing how you got there, but at that point in my life I could still chalk them up as youthful indiscretions that would fade away with time. Fortunately for me, my descent into addiction was as precipitous as it was painful and by the time I was 22, I had found my way into an inpatient drug treatment facility. That was six years ago today and I haven’t had a drink or a drug since. The vast majority of us aren’t so fortunate.
In 2013, a mere 11% of the estimated 22.7 million Americans in need of drug and alcohol treatment actually received it and, of those that did, only 1 in 10 would make it through the following 4 years without relapsing. Josh Hamilton would prove to be the rule, rather than the exception. Despite having former Reds manager Jerry Narron follow him to the Texas Rangers and act as his accountability coach—more or less a Christian iteration of a 12-step sponsor who travelled with him on road trips and was on the team’s payroll—Hamilton would relapse in January of 2009 on alcohol after more than 3 years of continuous sobriety. In January of 2012, after Narron left the slugger’s side to take a job as a bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, Hamilton drank again. Both times, his relapses were isolated incidents, with Hamilton immediately leaning on his support system and taking responsibility for his mistakes—actions which are more concordant with the notions of the “athlete as role model” than anything the Derek Jeters and Big Papis of the sports world have done.
Then, last month, Hamilton relapsed for a third time in his major league career; this time on cocaine after a fight with his wife over Super Bowl weekend. Just as he had with the previous two relapses, Hamilton informed the league of his own volition and without any failed drug tests looming over his head. The biggest difference this time was that, instead of being a reasonably priced all-star center fielder in his prime, he was now a grossly overpaid salary cap albatross and injury liability who stands to make $25 million this season. Some or all of that $25 million is now in the balance after a four-person panel comprised two-a-side by lawyers and doctors from the league and the players association failed to agree upon a plan of action and have sent his case to a lone arbitrator for resolution.
Under the MLB’s current drug policy, The Los Angeles Angels—Hamilton’s current employer—would have to send the outfielder to rehab for 60 days, either paying his full salary for the first 30 days and ½ his salary for the next 30 (roughly $6.2 million) or not paying any of his salary for those 60 days if Hamilton had already sought out treatment before the season had started. That is, unless Major League Baseball can prove that at least 3 of the 6 drug tests that Hamilton failed a decade ago while in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system came when he was also technically on the major league roster. If that is the case, this most recent offense would be his 4th and would warrant, at the discretion of newly minted MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, up to a year’s suspension without pay. Josh Hamilton would be out of baseball until 2016 for self-reporting what is ultimately a medical issue to the league he plays for and the Los Angeles Angels would be $25 million richer.
From a clinical, ethical, moral, medical and public health perspective, the arbitrator in the case and Commissioner Manfred do not have a choice to make—best practices and even a modest amount of compassion dictates that they send Hamilton to rehab. The only lens through which a decision to suspend this man for a year makes sense is one which values salary caps and wins above replacement over humanity. Josh Hamilton is a sick man who wants and needs treatment—a man who Major League Baseball was all too willing to support when he was winning AL MVPs and jacking 4 home runs in a single game, but whose health they’ve suddenly become ambivalent about now that his bat has lost some of its pop and his body has started to break down. To do anything other than send Hamilton to drug and alcohol treatment is to leave him in Death Valley with nothing more than a compass and a jug of water and hope he finds his way home.
I am not a baseball player or MLB executive. I could no more hit a curveball or manage a farm system than I could eat 50 eggs or successfully run for Congress. What I am is a recovering addict and alcoholic who has, through some mixture of dumb luck and providence, managed to go 6 years without getting myself high or drunk. I am also a social worker who has worked in halfway houses and treatment clinics with men and women like myself—and like Josh Hamilton—who fight every day against a disease which tries to kill us by convincing us it’s not there. And, I can tell you that the story in which baseball suspends Josh Hamilton for a year is not likely to end well. The fact that each one of Hamilton’s relapses came in January or February is not some astrological accident. They happened then in large part because it is the time of year that is farthest from the sport that gives his life purpose and fills his days with activity. These relapses happened during down time. The same sort of down time that led Hamilton to begin abusing drugs and alcohol 14 years ago; the same sort of down time which baseball could be foisting on him in the pursuit of $25 million and some cap space. The sort of down time that could kill him.