(Josh Hamilton in spring training with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was high on their depth chart entering spring training 2000 but he didn't seem to be able to focus his talents.)He fell on hard times quickly. Hard times brought on by his own bad decisions. Few people had the talent he was born with, but talent only takes you so far. You have to work hard and apply the talent. Josh Hamilton found it easier to stay out late and make poor life decisions. Within two years he was out of organized baseball, having been cut by the Devil Rays. He hit rock bottom. He got a job working for a baseball academy in Southern Florida and slept on a mattress on the floor of the supply room.
He finally realized what he had to do. He got clean and started working and he came back. After five years out of organized ball he returned to the majors in 2007. In 2008, after one mediocre year in a crowded outfield with the Reds, he was traded to the Rangers for Edinson Volquez. Everything clicked and the hard work paid off. He became the golden boy, the feel good story, America's favorite, a shining example of what can happen when you apply your talents and stay clean. He was humble. He never claimed to be perfect. He just kept working and finished the season as an All Star, was 7th in the MVP voting and was voted Comeback Player of the Year.
He never said he was perfect. He made mistakes. In 2009 pictures surfaced of him in a bar, in questionable positions with women who were not his wife and alcohol. He admitted his mistakes and apologized. He came back and had a great year. He kept working. In 2010 he helped the Rangers to their first ever World Series appearance and was the clear MVP of the season. He stumbled in the World Series and hit a lowly .100 and the Giants easily won the series.
He never said he was perfect. He fell off the wagon in that off season and apologized again. He just kept working. In July of 2011 he made a nice gesture and tossed a ball into the stands to a man attending the game with his son. Just a little sign of appreciation to the fans who supported him. The results of the toss were devastating. The man leaned over a fence to catch the ball, leaned farther and fell twenty feet to his death on the concrete. It was a tragic accident. Hamilton struggled with that but he kept working and came back.
As he ran to his position in Center Field to start the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series he knew he had made his biggest comeback yet. It wasn't an over-confidence. He wasn't cocky. It was fact, a matter of formality.
This was one of the greatest World Series ever. Games going into late innings tied, usually at 0-0. Late inning lead changes, big hits, blown leads. The big stars were glowing brightly: Pujols, Holliday, Carpenter, Beltre, Cruz, Young. This series had it all, this game had it all. But Hamilton knew he had ended it for all intents and purposes. Now, the formality of getting those last three outs.
(Albert Pujols seen here during Game 3 of the 2011 World Series. Pujols put himself in legendary company with three home runs during Game 3. Just one of the big stars who had a huge series in 2011.)This game was what announcers love to call a "see saw battle". One team would go ahead and the other would tie it. It was amazing. 1-0 Rangers. 2-1 Cardinals. 2-2. 3-2 Rangers. 3-3. 4-3 Rangers. 4-4. 7-4 Rangers. 7-5 Rangers. 7-7. Now, 9-7 Rangers. In a thrilling series, this seemed to be the pinnacle of thrilling games.
The Rangers seemed to have clinched it in the bottom of the 6th and top 7th. In the bottom of the 6th and the game tied, the Cardinals had the bases loaded with one out and looked to be threatening to blow the game wide open. With Nick Punto at the plate Mike Napoli made a quick throw to third and caught Matt Holliday napping. This play alone is mind boggling. There has to be instant recognition between catcher and third baseman that a quick throw is coming straight to the bag. The thirdbaseman, playing off the line and several steps behind the bag, has to sprint to the bag without tipping off the runner that something is up. The catcher needs to fire quickly and perfectly for the runner not to slip the hand back in under the tag. No one ever gets caught off third on one of those, yet, somehow, inexplicably, Holliday did. That stalled the momentum the Cardinals seemed to be gaining. The momentum quickly switched back to Texas in the bottom of the 7th on back to back home runs by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz and an RBI single by Ian Kinsler. Texas was up by 3.
Photo Courtesy of Bleacher Report
(Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz hit back to back home runs and Ian Kinsler had an RBI single in the top of the 7th inning to give Texas an apparently insurmountable 3 run lead and the World Series Championship.)
In the bottom of the ninth their closer, Neftali Feliz, came in with a two run lead. He quickly got a strikeout (his specialty). Pujols doubled (it was a blessing it was only a double) and Lance Berkman walked causing some concern. Feliz recovered and struck out Allen Craig. Two outs. David Freese stepped in and took a ball. Freese was a light hitter. He had only 99 hits in 2011 and had struck out 75 times. When you face a strike out pitcher at the top of his game, a ratio like that is what most would call a bad omen. He took a called strike and then swung through a fast ball for strike two. One more strike and the Texas Rangers were the world champs. One...more...strike.
The 1-2 pitch came in fast, at the knees on the middle-inside part of the plate. Behind the plate, Napoli had done a great job of not tipping the pitch. He stood with knees bent. As Feliz lifted his leg to start the pitch, Napoli dropped to a normal catcher squat and placed a perfect target. If the ball made it to his glove he wouldn't have needed to move a millimeter. Freese made contact on the pitch, another fast ball, and hit a fly ball to right field and an unknown number of TVs in St. Louis clicked off and twice as many curses flew. It would have been one of those fan reactions. The thought of "I know what will happen but I don't want to see it end."
(Nelson Cruz hit 6 HR and had 13 RBI in guiding the Rangers to an ALCS win over the Tigers. His home run following Adrian Beltre's in the 7th looked like it sealed a win for Texas. He is seen here tracking David Freese's fly ball on what was seemingly the final out of the World Series.)Nelson Cruz tracked the ball. Mike Shannon, the Cardinals announcer, gave his normal home run call. "Get up baby! Get up, get up!". It was clear, as Cruz neared the wall, that this was a routine fly ball. The ball kept moving and Cruz kept running. He still had room and was on course to pull in the ball. Then Cruz made an odd choice. He jumped toward the ball...and missed it. Cruz and the ball hit the wall at the same time but not in the same spot. They both bounced off the wall and back toward the infield but by the time Cruz reached the ball Freese was crouched on third, clapping his hands and celebrating a two run, game tying triple . Texas was one..strike...short.
(David Freese stuck a dagger in the heart of Rangers fans and drove a two strike, two out, game tying triple into right field.)
There was still hope. They were tied and there were extra innings. Now it was Josh Hamilton's turn to come back again. The comeback player of the century did what he always does. With one out in the bottom of the 10th Elvis Andrus singled and Hamilton stepped to the plate. On the first pitch he watched the ball float toward the plate and couldn't believe what he was seeing. If you told a pitcher where to not pitch Josh Hamilton, this was it. Down and in. "Right in his wheel-house" Joe Buck yelled. Hamilton turned on it and the ball launched. He had gone 84 at bats, the entire post season, without a home run, but his power stroke came back when they needed it most.
(Josh Hamilton had gone 84 at bats without hitting a home run. He chose the best moment to find his stroke. He launched a 2 run home run to put Texas back ahead and three outs away from the World Series Championship.)
The Rangers bench erupted and Busch Stadium fell silent. Tony LaRussa watched it for a second then put his cold hands in the pocket of his bright red Cardinals jacket and looked down. Hamilton didn't pump his fist or pound his chest. He didn't flip his bat or stare down the pitcher. He didn't scream and stomp on home plate. Josh Hamilton ran around the bases, discretely accepted a handshake from the third base coach and knew that they would win this game and be World Champions.
The game moved to the bottom of the tenth. Three outs away. It started with two singles and a sacrifice bunt. 1 out. Runners on 2nd and 3rd. Then a ground ball that scored a run. It was fine. Trade a run for an out. Runner on second with two outs and they were still one out away from winning the world series. They wouldn't let Pujols beat them (and the way this series went Pujols would beat them) so they walked him. The crowd let out a simultaneous boo and in stepped old man Berkman. Graying beard, slow walk, almost limping and willing his body to walk. The count went to 2-2. One more strike and the Texas Rangers would be World Series champions. Again...one..more...strike.
The 2-2 pitch came in at the knees. Berkman swung and you could almost hear the creaking of the shoulders and feel the ache in the knees as the bat came around. Amazingly, the ball fell in. Game tied. Never before had a team been so close and blown a lead...TWICE!
(Lance Berkman had played with the Astros in the 2005 World Series and was part of a late season trade in 2009 with the Yankees. A well respected veteran, many were pulling for him to finally win one late in his career. Berkman provided one of many magical moments in Game 6.)
The reaction in the Cardinal dugout was a mirror image of the Rangers' reaction as Hamilton had circled the bases. Phones in St. Louis went crazy. Something special was happening. Friends called friends. Family called family. Every TV that was shut off (and then some) when Cruz tracked the fly ball a few innings earlier were turned back on. All the curses were taken back and around the country people sat on the edge of their seat to see what happened. The east coast viewers were well into Friday morning. West coast viewers were delaying the 10:00 news. No one cared. This was baseball at its white knuckle, stomach churning, prayer mumbling best.
The 10th inning ended. Tied again. Mike Napoli singled for Texas in the 11th but was stranded there. If this game wasn't good enough yet there was more to come and no one knew when it would end. Rangers fans had suffered for 39 years through year after year of bad teams and twice, in the last hour, had their hearts ripped out. Now all they could do was hope.
(Mike Napoli hit .350 and drove in 10 runs in the World Series. Released by the Angels, he was driven to prove Mike Scioscia wrong about the decision to release him.)
David Freese stepped in to start the inning and took the count to 3-2. Of the big names in the Cardinals line up, it was small time player David Freese who had tied the game after Hamilton put Texas in the lead. Like Dane Iorg with a game winning hit for Kansas City in 1985, he was a nobody to the casual fan, getting the hit when the stars couldn't. He swung at the 3-2 pitch and drilled it. Dead Center Field. Almost directly at Hamilton. Josh went back. Tracked the ball. As he reached the warning track he felt he had a play. He kept running back. Reached the wall and looked over his shoulder...and stopped.
(David Freese had a 99 hits/75 K ratio but hit a game tying triple and a walk off home run in Game 6. The game is considered one of the greatest games in World Series history.)
St. Louis exploded....literally. Fireworks bathed the stadium in a hellish red glow as the Cardinals celebrated at home plate. The Rangers walked off the field quickly. Hamilton jogged in slowly, the last to leave. His path took him from the farthest part of the park, against the wall in center field,
through the infield, past the second base bag he had touched just a short while ago with the assurance of a win. He jogged with his head high knowing there would be a game 7 but he shot a quick look at the mass of humanity at home plate and felt what America felt. The window had closed on this year. One strike away, twice, and no championship. There was always 2012. Josh Hamilton would come back.