SURPRISE, Ariz. (CBSDFW.COM) - When we arrived at the Angels spring training facility in Tempe Sunday morning, mid-90's country music was playing on the radio. Classics like "God Bless Texas", "Going Through The Big D" and "Should've Been A Cowboy." I enjoyed the Texas-themed irony. Josh Hamilton later told me that pitcher Jered Weaver controls the Angels music.
My photographer, Bret Kelly, and I wondered if the clubhouse was actually open for the media when we walked in on the dot at 8:00 a.m. When the Rangers clubhouse opens at 8:00 a.m. during spring training, there are typically media members chomping at the bit waiting to get in the room. We were the first to get there. Subsequently, our photographer had to take his camera outside to the field. The Angels don't allow television interviews in the clubhouse. Eventually, three writers and a representative from the team's official magazine took part in the media availability bringing the total to six.
Hamilton entered the clubhouse with breakfast around 8:40 a.m. He had a plate of yogurt mixed with fruit and a barely eaten bagel which he wouldn't finish. He definitely looks thinner, something that has been noted and he attributes to juicing. He joked I should say he looks younger. He was happy to see us.
Hamilton and his wife, Katie, had their fourth daughter, Stella, shortly before the birth of my daughter, Jordan. We shared baby stories: who is walking, what words they're saying. Stella is trying to say "queso" when she wants cheese while Jordan asks for "agua" instead of water.
Hamilton wants to keep his family in Texas so that his girls can continue with their same routine. He wanted to buy a California home in Newport Beach but noted that the real estate was too expensive. I appreciate his frugality.
Hamilton joined us on the field, just outside the Angels dugout, around 9:05 a.m. after he attended morning chapel. We jumped right into a 15-minute interview in which he was typical Josh Hamilton: candid, honest and willing to answer anything.
Angels manager Mike Scoscia has indicated Hamilton will bat fourth and play right field. He feels this is the right place for him after signing a 5-year, $125 million deal with the Angels in December.
"Everybody always says, 'He just went where the money was,'" Hamilton told me. He knows that's the criticism. "I have been criticized for worse things."
True. Like the last regular season game of the 2012 season when he dropped a routine fly ball in Oakland with the AL West on the line. Hamilton maintains there's nothing he would have done differently towards the end of the season.
"Win: that's a simple answer I can give you," he said. "Personally, I don't feel like there's anything different. As a team, I feel like we should have gone after it. Not that we didn't go after it hard, but just being a little more focused on not saying, 'Okay, we lose tonight, we'll do it tomorrow. We lose tomorrow, we'll do it the next day.' We should have been focused on getting it done instead of thinking about if we don't get it done tonight, we'll do it tomorrow."
Then there was the criticism that he and his agent didn't give the Rangers a chance to counter the Angels offer. Remember, Texas manager Jon Daniels learned that Hamilton was going to the division rivals during the team's annual holiday media lunch.
"There's a misconception. It was always said they [the Rangers] would have the first opportunity. They [the media] got me on camera a couple of times saying that," Hamilton admitted. "They had the first opportunity and they just kind of drug their feet on it. My wife put it best: if you have a relationship with somebody you don't let them date somebody else."
Hamilton says there wasn't a particular point during the 2012 season during which he felt he wasn't going to return to Texas. Rather, it was about "a week or two" before the decision was made to sign with the Angels. Personally, I got the impression the Rangers were prepared for a potential divorce as early as midsummer. To me, it seems like his departure was inevitable.
Angels fans have already fallen in love with Hamilton. He signed scripture-filled autographs and took pictures for a solid 10 minutes or so Sunday morning. He was accommodating and gracious.
But some Rangers fans feel burned by the slugger. "It's really weird. He was one of my favorite players for a really long time," said Dallas resident Jared Kohnle, who traveled to Arizona to visit spring training. Kohnle scored a Hamilton autograph. "I felt like he sort of gave the Texas Rangers fans a bad rap by saying that we were booing him towards the last couple of games. He was really struggling towards the end of the season. That's not fair. We've been cheering for him for years."
"He's still one of my favorite players," Kohnle added. "Unfortunately, I can't cheer for him when he plays against the Rangers. But all the other games I will."
Hamilton had a unique relationship with Rangers fans. They embraced him and his story of redemption but turned quickly. "Texas, especially Dallas, has always been a football town. They're supportive, but they also got a little spoiled at the same time, pretty quickly," Hamilton said referring to the Rangers two straight World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. "You think about three to four years ago [pre-World Series]. It's like, come on man, are you happier there again?"
So what does he think the fans reaction will be when he takes the field for the series opener between the Rangers and Angels on Friday, April 5?
"It will be mixed feelings from the crowd. People who really get it will cheer and the people who don't will boo. Either way, I'll do what I got to do to help my team win."
How will you react?
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