Josh Hamilton's struggles serve as a reminder of baggage he carries

Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers runs out Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers runs out a pop fly during a game against the Kansas City Royals. (Aug. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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ARLINGTON, Texas

Mired in the depths of a lingering, frustrating, utterly depressing slump, Josh Hamilton saunters into the clubhouse wearing a smile.

It's a sly smile, as if he's in on some inside joke the rest of us will never get.

But who is the joke on? Is it the Texas Rangers, who are wrestling with the thorny decision of whether to let the supremely talented hitter go into free agency after the season or perhaps break the bank to keep him?

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Or is it perhaps on Hamilton, who by his own admission is out to maximize the payoff from his first and perhaps last major free-agent contract?

"The bigger it is, the more we can give away," he told Sports Illustrated early this season, when he hinted of a charitable plan that would be "shocking to the world."

At the time, no amount seemed too outrageous. The 10-year, $240-million deal Albert Pujols signed with the Angels last December looked as much like a starting point as a final destination for Hamilton, who was on his way to a Ruthian performance in 2012. On May 12, the 31-year-old outfielder was hitting .402 with an astounding .877 slugging percentage. By June 1, he already had 21 homers and 57 RBIs.

"You could probably break down the numbers and say when Josh is successful, it correlates to more wins for us," Rangers outfielder David Murphy said. "He's that type of player. He can put the entire offense on his back and carry us."

Since then, though, Hamilton has crashed back to Earth. From June 1 to July 31, he batted a mere .202, a stretch that included a .177 average in July. And although he has picked up his pace since then -- he entered Saturday night's game riding an eight-game hitting streak in which he has two home runs and 12 RBIs as the Rangers prepare to visit Yankee Stadium for a four-game series beginning tomorrow night -- his struggles served as a reminder of the baggage he carries with him into free agency.

That baggage is well documented -- three years missed because of drug and alcohol abuse (along with a couple of high-profile alcohol relapses, most recently in February), a history of injuries and advancing age. Combine that with his extended slide and it could have a profound effect on his marketability.

The Rangers have not made a contract offer to Hamilton, and both sides have said they don't plan to discuss a deal until the season ends. Recent reports suggest Texas is not likely to offer more than a five-year deal.

"I bet they wish there was," Hamilton said with a chuckle when asked if there are negotiations going on. "It would be a lot cheaper for them right now."

Despite his previous statements about the worth of his next contract, Hamilton, who is very outspoken about his Christian faith, says he isn't concerned that his struggles at the plate could be driving his price down.

"Not at all," he said. "Hadn't even thought about it, and I never do think about it unless y'all bring it up or somebody in the front office brings it up. They always worry about me having distractions away from the field, so I don't [let myself] have any distractions.

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"God's plan is God's plan. I don't put Him in a box. If I go through a slump, it's for a reason . . . It doesn't matter if I don't get another hit for the next month. I just go out there and play, man, and just remind myself I'm playing for an audience of one."

For two months, though, his game didn't go over so well with North Texas audiences who at times have booed the slumping slugger. Always a free swinger, Hamilton abandoned any semblance of plate discipline. According to fangraphs.com, he has swung at 46 percent of pitches outside the strike zone this season, the highest percentage in the majors. Not surprisingly, pitchers stopped giving him anything to hit -- and Hamilton kept swinging anyway.

After giving their star repeated reminders to be more patient, manager Ron Washington and team president Nolan Ryan called him out publicly. In late July, Ryan said on a local radio station that Hamilton was giving away at-bats and questioned his focus. Washington told The Dallas Morning News, "He can make adjustments, and he has, but it seems like it's boring to him."

Last week, Hamilton had animated disagreements on the field with base coaches Gary Pettis and Dave Anderson after a couple of baserunning errors.

"It just goes to show you, when things aren't going your way, unconsciously you do things that aren't you," Washington said. "The perception was it looked like he had bad body language, and that's not him. But when you're not doing well, sometimes you let your guard down. Maybe he let his guard down."

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Hamilton, who entered Saturday night's game hitting .288 with 31 home runs and 96 RBIs, has become a little more selective at the plate lately and has begun to drive the outside pitches that once eluded him to the opposite field. The negative body language that had prompted Washington to criticize Hamilton now shows up less frequently.

"The crazy thing is, I've always been good at, when something's not right, getting it right quick," Hamilton said. "This time I wasn't able to get it right quick. Nothing really clicked, because I've been doing all the same things in the cage and everything was feeling good. It just wasn't translating to the game yet. So it's a good feeling to go out there, take a couple pitches, then get a couple pitches I can hit and put the barrel on the ball."

When he does that, he looks like the hitter who inspired awe in April and May. On Wednesday in Boston, for example, Hamilton slammed a triple off the wall in right-center, added a homer to right and finished 3-for-5 with four RBIs.

Now comes the next step. Keep it going.

"My thought is I want to see it again today," Washington said after Hamilton hit a double and a homer against the Angels on July 30. "It's a start . . . What he did is what we expect him to do, and I think it's what he expects himself to do. So I'm not getting excited that I saw it because I've known he can do it.

"Nothing Hamilton is doing is new. He went through a bad spell, and I'm certainly glad that he's starting to slow the game down, because when he slows the game down, what you saw is what he can bring every night."

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