ARLINGTON -- To some of the people who've known Josh Hamilton the longest, the best stories about him have nothing to do with his incredible physical gifts or a very public and very tortuous battle with the demons of addiction.
For them, Hamilton simply is one of the most decent and kind people on earth. For instance, there's the story of Hamilton's relationship with Ashley Pittman, a high school classmate in Raleigh, N.C., who has Down Syndrome.
"In the core of his soul, Josh is a good human being," said Pirates scout Jax Robertson, who has known Hamilton for almost 20 years.
Robertson first met Josh when his own son, Matt, was one of Hamilton's teammates on various youth baseball teams around Raleigh. When people ask about Hamilton, he tells them about Ashley.
"It's a tough way to grow up, and you know how kids are," Robertson said. "They can be cruel. Josh took this kid under his wing and went out of his way to make sure Ashley was treated kindly."
Scouts began tracking Hamilton in his early teen years, and by the time he arrived at Athens Drive High School, he was becoming something of a legendary figure. He was also physically imposing, and if he told the others to stop picking on someone, they stopped picking on him.
"I remember him spending time with Ashley on and off the baseball field," Robertson said. "He made him the manager of the baseball team and took him places and made him special. To me, it's a thing that's true to Josh's heart. He cares about people and wants to make a positive impact on anyone he comes in contact with."
Walk-off homers in the 13th inning and later in Rangers history
Tied at 4
Tied at 3
Tied at 7
Tied at 5
Nothing Hamilton has ever done since has made a deeper impression on Robertson than the friendship with Ashley Pittman. Through the years of battling addiction, of having his baseball career interrupted for three years, Hamilton had people like Jax Robertson rooting for him and telling others Josh was the kind of person worth rooting for.
"Obviously, he has been through some tough times," Robertson said. "But I've known him since he was 14 years old and spent a lot of time with him. He's truly a sincere kid. Addictions are a really tough thing. I don't get it. Not many of us understand the place he was at. The fact that he has come through it and is willing to use it as a tool to get to people, that's the sincere person that he is. He's willing to throw himself out there. Don't we all have weaknesses, and a lot of 'em? I know that I do. Josh is trying to make a difference."
Hamilton had another amazing day on Saturday afternoon. On a 91-degree day when a respiratory condition had him gasping for air, when he required intravenous fluids and oxygen after the game, his two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th inning lifted the Rangers to an 8-7 victory over the Blue Jays.
Afterward, he spoke of praying for the strength to get through it, of quoting Bible passages to himself, and in the end of crediting a Higher Power.
"You know," he said. "Same old, same old. Thank you, Lord."
He has 20 home runs and 53 RBIs in 47 games, and if he stays healthy, could end up with one of the real special offensive seasons any player has had. Oh by the way, the Rangers are 29-18 and doing a pretty good imitation of the best team in baseball.
After the crowd around his locker had thinned out Saturday evening, I told him I'd heard about his friendship with Ashley Pittman.
"Yeah, I still talk to him," he said. "He's one of the sweetest, nicest men I've ever known. He's really, really special."
Asked why he'd befriended him in the first place, Hamilton shrugged.
"He loved being a part of the team," he said. "I just remember being on the bus one time at spring break. We'd lost the championship game of a tournament, and he was on there by himself crying. He was thinking he was why we'd lost the game. For him, to feel like he was part of it, like one of the guys, it meant the world to him. You never know who you're going to affect by loving on them. I don't know, man. You've just got to be good to people."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.