M’s are SkyWalking in Flirtation with Hamilton

Alone, free agent Josh Hamilton may be too big a risk for the M’s.

This column originally appeared at SeattleWeekly.com

David Thompson was 29, had started in the NBA All-Star Game the season before, and should have been at the height of his SkyWalking powers when he took a literal fall from grace in 1984. During a melee with a nightclub employee, he rolled down the stairs at New York City’s famed Studio 54 and right out of professional basketball, his knee a wreck.

Many have argued that Thompson once was basketball’s greatest player, better than his contemporary, Julius Erving, and a precursor to high-flying NBA royalty such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Truth is, by the time the Seattle SuperSonics acquired him in 1982, Thompson was on the decline because of struggles with alcohol and cocaine. He’d sworn them both off, but such was their hold that he and five teammates, after playing a game in Philadelphia, took a cab from New Jersey to chase the high life in Manhattan.

That season was the first of many I spent covering the Sonics for The Seattle Times, so I remember it vividly. Which is why, in another lifetime and another sport, I hope Jack Zduriencik has a Plan B—not just in case the Seattle general manager doesn’t sign Josh Hamilton as a free agent for the baseball Mariners, but in case he does.

Hamilton is 31, started in the Major League Baseball All-Star Game last season, and is coming off the best year of his career. Like Thompson was, Hamilton is considered by some to be the most talented player in his sport. But also like Thompson, he has abused drugs and alcohol, losing three seasons because of it, and his ravaged body occasionally betrays him.

An addict is addicted to being addicted, and Hamilton is no different. Even during his banner 2012 season, he disappeared in July, later citing attempts to quit chewing tobacco. He also missed five games in September with blurred vision because of caffeine overuse.

After being hailed as a potential Triple Crown winner early in 2012, Hamilton hit .246 with 25 home runs in his last 113 games. In Seattle, those would have been glowing numbers, for sure. They aren’t, however, the kind should compel any team to break the bank, never mind one like the M’s whose stadium will shrink those stats like Facebook stock value.

The Mariners are said to be players in the Hamilton sweepstakes and are under immense pressure to produce a tsunami this winter in the free-agent market. Fans are growing restless of the Mariners’ perpetual wait-until-next-year approach, and attendance has dwindled. Moreover, the M’s are not just offense-starved, they need veteran pop to stop retarding the growth of young bats belonging to the likes of Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, Mike Saunders, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak.

David Thompson was a gamble in Seattle
Let’s say Zduriencik signs Hamilton to be the centerpiece of the 2013 team. What happens when the Mariners become addicted to his bat, and his numbers plummet because he falls in love with Top Pot donuts or starts missing games because of an allergic reaction to Gortex? If you want to preach plate discipline, do you really take on the second-freest swinger in baseball? If you are enlisting a leader, shouldn’t you be wary of the direction in which someone with Hamilton’s checkered past will lead your young nucleus?

Speculation has Hamilton seeking seven years and $175 million. His latest team, Texas, reportedly will cap any offer at three years, opening the door to a shorter-term contract, which is why everyone thinks Seattle has a shot. But you’ve got to think the shopper’s paradigm applies: There’s always a reason why a seemingly attractive item is on sale.

This isn’t the same conversation we were having last year about Prince Fielder. Signing him would have served notice that the M’s were at least aware of the arms race taking place atop the AL West between the Rangers and Angels. Plus Fielder was just 27, with no history of substance abuse; he had great grow-with-the-guys potential. Meanwhile, Hamilton is a gamble you take when you’re lacking maybe one last piece of a championship puzzle, which is why the linkage between him and the likes of Baltimore makes sense.

All of this is not to say I don’t believe the M’s should pursue Josh Hamilton. I believe they shouldn’t pursue only him. And by “pursue,” I mean land.

If the Mariners are bought into taking advantage of Felix Hernandez’s prime, as well as convincing him to sign beyond 2014, this is an off-season to be squirrels gathering nuts, not prepping for another winter hibernation. If Hamilton is going to be the middle of a contending lineup, Zduriencik had best surround him with some other bats—to protect him, as well as serve as insurance should he falter. Zduriencik should be on speed dial with the agents for B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, as well as Kansas City for Alex Gordon and Arizona for Justin Upton. Or take a flier on Jason Bay because of his local ties.

As composed, and even with moved-in Safeco fences, the Mariners don’t appear to be a team brimming with ready-to-break-out stars. Right now, Montero and Seager seem to be great guys to have batting fifth or sixth on a contender. Saunders is a good-looking athlete and Ackley has a nice glove, which means Brendan Ryan might be a must-sign. Around those water pistols, Seattle needs a bunch of cannons. The Mariners also seem like a No. 2 starting pitcher short of being able to win a playoff series, so someone like Zach Greinke shouldn’t be off the table.

People who argue that Josh Hamilton has a better shot at staying clean in a low-key city like Seattle don’t just forget that this is a joint that just legalized marijuana, it’s only a spot to lay your head for half the season. The other half is spent touring the country’s greatest dens of iniquity. Plus, if Hamilton is surrounded by babies and falls off the wagon, who exactly is going to drop the dime on him?

A couple months before David Thompson took his spill at Studio 54, the Sonic players catered a spot in our San Antonio hotel for a Super Bowl watching party. Thompson sat next to me, got sloshed and quietly slipped out. The whole time, I expected one of the team’s many veterans to say something to a recovering addict about his excessive drinking. Young, idealistic and thinking I was helping “D.T.,” I recounted the incident to a Sonic coach. “What am I supposed to do?” he responded. “These guys are adults.”

Dazzled by what Thompson had been, the Sonics were blind to what he had become and simply took a wild gamble, hoping for a jackpot. They failed to understand that risk can be mitigated by deft planning and unwavering management. Theirs is a local lesson the Mariners should not ignore.

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