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05/26/08 8:18 PM ET

Hamilton returns to Tampa Bay

Slugger makes first appearance against team that drafted him

ST. PETERSBURG -- Josh Hamilton took some time Sunday night to walk by the water in St. Petersburg and feel the warm, humid breeze. It was a picturesque scene that eluded him during the six years he struggled with off-field problems in Tampa Bay's farm system.

"I've never really just done that when I was here before," Hamilton explained. "I was always out doing other things. And, you know, it was just kind of a peaceful feeling."

Peaceful is a well-deserved term for Hamilton this season.

The center fielder was drafted by the Rays in 1999, and was plagued by personal problems that slowed his progression to the Major Leagues. Following the 2006 season, the Rays left Hamilton off the 40-man roster, and he was promptly scooped up by the Cubs, who traded him to the Reds. The Rangers traded away pitchers Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera to Cincinnati in the offseason to bring Hamilton to Texas.

When he took the field in Monday's series opener vs. the Rays, it was the first time Hamilton played at Tropicana Field, against the team that originally invested in him.

"I have no resentments or anything towards the Rays," Hamilton said. "I'm actually grateful for what [Rays executive vice president of baseball operations] Andrew Friedman did, as far as getting me on the road back to getting in baseball. And he worked really hard at that and I'm grateful."

Prior to Monday's game, Hamilton was unsure how warm a welcome he would receive from Rays fans, but one thing is clear. He has come a long way.

"He's been a leader," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He showed up every day ready to play, and the situation has been presented to him. And he's been handling it extremely well. I think the numbers bear that out."

Entering Monday's game, Hamilton leads the Majors with 53 RBIs, and is the American League leader in extra-base hits (29), hits (70), multi-hit games (22) and total bases (126). His .300 batting average and .600 slugging percentage are equally impressive, ranking second in the league.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, who had never seen Hamilton play, was already impressed with the scouting report on the young superstar.

"There doesn't seem to be any glaring weaknesses offensively, and his defense is very good," Maddon said before Monday's game. "Believe me, I'm curious too."

It is a curiosity that the talented young player will shoulder every time he returns to Tropicana Field.

What if Hamilton had never left? Could he have had these results with Tampa Bay?

The slugger is wistful when speaking of his days with Tampa Bay, but clings tightly to the belief that everything happens for a reason.

"It's amazing how God brings you back full circle," said Hamilton, who credits his faith and family for his life turnaround.

And regardless of the results this weekend at Tropicana Field, Hamilton has earned the right to break out in a sporadic ear-to-ear grin.

"I think the happiest time for him is that he's playing baseball," Washington said. "This is where his roots are. He started right here."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.