During the All Star Home Run Derby this week, Josh Hamilton exploded in the first round with a derby record 28 home runs, making him the most inspirational sports story in years.
The former Sports Illustrated writer and current ESPN announcer Rick Reilly shocked millions by declaring, “It’s a lousy night to be an atheist.”
To take in the full scope of that statement, you should know a little about Josh Hamilton. Just a few years ago, he’d hit bottom. He described it this way:
Not that long ago, there were nights I went to sleep in strange places praying I wouldn’t wake up. After another night of bad decisions, I’d lie down with my heart speeding inside my chest like it was about to burst through the skin. My thinking was clouded, and my talent was one day closer to being totally wasted.
I prayed to be spared another day of guilt and depression and addiction. I couldn’t continue living the life of a crack addict, and I couldn’t stop, either. It was a horrible downward spiral that I had to pull out of, or die. I lay there — in a hot and dirty trailer in the North Carolina countryside, in a stranger’s house, in the cab of my pickup — and prayed the Lord would take me away from the nightmare my life had become. When I think of those terrible times, there’s one memory that stands out. I was walking down the double-yellow of a two-lane country highway outside Raleigh when I woke up out of a trance.
I was so out of it I had lost consciousness, but my body had kept going, down the middle of the road, cars whizzing by on either side. I had run out of gas on my way to a drug dealer’s house, and from there I left the truck and started walking. I had taken Klonopin, a prescription antianxiety drug, along with whatever else I was using at the time, and the combination had put me over the edge. It’s the perfect example of what I was: a dead man walking.
And now, as I stand on the green grass of a major league outfield or walk to the batter’s box with people cheering for me, I repeatedly ask myself one simple question: How did I get here from there?
Hamilton answers that question to anyone who will listen and he thanks God repeatedly, not for the home runs but for changing him and making him a better father, husband, and person.
I go to sleep every night with a clear mind and a clear conscience. Every day, I walk into an immaculate clubhouse with 10 TVs and all the food I can eat, a far cry from the rat-infested hellholes of my user past. I walk to my locker and change into a perfectly clean and pressed uniform that someone else hung up for me. I grab a bat and a glove and walk onto a beautifully manicured field to play a game for a living.
How am I here? I can only shrug and say, “It’s a God thing.” It’s the only possible explanation.
But through it all, his wife Katie always told him that one day he’d play baseball again. She told him God had a big plan for him.
She looks pretty smart, doesn’t she? I have a mission now. My mission is to be the ray of hope, the guy who stands out there on that beautiful field and owns up to his mistakes and lets people know it’s never completely hopeless, no matter how bad it seems at the time. I have a platform and a message, and now I go to bed at night, sober and happy, praying I can be a good messenger.
He says of himself, “I’m proof that hope is never lost.”
Faith, he regularly says, has put him back in baseball after years of hellish addiction. Hamilton tells his story to churches, youth groups, autograph seekers, and reporters. And when Hamilton hit 500 foot homeruns into the stands and Rick Reilly said, “It’s a lousy night to be an atheist” it was just one more way for Hamilton to spread his inspirational story.