July 14, 2008. A night for the history books.

A night for redemption.

In the 2008 Home Run Derby, Hamilton’s escape from darkness seemed to come full circle. Once a high school baseball legend, touted as the best prospect ever, a series of unfortunate events sent Hamilton headlong into a drug-laced wasteland. For three years Hamilton was banished from baseball, alone with his addiction, at the mercy of powers even he couldn’t match.

Yet, miraculously, unthinkably, Hamilton pulled himself from the depths of his own personal hell, launching a crusade that would defy all odds.

It was Hamilton’s first season as a full-time Major Leaguer and there he was, unleashing a flurry of first round moon-shots into the upper decks of America’s most storied baseball monuments.

An assault on The House that Ruth Built, by a man whose every move screamed Mantle.

At one point Hamilton connected on 13 straight, serving notice to the world that if this could happen then, well, anything is possible.

Before an electric New York crowd, in historic Yankee Stadium’s final season, Josh Hamilton stood toe to toe with his demons. With every gargantuan home run, he sawed his way through the record books. With every passing moment, his story became American folk tale. And with every effortless, textbook swing, followed by a carefree smile, Reds fans everywhere wondered the same thing:

“How the *&$# did we let this guy get away??”

As a Cincinnati fan, watching Josh Hamilton as a Red was one of the high points of the decade. Out of nowhere, we had a guy who everyone was talking about; a guy who played like every little leaguer dreams they will.

His natural power was undeniable. His swing was flawless. He patrolled the outfield as if he’d never missed a day in his life, as if he was born on a baseball diamond. He made veterans Ken Griffey Jr and Adam Dunn look like geriatric rhinos, and smiled the whole time. For the first time in years, we had someone to get excited about.

Then, just like that, he was gone.

On December 21, 2007, I got a text from my friend and fellow Reds Nation compatriot, one that will forever burn in my memory.

“We traded Hamilton. Some guy named Volquez. Shoot me.”

At first blush, I was incredulous. Hamilton was a diamond in the rough, a five-tool guy who actually performed. In other words, he was the anti-Red.

Volquez, on the other hand, was known to be erratic and undisciplined, and paired his immaturity with pedestrian numbers.

In short, we lost. We lost BIG.

If it all ended there, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Sure, Hamilton’s recovery from addiction has been nothing short of remarkable. However, baseball-wise, lopsided trades happen all the time. Or, often great players are traded for prospects, and tracking the development and/or outcome of the deal is a process occurring over many seasons. By the time the youngsters begin to blossom, the “stars” are often on their way out.

That’s what was so compelling about the Hamilton deal. Rarely do you see a one-for-one trade of players who are not only expected to start, but also LEAD their new team. A baseball marketplace used to seeing “win-now” exchanged for “maybe later,” the Hamilton-Volquez deal was unique. And, almost immediately, it took on a life of its own.

Hamilton won the American League Player of the Month award two months straight. Volquez, meanwhile, spent April and May wracking up nine wins, 83 strikeouts and a head-turning 1.46 ERA. Both players were selected to the All-Star Game, and as they descended on New York it seemed apparent to all that this deal was a rare “win-win.”

Then, in 2009, things began to unravel.

Following his breakout 17-win campaign, Volquez pitched just nine games in 2009, slowed by elbow pain that would eventually lead to season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Hamilton’s year was just as disappointing.

Hindered by a laundry list of injuries ranging from a bruised rib cage, to abdominal and groin strains, to lower back soreness, Hamilton endured two DL stints and played in only 89 games. His year-end statistics (.268 BA, 10 HR, 54 RBI) left much to be desired, and many began to question his body’s ability to fully recover from the wreckage it once was.

Just as the national media were quick to celebrate the deal in ‘08, a dismal 2009 sent it reeling into obscurity.

Volquez? Done. Hamilton? Damaged goods. And, for as much as the pendulum of gain had swung first to the Rangers and then back to the Reds, simultaneous injury-marred seasons saw it settle quietly back at center.

However, those that wish to size up the Hamilton-for-Volquez deal three years later undoubtedly will point to what happened next as the decisive measure.

As Volquez used the first portion of the 2010 season to complete his Tommy John recovery (amidst public embarrassment surrounding a controlled substance infraction wherein he claims to have ingested his wife’s fertility drugs), Hamilton began putting together his best year as a pro. 

After starting slow, the Texas center fielder caught fire in June, ending the season batting an unheard of .359, en route to an MVP season and an improbable World Series run.

Again, if the story were to end there, crowning a winner of the 2007 trade would be an elementary task. While Hamilton accumulated hardware, Volquez toiled in rehab, ultimately ending his season by completely bombing in the Reds’ first postseason game in 15 years.

Rangers: 1, Reds: Puke.

Yet, somehow, remarkably, “Volquez/Hamilton” seems to be the debate that just won’t go away.

Today, Hamilton resides (again) in the training room, the victim of a botched slide at the end of a fractured play. Another freak accident, to be sure, but further evidence that there’s only so much strain a drug-worn body can endure.

Volquez, on the other hand, pitches every fifth night for the Reds and has been as maddening as ever. Pairing consistent, inexcusable wildness with moments of absolute brilliance, Volquez’ starts play out like violent, unpredictable concertos. While many pitchers vary in their effectiveness from game to game, Volquez trades Jekyll with Hyde nearly every inning.

In a way, we are back to square one with these two. Sure, Hamilton has made the journey to the World Series and collected the most prestigious award along the way. But, with both players under 30 (Hamilton turns 30 this year, Volquez turns 28), one would have to think that the debate has only just begun.

Questions remain about Hamilton’s overall constitution. At nearly 30 years of age, he’s played more than 133 games in only one season. When does “injury-prone” cease to be a stigma and become a realistic concern?

Likewise, with only one healthy Major League season under his belt (and routinely touching 97 on the gun), Volquez’ prospects for long-term success remain a mystery.

It is entirely possible that over the next several years, one player will distance himself from the other. If Hamilton gets healthy and stays that way, few would deny that he is an elite player, and a perennial MVP candidate.

Volquez, on the other hand, has much left to prove. Yet, he is also two years Hamilton’s junior, and those two years could prove crucial in his development. Bottom line? Ask any Reds fan: to watch Volquez when he is “on” is to witness a savant at work. When at the top of his game, there are few better.

It’s been nearly three years since Hamilton’s firework display in New York City. The feeling in the air that night, the transcendence of history, they were palpable. To this day, it’s a night I remember well. There’s no question that Hamilton became an icon that night, and there is little doubting the remorse that rippled through Cincinnati.

Still, most Cincy fans will tell you that we haven’t seen the best of Edinson Volquez. We’re hopeful he’ll harness his rocket arm. We’re hopeful he’ll learn to pitch, not just throw. And, we’re hopeful both will happen soon.

Until that time, as Hamilton battles back yet again, let the debate rage on.

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