July 14, 2008

Derby
Throughout the history of this great game there have been giants, legends, heroes, and even goats. Baseball has always rooted itself deep in the American culture and is often a microcosm of our nation’s plight. From stories about Babe Ruth famously calling his shot against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series to tales of Josh Gibson and his dominance in the Negro League to hearing our fathers tell of the first time they saw “Mick” play in person, this game is as much about the stories and legends as the game itself. Do you remember where you were when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd homerun? What about when Nolan Ryan threw his record 7th no-hitter? Maybe you can recall where you were when Steve Bartman or Jeffrey Maier got a little more involved in the game than they had wanted. For Rangers fans one of those moments occurred on a summer night in New York during the All-Star game as Josh Hamilton took the national spotlight and had his own “Ruthian” moment and became our hero.
The HR derby at Yankees Stadium has been well documented and Rangers fans have told and retold the tale many times over since that night in 2008, but the overall magnitude of that event had a ripple effect on this franchise and fan base every summer since. Elementary school aged boys ran to their backyards that next day pretending to be Josh Hamilton, the new Sultan of Swat, and relived those 28 first round homeruns. Middle-aged men gathered around their water coolers and still spoke of their amazement and disbelief of what they saw on the TV the previous evening. On this night, the Texas Rangers were no longer the team who hadn’t won a playoff series or struggled to even finish above .500 during most seasons. No, this was the night that the Rangers boasted having the greatest player in the game and one of mythical proportions at that. Josh’s story was thrust into the national spotlight and baseball fans across the country and Texas were enamored with this larger than life figure. Much like the famous tragic heroes in literature, Josh rose to fame and stardom because of a character trait superior to those of the average man. He was a prodigy since birth and was destined for greatness, but much like Odysseus and other tragic heroes he was brought down by his greatest flaw-addiction. Contrary to the archetype though, Josh returned to greatness and became the player he is today and because of his talent has become a fan favorite and role model for millions.

As a high school teacher and coach, I have seen first hand the impact Josh’s story has made on influential teenagers and seeing the reaction from my team Thursday when they heard the news is something I will never forget. It wasn’t sadness or anger-it was shock and utter disbelief. The man who was their Babe Ruth was gone and not only did their hero leave them, he left them for the evil enemy. Ruth was able to deflect the scorn of the Red Sox fans when he was famously sold to the Yankees because that was beyond his control and the ownership and franchise shouldered the blame for decades to come. I can only imagine what was going through the young 1919 Red Sox fans’ mind the day he heard that Ruth was gone and the anger he/she harbored towards the franchise for not giving Ruth the raise he had requested. On the contrary, the Rangers fan base feels anger, hate, and detest towards their former superstar, not the franchise. It’s easy as an adult to separate ourselves from the players emotionally and see them as movable pieces, especially during this era of free agency. But, coach baseball and teach teenagers everyday and you will see the impact Josh had on this community. A 15-year-old teenager doesn’t care that Hamilton’s better days are probably behind him or that his WAR will decline from this point forward. Kids were emotionally attached to Hamilton unlike any player on this roster that went beyond just what happened on the field. While adults were busy looking at his splits versus left-handed pitchers, teenagers were telling stories of the time they met Josh at a mall or saw him hit an upper deck homerun at the Ballpark in Arlington. Having a morally sound role model (no matter how disingenuous he appears to us jaded adults) for teenagers to respect and admire was Josh’s greatest gift to this area and community. This article isn’t the place to analyze his value and why it was or wasn’t an intelligent baseball move for the Rangers to move on, but this is an attempt to shed some light to the adult world how impactful Josh Hamilton was during his tenure as a Texas Ranger.

As adults we lose sight of the mythical and archetypal elements that this game has held over us since we first fell in love with it during our childhood. To this day, I can barely watch the TV if Steve Garvey is being interviewed. He was a villain and the reason my 1984 Cubs lost to an inferior Padres team. Dan Quisenberry’ s submarine style delivery was emulated a thousand times in my backyard after the 1985 World Series. Don’t get me started on how many times I circled my makeshift backyard bases pumping my fist low by my side with images of Kirk Gibson and the sound of Vin Scully racing through my mind. Josh’s larger than life persona that he carried with him everyday to the ballpark seemed pretentious and arrogant to the adult world by the end of his tenure. For that young kid wearing his jersey and holding that foam finger high screaming his name-he was a hero. The magic and beauty of this game had us all encapsulated that July night in 2008 thanks to Josh, and for that-thank you Josh and best of luck to you in Anaheim.

Jeff Johnson is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached at Jeff.Johnson@ShutDownInning.com or on Twitter @Houstonhog.

Jeff Johnson

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