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New York loves Derby star Hamilton

New York loves Derby star Hamilton

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NEW YORK -- Virtually everyone associated with this week's All-Star festivities duly noted that Yankee Stadium was the star of the show.

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton forced everyone to re-think it for a while.

The House That Ruth Built was certainly the centerpiece of the 79th Midsummer Classic, and deservedly so. One of the most famous sporting venues in the world, it will be shut down at the end of this baseball season, and playing host to the All-Star Game for a fourth and final time brought forth a flood of nostalgia, emotion and excitement.

Hamilton, however, playfully announced his prodigious presence by channeling the Babe himself, essentially calling his shot at a press conference before Monday's State Farm Home Run Derby.

He was actually talking about a spot he'd noticed in the stadium's structure that might enable him to hit a ball literally out of the park, but it served just as well as a general heads-up in regards to what was to come.

"Watch out," Hamilton said with a sly smile.

As it turned out, the comment worked just as well as a warning to the fans in his bat's path later in the evening. Hamilton set a Derby record with a 28-homer outburst in the first round, and while he eventually ran out of steam and finished second to Minnesota's Justin Morneau, the barrage clearly stamped him as the signature player of the week.

Hamilton's name was chanted. He received several standing ovations, including when he was announced during Tuesday's pregame introductions. He went 1-for-3 with a stolen base in the American League's epic 4-3 victory in 15 innings, but by then, the crowd was already his.

"It's special to see other people react to him," said Milton Bradley, one of four Rangers in the All-Star Game. "I'm just so happy for him."

Hamilton, whose regular gig is patrolling center field for the Rangers, wasn't representing Texas here. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic who lost three years of his career to substance abuse and at times was seriously considering suicide before turning his life around in dramatic fashion, was representing the glorious power of perseverance.

Like New York itself, he's resolutely risen from the depths of unimaginable horror, rebuilt himself from the ground up and emerged stronger for the experience. Like New York, he is world-class, and New Yorkers have noticed.

"He's obviously a great baseball player; he wouldn't be here if he wasn't," said Rose Clayton, a 64-year-old Manhattan resident who sat in the upper deck behind the plate during the Derby and had tickets for Tuesday's tilt as well. "But what I love about him is that he got himself a new lease on life, and he's really, really humble. He's the kind of young man you can't help but root for.

"I'm a Yankees fan all my life. Always will be a Yankees fan 'til my dying day. But I'm a Josh Hamilton fan now, too."

Standing within shouting distance of the players' entrance at the stadium Tuesday afternoon, hoping to get a glimpse of the greats of today's game, Clayton was accompanied by her 39-year-old son, Harold. Color him equally impressed with the entirely of the Hamilton package.

"When's he a free agent?" Harold asked. "The Yanks need to get that guy. He belongs in New York. He's one of us."

The Claytons can't possibly be alone, for Hamilton wasn't a Ranger here. He was America's favorite son, and that he brought along an immensely likeable 71-year-old high school coach from his hometown to serve 'em up as his Derby pitcher only added to the ever-growing legend.

"He's the story of the year," Morneau said after sheepishly accepting the Derby's title trophy. "I think everybody is going to remember Josh Hamilton."

Hamilton certainly hopes so, but he'd rather they remember how he overcame adversity to realize his ridiculous potential than how his talent manifests itself on the field. Texas teammate Michael Young thinks there's plenty of room in everyone's memory for both.

"Right now, you can't say the name 'Josh Hamilton' without talking about his past, and to Josh's credit, he uses that as a forum to try to help people out," Young said Tuesday. "But if he stays healthy and continues to get better and gets that longevity you need to become a superstar, people will talk less about his past and more about what a great baseball player he is."

Hamilton's message is always sprinkled with references to the role religion played in his comeback, and for that, said one of his All-Star teammates, he shouldn't apologize.

"What he's doing is such a great example, especially for young kids who might be in bad situations wondering if it's even possible to get out of it," offered A's right-hander Justin Duchscherer. "Well, there is. This guy is proof, and however he wants to get the word out there, that's his prerogative. Hey, if anyone's qualified to say, 'God used people in mysterious ways,' it's Hamilton."

Hamilton's hope, though, is that the message resonates even with those without a particularly spiritual slant. If he continues to thrive on the biggest of stages, that shouldn't be a problem.

"The better I play, the more people want to hear me speak," Hamilton said. "And the more I get to tell my story, the more people I might be able to help in some way."

Mychael Urban is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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