DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – He’s known as “Hambone,” “The Hammer,” “Hambino,” and “The Natural.” His reputation of “formers” – former No. 1 overall pick, former drug addict, former alcoholic, former Home Run Derby king and former MVP – precedes him. His four home-run outing last week at Camden Yards has helped fuel an early-season run at another MVP, coinciding with his Texas Rangers’ run at a third straight World Series appearance.
By now, not much will surprise fans and critics alike when it comes to the success or adversity faced by Josh Hamilton. Yet, somewhere along the line, something happened that perhaps gets ignored for one reason or another: Hamilton, one of the most feared hitters in baseball and a man of faith, has become Major League Baseball’s version of Tim Tebow.
Their paths toward their very public lives that highlight their faith have been different – Tebow growing up in an evangelical home and Hamilton finding his faith during his rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. Tebow’s presence as an NFL quarterback has been met with differing opinions of rabid fans and detractors alike, and that occasionally overlaps with his faith. Describing Tebow as “polarizing” has been muddled in meaning, the conversation evolving, at times, from whether Tebow can be a legitimate NFL quarterback to whether his in-your-face approach in regard to faith is too much. But polls like the January 2012 survey from Poll Position, which found that 43 percent of people polled believe that God helped with Tebow’s success last season, will keep that definition of “polarizing” alive in a society that is not solely Christian. It was all a part of last season’s Tebowmania, featuring the nationwide craze of “Tebowing,” paying homage to the inexplicable story of Tebow leading the Denver Broncos to a playoff spot despite what critics have defined as a limited skill set.
“Regardless of what happens, I still honor my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, because at the end of the day, that’s what’s important,” Tebow said last month at an Easter Sunday service in Austin. “We need to get back to one nation under God, and be role models for kids.”
Hamilton takes a more low-key approach to his faith and that plays to the benefit of his quiet, understated personality. The story of his past problems and the unforeseeable rebound that followed have been well-chronicled. The convergence of Hamilton’s rise to superstardom and the rediscovery of his faith have happened in a baseball town that has enjoyed the most successful run of the Rangers’ history, which has helped make his faith a detail in Arlington, compared to what it could be in another larger market. There are times, however, like last week in Baltimore after his historic four home-run night, in which his faith’s role is unavoidable in conversation.
“I think about what God’s done in my life, everything I did to mess it up,” Hamilton told ESPN last week. “What God has allowed me to do, to come back from everything I’ve been through and still be able to play the game at the level I play it — it’s pretty amazing to think about that.
“To finally surrender everything and pursue that relationship with Christ on a daily basis and understanding when I don’t pursue it, I end up messing up. Understanding that what I’m doing and what God’s allowed me to do, coming back from everything I went through and allowing me to play the game at the level I play it, it’s pretty amazing to think about.”
And both players continue to enjoy immense popularity. In January, Tebow, who has almost 2 million likes on his Facebook page, was voted the most popular athlete in America in a poll conducted by ESPN. Hamilton’s jersey was the fourth highest-selling MLB jersey in 2011, trailing only Derek Jeter, Cliff Lee and Albert Pujols, according to MLB and the MLB Players Association.
But both men are either at a crossroad or will be approaching one shortly. Tebow is adjusting to life as a backup quarterback after being traded to New York, which has made Tebow, the evangelical quarterback in a city with a melting pot of religious and faith beliefs, its newest, shiny toy for the media to dissect. At season’s end, Hamilton will be a free agent, assuming the role of top prize on the open market. He doesn’t have to say what role his faith could play in free agency, not when his teammates are saying it for him.
“Josh isn’t a guy who cares about money,” Rangers outfielder David Murphy told ESPN of Hamilton’s impending free agency and MVP start to the season. “He’s put the Lord first, and everything else goes from there. You see a lot of guys play well in their ‘walk’ year before they go to free agency, and it’s obvious why they’re motivated. I think this is more of a coincidence than anything.”
In February of this year, Hamilton announced he had suffered an alcohol relapse. It was an embarrassing day, addressing how he would recover. He knew he could have just blown his chance at one last mega-contract from the Rangers or anyone else, but that wasn’t the issue. His issue was with what was ahead of him. Hamilton may keep to himself and may never be the evangelical figure that Tebow has become to the sports culture, but there’s not as much as a whimper in arguing against the notion that Hamilton means just as much – and maybe even more – to the discussion of faith’s role in sports.
“How hard I play on the field is how hard I have to focus on my recovery, which is the Lord,” Hamilton said that day, uncertain of his future or the season he was about to have. “I ask everyone who is watching to pray for me and my family because it never gets easy.”