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Former Ray's drug battle inspires recovery, redemption

Robert Clark stood near the screen behind home plate at Tropicana Field on Saturday afternoon wearing the new jeans and the white dress shirt he bought earlier in the day for the occasion. He came to the stadium with a purpose beyond watching the Tampa Bay Rays play the Texas Rangers. He could not stay for the postgame concert because he had a 10 p.m. curfew.

Clark is 38. He is a recovering crack addict. He’s been clean for five months.

Clark wanted only one thing Saturday, and that was to shake the hand of the man who inspired him to go clean: Josh Hamilton, the former Tampa Bay Rays minor leaguer who plays the outfield for the Rangers.

Clark carried a new copy of Hamilton’s book, “Beyond Belief,” which details Hamilton’s journey from being the top pick in the 1999 baseball draft to a life of drug and alcohol dependency to his recovery and redemption through his deep Christian faith.

“Reading his book really made me feel like I have a purpose,” Clark said. “It started me thinking there was hope for myself.”

Clark didn’t have his original copy. He left it at the Pinellas County Jail, where he was an inmate. He finished the book on a Sunday. Two days later he stood in front of Pinellas County Judge Dee Anna Farnell.

“Mr. Clark,” Farnell began, “I don’t think you’re salvageable.”

She was about to hand Clark a two-year sentence.

That’s when Dale Hendry entered Clark’s life. The pastor, who runs the Clearwater Dream Center, a residential Christian discipleship recovery program, attended Clark’s hearing after receiving a phone message and a few e-mails from Clark’s mother.

“What do you think, Dale?” the judge asked.

“I like a challenge,” Hendry said.

The Dream Center has room for 33 male adults. They wake each morning in time for 6 a.m. devotion. Some have jobs. Others work at the center. There are nightly devotions and meetings and two church services on Sundays. Curfew is 10 p.m. Lights out an hour later.

Clark had been through half a dozen rehab programs before he met Hendry. The others, he said, focused on the negative, the drug and alcohol addictions. Hendry’s Dream Center focuses on what lies ahead through the teachings of Jesus Christ.

It’s the same message Hamilton delivered in his book and mentions in nearly every interview.

It’s one Clark embraces.

“I know a lot of people aren’t into God,” Clark said. “And I’m no holy roller, but ever since I accepted God into my life, God has blessed me.”

Clark was born in Johnson City, N.Y., and moved to Pinellas County when he was eight. He played baseball and wrestled at Seminole Osceola, winning the county wrestling title as a senior.

He taught himself to play the guitar and formed a band. In 2002, he recorded a song about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers going to the Super Bowl. You may remember hearing it on the radio. His band played around the bay area, opened for a few big acts. Clark discovered the after-concert parties. He discovered drugs.

He moved around. Lost contact with his family.

In his book, Hamilton vividly describes his drug use. Clark’s experiences were nearly identical.

“Like we were two guys sharing stories,” Clark said.

Farnell turned Clark over to Hendry, sentencing him to one year at the Dream Center and two years’ probation.

Hamilton saved himself through his faith and is now a major league All-Star. His path hasn’t always been smooth. You might have heard about his relapse during the winter. You might have seen the photos on the Internet.

Clark is saving himself through his faith and owns “All Things Promised,” a handyman service. He has two employees.

He’s writing Christian songs and wants to someday share his story at churches around the state.

He’s reconnected with his 14-year-old daughter, Elexa.

“At some point, I’m going to be the man that she can count on, not the one she couldn’t count on before,” he said.

Rick Vaughn, the Rays’ public relations director, heard of Clark’s story and left field passes for Clark and Hendry.

Clark wore his new clothes and held his new copy of book and waited for Hamilton to finish batting practice.

“If I hadn’t read this I’d be in jail wishing I did,” Clark said.

The meeting took place at 6:07 p.m.

They shook hands.

“Josh,” Clark said, “I want to thank you for writing this book.”

Clark had hoped for five seconds with Hamilton. The two talked for more than five minutes.

“I recently had some problems,” Hamilton said. “So, this is what you have to do ...”

Roger Mooney, sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.