The Natural

WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. — In Rick Zolzer’s memorabilia-heavy office, which sits in a trailer on the first-base side of Dutchess Stadium, a poster of the “The Natural” rests on the wall behind the desk. Walk up close to the poster and you can see the autographs of the film’s stars, Robert Redford and Kim Basinger.

“That’s Josh,” Zolzer said, pointing to the movie’s title character. “Josh is Roy Hobbs.”

Roy Hobbs, in the 1984 film, vanishes for 15 years — after some wrong choices lead to his getting shot — and re-emerges with the New York Knights.

Josh Hamilton didn’t disappear for that long; no, real life isn’t quite reel life. But the top pick of the Tampa Bay (then) Devil Rays in the 1999 amateur draft was out of organized ball for nearly four years, suspended by Major League Baseball because of his drug problems.

And when he emerged in 2006, he emerged here, at the short-season, Class A New York-Penn League affiliate of Tampa Bay.

He’ll be back in the New York area this week, and he’ll do it with a higher profile, to say the least. At Yankee Stadium Tuesday night, Hamilton, 27 — who is batting .310 with 21 home runs and 95 RBI in 93 games — will start in center field for the American League All-Stars. He drew the third-most votes of the AL players, behind only host-team icons Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.

And from Wappingers Falls, the Renegades’ staff will be watching and rooting for their friend, whom they watched go from the top to the bottom, and now back to the top.

Zolzer — “Zolz” to everyone here — is the Renegades’ director of special events and their charitable foundation. He’s not a “baseball guy.” He’s an entertainment guy; he serves as the team’s public-address announcer during games and helps put together the promotions that drive minor-league attendance.

Yet while the baseball personnel rarely stays in one place for a long time — after all, managers and coaches are trying to reach the major leagues, just like the players — it’s people such as Zolzer and Tom Hubmaster, the team’s director of operations, who provide the stability.

Zolzer and Hubmaster were here in 1999 when Hamilton made the second stop on what was supposed to be a smooth ride to the major leagues. A five-tool player out of North Carolina, Hamilton came to the Renegades with his parents, who stayed in a nearby hotel and followed the team bus on road trips.

“He was a good kid,” Hubmaster said. “Josh propelled us to the New York-Penn League title in 1999. The whole team, after the game, would go in the parking lot, and everyone would play Josh’s PlayStation in his Suburban.”

By the time Hamilton found drugs in 2002, he was long gone from the Renegades. Zolzer and Hubmaster read about Hamilton’s problems and were saddened. They had liked him and didn’t foresee Hamilton taking such a path.

Fast-forward to 2006. MLB allowed Hamilton, who professed to have been clean and sober since the previous October, to participate in extended spring training with the Rays. The commissioner’s office gave the green light for Hamilton to be assigned to the Renegades.

The Rays laid out a series of plans to both work Hamilton back into baseball and control his environment as much as possible. Hamilton had his wife and two daughters with him; they stayed with him at an area hotel and accompanied Hamilton on road trips. There would be little opportunity for Hamilton to search for drugs.

On the field, “We tried to get him back to playing slowly,” said Matt Quatraro, the Renegades’ manager in 2006. “He started out DHing, then he played in part of a game, then he played a full game, and then he played multiple days. It was well- thought-out. Our front office did a great job in trying to ease him back in.”

Hamilton’s numbers with the Renegades were wholly unremarkable. He played in 15 games, accruing 50 at-bats, and he tallied 13 hits. He didn’t hit any home runs. He recorded a .327 on-base percentage and .360 slugging percentage. In all, he spent about a month with the team before having surgery on his right knee.

Nevertheless, he left having made an impression, both on his short-term teammates and the fans.

“He pointed (the other players) in the right direction,” Zolzer said. “He said, Don’t make the mistakes I made.’ He was so good with all of the young kids.”

As the ballpark’s ringmaster of sorts, Zolzer would stand to the side of the dugout during games, preparing for the next between-innings spectacle. Hamilton, while the Renegades were hitting, would move to the end of the dugout and talk with Zolzer.

One time, Zolzer told Hamilton that he didn’t need to sign the autograph of every interested fan, as had become Hamilton’s standard operating procedure.

“He said, ‘Yes, I do,’ ” Zolzer recalled. ” ‘I disrespected and mistreated the game of baseball. I’m going to sign every autograph for every kid, and take every picture, for as long as they still want me, after what I just did. If they want me, I’m staying.’ “

By this point, Hamilton was off Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster, and the organization had to decide whether to put Hamilton on their roster or subject him to the Rule 5 draft. They didn’t have much of a sample size to go on. Just those 15 games, with players four and five years younger than him.

“He had been off for two-and-a-half, three years at the time,” said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of operations. “We certainly weren’t going to let 50 at-bats affect anything.”

“All I can say is, I wrote my report on him like I wrote on every other player that I had,” said Quatraro, who now manages the Rays’ Class A affiliate in Columbus, Ga. “I saw all of the physical tools. The question was going to be whether he was healthy.”

Tampa Bay, believing that Hamilton would in fact not be healthy enough to intrigue other clubs, decided not to protect Hamilton. In Cincinnati, meanwhile, in early December, Wayne Krivsky, then the Reds’ general manager, was in the passenger seat while Chris Buckley, his senior director of scouting, drove.

“(Buckley) said, ‘I’ve got an interesting name for you for the Rule 5,’ ” recalled Krivsky, who now works as a special assistant to Mets GM Omar Minaya. ” ‘Josh Hamilton.’ “

The Reds hadn’t even scouted Hamilton during his brief stint with the Renegades. They knew only of his touted athleticism, and that Hamilton had pronounced himself clean.

They cut a deal with the Chicago Cubs, who were selecting second in the Rule 5 draft: They paid the Cubs $50,000, plus another $50,000 to cover the Rule 5 selection, to pick Hamilton. Then the Cubs traded Hamilton to the Reds.

Hamilton showed enough potential with the Reds in spring training that Krivsky opted to keep him; if he hadn’t, he would’ve had to offer him back to Tampa Bay for $25,000. Hamilton rewarded his faith by hitting 19 home runs in 90 games despite dealing with multiple injuries.

And this past winter, Krivsky dealt Hamilton to the Texas Rangers in return for pitchers Edinson Volquez and Danny Herrera. Volquez has been one of the National League’s best pitchers. And Hamilton has been one of the AL’s best hitters.

“With his time off, we certainly miscalculated how long it would take him to get back in the swing of things,” Friedman said. “It’s a testament to his unique talent.”

And up here at Dutchess Stadium, those who knew him couldn’t be happier. Hubmaster recalled how Hamilton, upon his return, not only remembered him but asked about Hubmaster’s dog, which had since passed away.

“He’s somebody you really wanted to see make it back,” Hubmaster said. “There’s some guys, I’ll be honest with you, I really don’t hope they ever make it back. They were — — when they came here. But that guy, seriously, was awesome.

“He was loved,” Hubmaster said, his eyes welling up with tears, “and he deserved it.”

He is their Roy Hobbs, and the people here are excited to see where Hamilton’s ride takes them next.

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