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05/25/08 1:27 PM ET

Hamilton to play Rays for first time

Texas outfielder to return to where career, troubles started

CLEVELAND -- Josh Hamilton is going fishing.

Come Tuesday morning, he is going to be somewhere on the waters of Tampa Bay, fishing pole in hand, trolling for redfish and tarpon. He just can't say where.

"I can't reveal that information," he said with a sly grin.

He has been looking forward to this for awhile, and that's what he sees as being significant about the Rangers' three-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays that starts Monday at Tropicana Field. Others might see it differently.

This is the first time Hamilton will be facing the organization that drafted him, the one that he played and did not play for from 1999-2006 and the one that ill-advisedly left him exposed in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft.

Hamilton is finally playing a game in Tropicana Field, although he'll be in the opposing dugout with the Rangers.

"I'll get to see a lot of people who were instrumental in getting me back into the game, and I'm grateful to them," Hamilton said Sunday before the Rangers' game with the Indians. "I'll see a lot of players who I played with in the Minor Leagues. It will be good to see them, too. I'm glad I played with them. But now I play for a different team and we're going in there with the attitude that we need to win."

That part won't be easy. The Rays may be the most improved team in the Major Leagues, running neck-and-neck with the defending World Series champion Red Sox at the top of the American League East. After many years of losing and suffering, a terrific group of young players is starting to change Tampa Bay's fortunes.

Hamilton was supposed to be a part of that -- a huge part -- but he was derailed by his well-chronicled off-field issues with drugs and alcohol and never played with the Rays.

"When I look back, I can say that I have regrets," Hamilton said. "Do I hate that it happened? Yeah, I hated that it happened. You just don't know.

"I'm grateful for Tampa Bay drafting me and giving me the opportunity, you just don't know the decisions people make in their individual lives and what outcome you'll end up with."

Hamilton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft and was moving steadily through their system until he was involved in a automobile accident in Spring Training, 2001. From that point, his career started going downhill, and he missed almost four years because of his personal problems.

He didn't finally get his life back together until October 2005, and one of the first people to call him was Andrew Friedman, who had just taken over as the Rays' vice president of baseball operations. Friedman encouraged Hamilton on his road to recovery and then went to bat for him with Major League Baseball. Hamilton credits Friedman for getting him reinstated in the summer of 2006.

"When I look back, I can say that I have regrets. Do I hate that it happened? Yeah, I hated that it happened. You just don't know. "
-- Josh Hamilton

"I'll give him a big high-five when I see him," Hamilton said. "I'm grateful."

Hamilton played only 15 games for a low-level Class A team in 2006 before undergoing left knee surgery, and the Rays didn't think anybody would take him in the Rule 5 Draft. So they left him exposed by not putting him on the 40-man roster. The Reds, through the Cubs, ended up taking him.

"Andrew Friedman told me, 'If we had any inclination that anybody was going to pick you up, we would have put you on the 40-man roster,'" Hamilton said. "Whether they knew or not, I don't know. I think everybody was instrumental in what God's plan was for me."

The Rangers acquired Hamilton from the Reds last winter, and he has been a huge hit for them. He returns to St. Petersburg leading the AL in RBIs and slugging percentage. As of Sunday morning, he was also tied for the lead in home runs and second behind Joe Mauer in batting average.

The Rays could use him right now, but who couldn't? Hamilton, Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford were supposed to be the Rays' outfield of the future, but only Crawford is there now. Baldelli's career has been derailed by injuries, and right now he's on the 60-day disabled list with mitochondrial disorder, an abnormality that has kept him in a constant state of fatigue.

"If me and Rocco had still been there, it would have been pretty crazy," Hamilton said. "We only played in Spring Training together, but that's a fast outfield. You had to hit a line drive on a pea or a flare over second base to get in there for a hit."

Hamilton does wonder what the Tropicana Field reaction will be when he shows up on Monday.

"I don't know," he said. "I think it will be mixed. I was the same way with the fans there, too; I tried to spend time with them. Some will see me doing good, others will say, 'He's the one that let us down and did the other thing.' But I get that everywhere I go."

He does?

"Yeah, I thought the people [in Cleveland] they had [Saturday] night were from my rehab," Hamilton said. "They kept chanting, 'Rehab. Rehab.' Most of the time I don't respond. Or they'll call me 'crackhead' or 'drug addict,' and I'll just nod my head. But I'm the one on the field and they are the ones who paid to get in and are sitting there watching me play."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.