12/13/12 5:32 PM ET
Rangers will miss Hamilton, warts and all
Free-agent outfielder signs five-year contract with AL West-rival Angels
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Like the Josh Hamilton who drove in five runs in an April game at Fenway Park last season. Or the guy who hit four home runs on a May night in Baltimore. Or the guy who, despite a fever and flu-like symptoms, hit the ball over the center-field wall in the bottom of the 13th to win a game against the Blue Jays in May.
Hamilton didn't just make the game look easy. He had a flair for the dramatic. As former teammate Michael Young said, "We're past the point of being surprised by anything he does."
That's the Josh Hamilton the Angels are counting on, the one who hit 43 home runs last season and is about to leave the Rangers for a contract worth $125 million over the next five seasons. That's the Josh Hamilton who helped Texas win back-to-back American League championships, the one who became the second-most-popular player the Rangers ever have had, only to Nolan Ryan. That Josh Hamilton may just push the Angels over the top.
Can you imagine a lineup with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton stacked somewhere in the first four spots? Has there ever been a better one? Yes, there are questions about the rotation, but it's not a stretch to pencil a Dodgers-Angels World Series onto your calendar.
Here's the part fans outside of Texas won't know. Hamilton was more than a baseball player to thousands of Rangers fans, and when you hear the emotional reaction many Texas fans are having to his departure, remember that it's only partly about baseball.
Rangers fans loved Hamilton because he was a great player, because he was instantly likable and because he was so open about his demons. He was superman, but he was a vulnerable superman, a superman who confessed to some of the same weaknesses so many others have.
He saw this dozens of times when fans would approach and ask for an autograph or a photo. Only they really wanted something other than autograph or a photo. They really wanted to tell him their story, either their own or the story of someone they knew, someone they loved, someone who was going down the same road Hamilton had gone down.
Hamilton had an emotional connection to fans that's difficult to explain. To these people, he was virtually above criticism because, they felt, he was as much a friend and an inspiration as a baseball player. Hamilton may never have that same connection with Angels fans.
If the Josh Hamilton story ended there, he'd still be with the Texas Rangers, because they would have opened their checkbook and paid whatever needed to be paid to keep him in uniform.
He did average 28 home runs in five seasons and have a .912 on-base plus slugging. The Rangers had a .565 winning percentage when he played and were 86-89 when he didn't.
In the past three seasons, Texas averaged 5.74 runs per game when Hamilton started and 4.30 runs per game when he didn't. There obviously were other factors in those numbers, but Hamilton was an impact player however you want to define it.
And yet ...
The Rangers seemed unwilling to offer Hamilton more than a three-year contract, at least in the beginning of free agency. They also allowed him to shop around for a better offer, figuring they'd have a right of first refusal.
That's because there were times Hamilton frustrated the Rangers, frustrated them in a way they won't publicly acknowledge. In fact, when last season ended, after Hamilton had contributed to them blowing a five-game lead with nine to play, the Rangers didn't seem to want Hamilton back at any price.
He didn't hit a home run in his last 39 at-bats. He struck out 17 times. He appeared to loaf on a fly ball and drop it in the 162nd game of the season to hand the AL West title to the A's. At a time when the Rangers were desperate for help, he did pretty much nothing.
There were other stretches like that. Yes, at times, Hamilton was the best player in the game. Still, after hitting 21 home runs in 47 games at the beginning of last season, he hit just 22 in the last 101 games.
Hamilton played more than 133 games only twice, and because he'll be 32 next May and because there's no way of knowing the long-term toll his years of alcohol and drug abuse had on his body, the Rangers simply drew a line at three years.
But once the season ended and emotions cooled and the Rangers went back and looked at all Hamilton had contributed to the best years the franchise ever had, they knew they'd be better off with him than without him.
The Angels still aren't a perfect team. They may be one starting pitcher away from that. But they're really good and going to be really entertaining. In Trout and Hamilton, they may have the two most exciting players on the planet. Fasten your seat belts, Angels fans. You're in for a wild ride.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.