The Scarlet Letter in the 21st Century: starring Josh Hamilton

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is one of sin, guilt, and repentance, set in Puritan Boston.  It follows Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear a scarlet “A” to advertise her sin after committing adultery and giving birth to her daughter Pearl .  Her refusal to reveal the name of Pearl’s father adds to her punishment.

Meanwhile, her aptly-named lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, torments himself in private.  He burns his own “A” onto his chest. But unlike Hester’s “A”, Dimmesdale’s remains hidden.  This secrecy only adds to his guilt and he grows weaker as he tortures himself.

Eventually, Hester and Dimmesdale decide to leave Boston and move to Europe along with their daughter.  Sensing a chance to relieve herself of the burden of her “A,” Hester attempts to remove the scarlet letter, only to find Pearl does not recognize her without the letter.  Although she has shed the shame, she puts the letter back on for her daughter.

But before they leave for Europe, Dimmesdale, the town’s minister, reveals his sin and displays his tortured “A” for all to see.  He finally claims Pearl, who until this time rejected him, and Pearl kisses him.  Finally relieved of his burden, Dimmesdale dies.

Hamilton is a hybrid of Prynne and Dimmesdale.

Hamilton is a hybrid of Prynne and Dimmesdale.

While set over 300 years ago and published almost 160 years ago, the words and characters of Hawthorne’s novel have played out in the form of Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.  And it can be argued that Hamilton is a caricature of two central figures in The Scarlet Letter—Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale.

Hamilton is like Prynne in that he wears his “sin” literally on his arms.  The tattoos, despite his attempts to cover them up, serve as a public reminder of his troubled past.  And, much like Prynne, over time many have forgiven him of those sins and embraced him.

But this leads to his likeness to Dimmesdale.  Since his actions in January, he has secretly carried a guilt-burden.

Yes, he told those that matter most—his wife and the Rangers organization. However, that fateful night in January festered deep inside.  Before, Hamilton never needed to acknowledge publicly what happened. It was the photos’ appearing on the Internet that led him to bring a once private matter forward.

So how was he “tortured” in the way of Dimmesdale?

Well, Bleacher Report writer Illya Harrell makes an excellent case primarily within his responses to comments from his Aug. 9 article titled “What If Josh Hamilton Was Black?”  Summed up, Harrell notes that Hamilton made himself the poster child of recovery.  This identity construction of Hamilton is part of the reason Harrell finds trouble with someone attempting to become the model of “recovery” while also allowing himself that type of relapse.

It is within that argument that we find Hamilton’s Dimmesdale.  How can he maintain that “recovery” image knowing he had relapsed?  How is it not torturing him and tearing him up both physically and mentally?

Apparently it has been torturing him, and it shows with his play on the field. Before his admission to the relapse, Hamilton was batting .234 with eight home runs, 28 runs and 33 RBIs.  That translates to a run every eight at bats and an RBI every 6.9 at bats.  Those numbers are extremely disappointing compared to last year.

Ah, but with his public address of the photos and the relapse, Hamilton has seemingly cast off the guilt-burden, much like Dimmesdale.  Since his Aug. 8 admission, Hamilton is batting .472 with seven runs and seven RBIs (no home runs, though).  He is driving in runs and scoring runs at the same pace—every 5.14 at bats.

Additionally, he is apparently seeing the ball better since his admission at the media scaffold.  He’s posting multi-hit games at triple the rate of before his admission.  And while his walk totals are similar,  his strikeout numbers have improved (a strikeout every ten at bats versus one every 4.96 at bats prior to Aug. 8).

Even fantasy baseball “owners” have reaped the rewards of Hamilton’s public cleansing.  Based on Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball rankings, Hamilton ranks 22nd among all baseball players over the last week, versus a ranking of 289 over the last month and 408 over the entire 2009 season.  It seems that “owners” may finally receive the production they expected with the 10th player (on average) selected overall.

Based on the small sample set, it appears Hamilton is indeed playing much better since gaining a sense of relief from his guilt-burden.  Thus, unlike Dimmesdale, who died shortly after his admission, Hamilton has been revived.

(A quick note on Hamilton’s numbers.  He has been on fire in August, batting .407 with nine runs and 11 RBIs versus .227 with 26 runs scored and 29 RBIs before then.  You can also look at his All-Star Game splits (an even .300 since the All-Star Game versus .243 prior) and his “injury” splits (.292 since returning from the DL versus .240 before the injury) to see his improvement.  Thus, the post-admission improvement is a part of a longer trend of better play.)

Nevertheless, it is here where we return to Hester Prynne, as there is another part of her narrative we can project onto Hamilton.  When Hester attempted to shed herself of the “A,” her daughter Pearl no longer recognized her.  This is because that was all that Pearl had known; Hester will always be identified with that letter regardless of forgiveness.

Hamiltons scalet letter is tattoed on his arms.

Hamilton's "scarlet letter" is tattooed on his arms.

In Hamilton’s, even if he is the “poster boy of recovery”, he will forever be linked to his addictions and to his “sins”.  It relates to something I noted in an Aug. 12 article on Bleacher Report.

For Hamilton or any addict, there is no such thing as “recovery” or “cure”.  That addiction, and the battles with temptation, are something they will live with forever, regardless of if the public has forgiven him and afforded him extra chances.  It is something Hamilton can never shed because, unfortunately, he is forever linked to that “sin”.

Hester Prynne was forced to publicize her sin and as a result her daughter always associated her mother with that “A”.  Hamilton’s sin was also publicized, albeit voluntarily, and it is through this publicizing that we will also associate him with his “sin”.

Josh Hamilton will forever wear his scarlet letter, for that is all we have ever known.

This article first appeared on the Bleacher Report on 18 August 2009.


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