Josh Hamilton, like Bernard Malamud's fictional baseball hero, Roy Hobbs, has been away awhile.
Despite Hamilton's many tribulations dealing with his substance abuse demons, he returned to the diamond Friday and put on an awe-inspiring show during an extended Spring Training workout at the Naimoli Minor League Complex.
Nobody ever doubted Hamilton's talents and when he stepped into the cage to hit, everybody suddenly got reminded about why he had been the overwhelming choice to be the No. 1 selection of the June 1999 draft.
Hamilton fouled off the first pitch, then began a barrage of line drives during his first round of hitting that culminated with a home run to center field that cleared the 400-foot mark with plenty of room to spare. Hamilton went on to hit another ball that nearly cleared the 40-foot batter's eye barrier in center field and one to right field that conservative estimates gauged at 500 feet.
"It was pretty impressive," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "But he's still got a long way to go. But as far as batting practice displays, that's pretty impressive."
Hamilton, 25, has been granted limited privileges by Major League Baseball, which has allowed him to begin participating in extended Spring Training. He has been on Major League Baseball's suspended list since Feb. 18, 2004. Though he can begin working out, he remains ineligible to play in Minor or Major League games but he can play in extended Spring Training games. Hamilton has not played since July 10, 2002, after being suspended for violating MLB's substance abuse policy.
Hamilton's show provided Friedman with his first look at the rare talent with so many question marks surrounding his future.
"I'd never seen him before today," Friedman said. "But obviously, I've heard lots of stories. It was pretty impressive. And it was even more impressive in light of how much time he's missed."
Hamilton's talent will only partially drive the train that could potentially take him to the Major Leagues. Friedman himself said "it's not clear" when asked what has to happen for him to become eligible to play in a Minor League game.
"It's something that the Commissioner's Office and the doctors and everybody involved will decide," Friedman said. "We'll stay in the process, but we're not qualified to give an opinion like this -- what's right for his recovery process -- so we'll just take the lead from those guys."
Patrick Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said about Hamilton's situation, "The process is that he hasn't been reinstated. Major League Baseball is giving him the opportunity for extended Spring Training then at the end of that 10-day period it will be re-evaluated."
Hamilton sounded humble and sincere when talking to reporters after his batting practice display.
"This is the last chance," he said. "And that's the way I want it. The past three years have been a real struggle. Real frustrating. Just to get the opportunity to come down here, for the Commissioner's Office to grant this ... this is the last chance I get. And knowing that, that's the way I want it. That's what's going to give me the drive to do it."
Hamilton called "the addiction thing" the most difficult challenge of his life.
"And it's going to be like that for a long time," he said, "... because it's always going to be there."
He described his addiction as "hell on earth" and credited his wife, Katie, and his two daughters for providing the inspiration to clean up his act so that he might try to realize the potential that caused the Devil Rays to select him in front of Josh Beckett.
"It's not about me anymore," Hamilton said. "It's about my family. Doing the right thing for them. Having a productive life, no matter if baseball's involved or not. Just me thinking about that was a turning point, because I started to give up. Honestly, I never thought I'd be back out here. It's exciting for me and it's really emotional for me. I've got a nervous feeling in my stomach right now."
Katie watched her husband Friday and spoke through misty eyes about their ordeal.
"It's been hard," she said. "It's been a very long road, especially the ups and downs, because I've seen him do well for a good amount of time and then he would slip off. Just that struggle back and forth where we'd feel like we'd made so much progress and he would backtrack, but just never giving up. Being determined that we're going to do this -- and he can do it -- just kept us going."
Hamilton became the No. 1 overall pick of the draft out of Athens Drive (N.C.) High after he hit .529 with 13 home runs and 35 RBIs in 25 games and went 7-1 with a 2.50 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 56 innings as a pitcher.
Hamilton was hitting .303 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs in 56 games for Class A Bakersfield when he was suspended in 2002. In 2004, he failed for a sixth time to complete a drug and alcohol recovery program in Tampa and returned to North Carolina.
Hamilton easily was considered the most talented player available in the 1999 draft -- a draft in which Beckett was selected second overall by the Marlins. The Rays drafted Hamilton and gave him a $3.96 million signing bonus.
In Hamilton's first professional game at Princeton, he homered and drove in three runs. He could possibly become the third first-overall pick through the 2001 draft to fail to make the Major Leagues; Steve Chilcott (1966) and Brien Taylor (1991) are the other two.
Hamilton believes he's better equipped to handle the life of a professional baseball player this time around.
"Growing up, I never failed at anything," he said. "I never had to have help, because [on the baseball field] I could do it. And when this hit, I had to realize I had to have help and I had to reach out and ask for help.
"I tried to do things on my own and you can't do it. So it was the first time in my life I was failing at something. I kept failing at it and just kept going into a deeper and deeper hole. Didn't know how to get out of it. ... [It] takes more of a man to ask for help than not to."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.