Josh Hamilton started on the road to another personal recovery Friday night by doing what he does best.
He played baseball.
Hamilton turned down an offer from Rangers manager Ron Washington to take time off and escape the game. The Rangers were concerned about Hamilton’s state of mind after the tragedy of Thursday night. Shannon Stone fell to his death at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington trying to catch a baseball flipped toward the seats by Hamilton.
No, Hamilton said. If he needs time away to decompress, he will ask for it. On this night, Hamilton wanted to play. He needed to play.
“It kind of took my mind off it for spurts and bits at a time,” said Hamilton, who had one hit in the 8-5 win over Oakland. “It’s going to be in the back of my mind for a while.”
In addition to receiving support from friends, family and the Rangers, Hamilton heard encouraging shouts from spectators. He also had a scary moment in the sixth inning, when his foul liner struck an unidentified male spectator. The man received stitches for a head wound and was released.
“This is something I have to deal with,” Hamilton said. “It’s nothing that’s going to make me go back to where I was. I’ve got a lot of people who are supporting me.”
Hamilton has faced staggering personal issues before. Substance abuse cost him more than four years of his career. This demon will be more elusive because Hamilton made no bad judgments.
Hamilton will wrestle with maddening what-ifs and guilt. So says the only person who could possibly understand what Hamilton is dealing with in the wake of the freak accident: Manny Mota.
With the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1970, Mota slashed a foul ball into the seats along the first-base line at Dodger Stadium. The ball struck 14-year-old Alan Fish, and he died four days later of an inoperable head injury. Until Thursday, that was the only death at a major league game involving a player and a spectator.
“I’m sad for Josh, because I know how he feels now,” Mota said in a telephone conversation. “He didn’t do anything wrong, but I know this is a tough time for him. I felt the same way. I feel sad for Josh. He’s got to stay strong.”
Mota played 10 more seasons after the spectator death and has been a Dodgers coach for 32 years. He occasionally heard about the incident from cold-hearted hecklers on the road but has always received strong support from his organization.
“What happened is something Josh could not have prevented,” Mota said. “My message to Josh is that he has to stay strong. It’s going to be tough, but God has a plan for him.”
The incident unfolded in the second inning. As Hamilton followed his usual procedure and flipped a foul ball hit by Scott Sizemore to a ball girl, a voice from the left-field seats shouted out, “Mr. Hamilton, up here!” Hamilton remembered that when he picked up another foul ball, hit by Conor Jackson, in the inning.
Hamilton turned and flipped the baseball to the first faces he picked out: Stone and his son, Cooper. Hamilton said the scene turned to slow motion in his mind, as the father reached for the baseball and fell over the railing.
“As soon as it happened, I tried not to think about what was going on behind that fence,” Hamilton said.
After the game, Hamilton learned of Stone’s death from team president Nolan Ryan and Washington. The manager, who has had his own tests, reminded Hamilton that the organization was there for him.
Washington said Hamilton showed inner strength by first comforting his wife, Katie. Hamilton said his wife and three daughters helped him through the hours after the tragedy with their presence.
“It was hard for me to hear a little boy screaming for his daddy, and then get home to my girls,” Hamilton said. “It really hit home last night.”
Hamilton will keep the Stone family in his prayers. When the time is right, he will reach out to the mother and the son. And he will keep playing the game that gives him safety in a world that rarely makes sense.