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.


Angels Owner Arte Moreno stands to make $25 million if Josh Hamilton is suspended for the 2015 season

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.