SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Before the Texas media dispersed, clearing the way for his first game against his former team, Josh Hamilton was asked to give Rangers fans an on-camera message in anticipation of his return in 15 days.
The playful slugger smiled wide, peered into the lens and cooperated.
"Cheers are always good," Hamilton began to say, "but I'll tell you what -- follow your heart. You can't go wrong with that."
When Hamilton returns to Rangers Ballpark on April 5, Rangers fans -- fresh off seeing him slump through the second half, join the division rivals and say they don't live in a "true baseball town" -- figure to be coldhearted.
But before that happens, Hamilton got a test run on Thursday night, returning to his old Spring Training complex for a Cactus League game against his ex-teammates. The boos were sporadic, and the stakes weren't great, but it still wasn't a normal Spring Training game for the Angels' new outfielder.
"It was weird. It was," Hamilton said after going 1-for-3 with a home run in the Halos 10-9 loss. "I mean, it was good to play this game. I think it definitely helped, just seeing the guys before the game a little bit, talking to them, and just seeing them over here in that dugout. We've had some history."
|"I live in Texas. Texas is my home. Fans were great when I was there. It was a chapter in my life, and this is a new chapter."|
|-- Josh Hamilton|
Hamilton spent a good chunk of pregame signing autographs, as usual, and noticed a faint "Josh Who?" sign in the crowd when the game began. When he grounded out softly in his first at-bat against Derek Lowe, "I thought they had won the World Series," Hamilton said. "Fans erupted."
Next time up, Hamilton got a changeup from Lowe and lined it into the lawn near straightaway center field, going back-to-back with Albert Pujols as part of a four-homer, six-run fourth inning by the Angels.
"I loved Texas while I was there," said Hamilton. "I live in Texas. Texas is my home. Fans were great when I was there. It was a chapter in my life, and this is a new chapter."
Hamilton's five-year stint in Texas included five straight All-Star Game starts, two consecutive trips to the World Series and a .305/.363/.549 slash line. But it ended on a sour note. Hamilton batted .259 with 86 strikeouts in 69 second-half games in 2012, dropped a critical fly ball in the regular-season finale and went 0-for-4 in a Wild Card loss to the Orioles, capping a season in which the Rangers blew a five-game division lead with nine to play.
"When we didn't win, we'd say we'd get them tomorrow, and then when we didn't get them that night, we said we'd get them the next night," Hamilton said. "Those started piling up."
Hamilton said he'd give the Rangers first crack at signing him as a free agent the ensuing offseason. They slow-stepped, and so he inked an out-of-nowhere five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels on Dec. 13.
Shortly after arriving in Spring Training, Hamilton got into some hot water with his former fan base by pointing out what many consider the obvious -- that football has always been the area's first love.
"I feel like I was just speaking the truth," Hamilton said Thursday. "I've been a Cowboys fan my whole life. My dad lives in the East coast. We didn't have a team in Carolina, so Cowboys were America's team. I still feel like it's that way. It was just such a boom of fans so fast [at Rangers Ballpark]. But it was fun. I'm glad the fans came out. Everybody loves a winner, everybody will come watch a winner. I had a great time there."
Hamilton, batting .270 with a couple of homers in 14 games this spring, said he stays in touch with some of his former Rangers teammates through text message "here and there, but for the most part, not really." Hamilton shared a warm embrace with David Murphy and Nelson Cruz before Thursday's game, though. He didn't get to speak with Ron Washington, but he gave his former manager a tip of the cap as he stood in the on-deck circle.
"He's a friend," Washington said of Hamilton. "If I see him out there on the field, I will do what I always do -- give him some love. But I don't think about Josh Hamilton. He's an Anaheim Angel."
When Hamilton returns to Rangers Ballpark to face his former team in a game that actually means something, Hamilton won't get much love at all.
Several Angels players have begun conducting a poll to determine whether or not Hamilton will receive more cheers than boos from Rangers fans, though they aren't disclosing the results with their new teammate. Hamilton figures there will be some clapping, but he's prepared for the opposite.
"I got booed when I played there," Hamilton said, "so why wouldn't I get booed when I play for the Angels and play there? It's not going to hurt, because I can't think about it. For people to boo, they don't have that relationship with me that know me personally, understand me and have that relationship there."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.