The amazing Josh Hamilton

Joe Morgan's right: Beating drugs is great and a nice story, but hitting like he has after three years off is really incredible.

Published July 15, 2008 8:00PM (EDT)

ESPN's Joe Morgan made a great point early in Monday night's already-famous Home Run Derby display by Josh Hamilton. Chris Berman had been reviewing Hamilton's tale of drug and alcohol addiction, how he'd been out of baseball for three seasons, had made his way back, all that.

"That's a great story and all that stuff is great," Morgan said, "but you know what's amazing to me is that you can lay off three years and hit big-league pitching. I'm telling you, it's tough when you miss a month into the season, and he missed three years."

Berman and Morgan were actually selling Hamilton a little short here, by the way. Except for 15 games in the short-season New York-Penn League at the end of '06, he missed four years.

"All the other stories are great," Morgan continued, "but for me to watch a guy come back, physically and mentally adjust to big-league pitching, that's a special, special talent."

For all the ink that's been spilled and chatter that's been chatted about Hamilton's amazing story, that might just be the most amazing part of it, and it's the part that gets the least attention because it's not as picturesque as the drug stuff.

Hamilton's not the first guy to come back from a hellish drug problem. He's not the first to come back from three years off either, but he's the first in a good long time. Long enough to be beyond the view of the 64-year-old Morgan. "I don't know if we've seen anybody like that before," Morgan continued, evidently forgetting that a good chunk of a whole generation missed about three years during World War II, and many of them came back and played very well.

Ted Williams played most of his career after missing his age 24-26 seasons, hitting .342 with 38 homers in his first year back. Hank Greenberg got drafted seven months before Pearl Harbor and ended up being out for more than four years. When he came back he was 34 years old, and he promptly helped slug the Detroit Tigers to the championship by hitting .311 with 13 home runs and 20 doubles in 78 games.

Just two examples.

Phillips, who -- judging from his track record -- probably also wasn't thinking about the World War II generation, expanded on Morgan's comment by pointing out that not only had Hamilton missed three seasons, he'd never played above Class A before spending the 2007 season in the big leagues with the Cincinnati Reds.

"We've never seen anything like this, ever," Phillips said. "He only played up to the Class A level. He never played Double-A, Triple-A baseball. He played 15 games at short-season Class A in a four-year period, got taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Reds, and he's doing this. We've never, ever seen anything like what this kid is doing in baseball."

A couple nitpicks: Hamilton did play 23 games at Double-A in 2001, though he was terrible, hitting .180 with no homers, and he was taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Chicago Cubs, then sold to the Reds. But still.

I've learned to never say never, and never, ever say never, ever. Especially when you're talking about something as rich as baseball history. And sure enough, a few minutes with the list of players who debuted in 1946 led me to Del Ennis, a fine outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Ennis was signed out of high school and played one season of Class B ball before spending two years in the Navy. Class B doesn't exist anymore, but it was a level down from Class A, four steps down from the majors. Ennis was discharged in early April 1946, and three months later he was a rookie All-Star.

Ennis only missed two years, not three-plus, but then again he'd been farther from the majors than Hamilton, and he was five years younger when he got to the big leagues. Ennis hit .313 with 30 doubles and 17 homers in that rookie year and put up an OPS-plus -- which adjusts a player's OPS for ballpark factors and compares it to the league average -- of 143. Hamilton's OPS-plus this year is 144, but this is his second year back. Last year it was 131.

But you know, I'm just playing historical gotcha games here. So maybe we have seen "anything like what this kid is doing," but that doesn't mean what he's doing isn't a hell of a thing. Just a wild, hell of a thing.

His Home Run Derby performance, prodigious and feel-goody as it was, isn't a part of that. It was great to see Hamilton's genuine enjoyment of the moment, to hear the ESPN microphones catch him saying to the catcher after his first homer on his first swing, "That was awesome, dude!" But the Home Run Derby is batting practice.

But if you get tired of the back-from-drugs story line, which, let's face it, is a little old three decades into the People magazine era, remember what Morgan said: "I don't think people understand how difficult it is to hit major league pitching even when you're playing all the time."

It's the kind of thing Morgan says that the people who don't like him like to quote, because it can be read as Morgan making the case for how great he, Joe Morgan, was.

Maybe, but it's still true. Morgan really was great, after all. And it really is really, really hard. More people beat drugs than turn in big-league seasons like the one Josh Hamilton's having.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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