Lm Otero, Associated Press
Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton was one of those can't-miss prospects, drafted No. 1 overall out of high school.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Josh Hamilton was one of those can't-miss prospects, the clean-cut kid who was such a complete player that he was drafted No. 1 overall out of high school.

So it really shouldn't be a surprise how the Texas Rangers' center fielder is performing this season. It's just that to do it he's traveled a much longer and harder road than anyone could have imagined.

Hamilton reached 50 RBIs faster than any player in American League history, breaking a record that had been shared by Joe DiMaggio. He's also blasting home runs, hitting for average and playing stellar defense.

"He's really a freak of nature," Houston Astros slugger Lance Berkman said, shaking his head in disbelief during a recent series against Texas.

"He's got tremendous talent, got unbelievable pop and he can run like the wind," teammate Gerald Laird said. "He's just got it all. ... All you can do is sit back and say, 'Wow!"'

That exclamation applies on many levels when it comes to Hamilton and his inspirational comeback.

It has been nine years since Hamilton was drafted, including 3 1/2 seasons he didn't even play because of addictions to cocaine and alcohol, neither of which he tried until being on the disabled list in the minor leagues in 2001.

His life then spiraled out of control.

There were multiple failed drug tests, suspensions from baseball, eight stints in drug rehab and an estrangement from his family. He spent all of the more than $3.5 million in signing bonus he got in 1999 after Tampa Bay took him ahead of Josh Beckett and made him the first prep player picked first overall since Alex Rodriguez six years earlier.

But Hamilton has been sober since October 2005, when he was confronted by a loving grandmother after showing up at her door. He has also relied on his Christian faith and never tries to hide from his past.

With the chance to play again, and finally having the opportunity to fulfill the lofty expectations that came with being a top prospect, Hamilton — who turned 27 on Wednesday — is relishing every moment.

"I mean I can't really put it in words," he said. "God's grace, his mercy is just so limitless really. To go from where I was to where I am now and the way I got here. Every day going on the field, it just reminds me to be a kid and have fun."

Like when he was the high school phenom in North Carolina before his lifelong dream got tainted.

"This is what I always envisioned, being in the lineup every day, playing," Hamilton said.

He was the American League player of the month in April, his first with the Rangers, when he hit .330 with six homers and 32 RBIs. He wasn't just a one-month wonder.

After Thursday's 8-7 win over the Minnesota Twins, Hamilton had a .335 average and 12 homers, both at or near the top in the AL. His majors-best 53 RBIs were nine more than NL leader Berkman and 15 more than the next-closest AL player. Hamilton had 10 multihit games in his last 12 starts and already has six more RBIs than he did during his breakthrough rookie season in Cincinnati last year.

"It just shows the kind of God-given ability he has. He's just got it. He's got what it takes to be an impact player at the major league level," Berkman said. "Given an opportunity, he's going to put up some silly numbers."

Hamilton was on pace to drive in 175 runs this season. In his 45th game Monday, he got his 50th RBI, one game earlier than DiMaggio did as a rookie in 1936 or Carl Everett did in 2000 after coming from the National League to the Rangers.

"He has certainly been a great surprise," manager Ron Washington said. "I mean we knew he was talented. We had just never seen him on a daily basis."

The Rangers acquired Hamilton over the winter, giving up top pitching prospect Edinson Volquez because they wanted a big bat for the middle of their lineup. The Reds made that deal because they needed pitching and had an abundance of outfielders.

So far, the trade has worked out great for both teams. Volquez was 7-1 with a majors-best 1.33 ERA after his first eight starts in Cincinnati.

At the start of Rangers' spring training, Hamilton openly discussed his past — like he had in Cincinnati the previous spring and often does for churches and other groups. Nearly everybody already knew the details of his sordid tale.

"Obviously he shows a lot of courage to sit here and face what's happened to him, face everything that he's been through and use it as a lesson for other people," said Michael Young, the Rangers' All-Star shortstop. "He's the kind of guy everybody pulls for."

On the field in spring training, Hamilton impressed his new teammates with awe-inspiring batting practice blasts. There were balls ricocheting off the clubhouse building beyond the left-center field fence and scorching liners into the outfield gaps.

"My mouth dropped," Laird said.

"He's got uncanny power. There's a lot of guys that have a lot of big pop in BP and stuff, but this guy's for real in-game power," longtime Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. "He's the type of guy that can get hot and carry you. You can't say that about everybody."

And that's coming from a coach who has instructed the likes of sluggers Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro.

In the Rangers' interleague opener against Houston, Hamilton was 5-for-5 with two long homers, a triple, five RBIs and 13 total bases — one off the franchise record set by Jose Canseco in 1994.

All those at-bats came after a bruising tumble when he almost made a spectacular running catch in deep center in the first inning. The ball popped out of the glove when his body slammed to the ground, but he quickly recovered and threw while almost sitting to hold the hitter to a double.

Hamilton hit .292 with 19 homers and 47 RBIs in 298 at-bats last season for Cincinnati, which got him in the Rule 5 draft during the 2006 winter meetings when Tampa Bay didn't have him protected on its 40-man roster.

When the Reds acquired Hamilton, his only games since 2002 had been 15 starts at the lowest rung of the minor leagues after finally having his suspension lifted. And his only games above the Class A had been the 23 he played in 2001 at Double-A Orlando.

"He missed four years and then he comes to the big leagues and basically is a man amongst boys," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "Who knows what he could have done. He's making up for it right now."

Hamilton, who at times wondered if he'd ever play again, doesn't consume himself with thoughts about what might have been on the field — or even how good he's doing now.

The more than two dozen tattoos on his body, however, are constant reminders of his dark days when he got them, times when he said he "never seemed to laugh or cry." Among the tattoos are blank-eyed demons.

But his last tattoo is an image of Jesus Christ on the back of his leg. He views that as a symbol of victory over his addictions.

Hamilton's focus is always on today. Because he can't change the past — and he doesn't want to mess up again in the future.

"As a friend and a teammate," Young said, "I'm just thankful that he's at where he's at now."

On and off the field.