“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 my 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.”
Josh Hamilton, the top pick of the 1999 baseball draft, wrote those words four years ago, in ESPN the Magazine, after he finally reached the big leagues. Hamilton had nearly drained his talent down a crack pipe. “I’m proof that hope is never lost,” Hamilton wrote.
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Although Hamilton completed a remarkable, inspiring comeback — he won the 2010 American League MVP award — staying sober has not been easy for him. In 2009, pictures of an intoxicated Hamilton emerged online. He apologized. As the Rangers advanced through the 2010 playoffs, all the way to the World Series, teammates doused him with ginger ale, instead of beer, during postgame celebrations. One Rangers coach keeps a constant eye on him, making sure Hamilton doesn’t slip.
An unspeakable tragedy unfolded in Arlington, Texas last night. Shannon Stone, a firefighter from Brownwood, Texas, leaned over a left-field railing to catch a foul ball that Hamilton casually tossed into the crowd. This ritual — the big leaguer lobbing a ball into the stands, letting a fan go home happy — is ballpark tradition, like peanuts and Cracker Jack.
But in this case, Stone fell over that railing, and plunged 2o-feet onto a concrete area behind a scoreboard wall. Witnesses saw Stone bleeding from his head. Stone died, from cardiac arrest, on the way to the hospital. Stone’s young son was at the game with his father, and witnessed his fall.
You feel for so many people here. First and foremost, you feel for the Stone family. A father was trying to catch a ball for his kid, like so many dads before him, and paid an unfathomable price. You feel for the kid who lost his dad. You feel for the witnesses — who knows how many times that scene will unfold, unprompted, in their minds?
And you’ve got to feel for Hamilton. After the game, Rangers president Nolan Ryan said Hamilton was “very distraught” over the accident. Hamilton has overcome so many challenges, and the one facing him now will be no less difficult. Hamilton is not responsible for Stone’s death, but sadly, he played a hand in it. What if Hamilton threw the ball just a little further into the crowd? What if he just tossed that particular ball aside? You can’t help but ask these painful “what ifs,” and Hamilton is likely asking these questions of himself. It’s unfair for any man to bear that burden.
Let’s hope that the Stone family copes with this tragedy, as best as they humanly can. And let’s hope that Hamilton battles this hardship with the same strength, courage, and humility that he has battled so many others.