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The Cautionary Tale of Ken Caminiti: The Steroid Era's First Truth-Teller

Discussion in 'Houston Astros' started by codell, Oct 15, 2014.

  1. codell

    codell Contributing Member

    Aug 26, 2002
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    Long read; very sad

    By Scott Miller , National MLB Columnist Oct 15, 2014

    The past springs to life on an 80-inch flat-screen in a family room in Reno, Nevada. The television is extra-large because the woman watching it is battling macular degeneration. The man is a reluctant viewer.

    "I don't watch much baseball," says Lee Caminiti. "I have a hard time with it since Kenny died."

    For a decade now, Ken Caminiti's father has not watched much baseball. But this afternoon, Ken's mother wants a visitor to see her son playing in his first major league game. So Lee pops in the DVD, Yvonne smiles warmly and, instantly, it is July 16, 1987, all over again.

    "He doesn't get a hit here," Yvonne says as her son settles into the box for his first big league at-bat, a routine ground ball to second base. "But the next time he does."

    The grainy picture captured from a sports bar satellite system and since dubbed onto DVD bleeds and moves and fades. But through the fog, youthful promise upholds its end of the bargain. There is the 24-year-old third baseman crunching a stand-up triple in his second at-bat, blasting a home run his next time up and vaulting all around third base in the Astrodome like an Olympic gymnast in mid-routine.

    "Ken Caminiti!" the announcer raves. "What a debut from the young man from San Jose!"

    The television camera peeks into the dugout and captures a smile. He's made four spectacular plays defensively within the first two innings. The acrobatic new star is fresh-faced. Clean-shaven. Just off of knee surgery.

    Movie-star looks and piercing stare, the young man from San Jose is on his way.

    There are at least a dozen large plastic tubs that are stored away here in Reno, crammed with VHS tapes of Kenny's games. Somewhere, there also is another box. It is packed with sympathy cards that continued to stream in after Kenny was found dead in a seedy Bronx apartment 10 years ago last week, on Oct. 10, 2004, of the cardiac arrest that the coroner said was induced by cocaine and heroin, a lethal speedball mixture.

    "From people we don't even know," Yvonne says of the cards.

    One of the first Lee and Yvonne opened 10 years ago was from a girl with whom Caminiti apparently had connected during one of his many hospital visits doing charitable work with the San Diego Padres.

    "Ken, I love you so much, you helped me with my cancer," she writes.

    "We read two cards, and Lee and I started crying," Yvonne says. "We still haven't read the rest of them. People we don't even know."

    What you cannot see in the collection of game tapes and memories is their son's unwavering generosity, unquenchable appetites and, tragically, his addictive personality. Alcohol, painkillers, narcotics...eventually, each got its grip on him. And, of course, steroids. He was the first player to go public with his use, to Sports Illustrated in 2002.

    "He was the first one to come out and admit it," says Trevor Hoffman, the Padres' legendary closer and a friend and teammate of Caminiti's in San Diego from 1995-98. "I think that took a lot of nuts on his end to say, 'yeah, this is what I did.' Maybe at the time he was hoping to cleanse himself, to get rid of other demons."

    "There were just real warm moments that he provided with great generosity with his money, time and heart," says Dr. Charles Steinberg, an executive vice president with the Boston Red Sox who ran the Padres marketing department during Caminiti's time in San Diego. "I do think about him now, and I miss him now. This should have been someone who was going to be a part of the Padres alumni for years, just as Tony Gwynn should have been a part of the Padres alumni for years."

    Ten years. This is one anniversary you will not find baseball celebrating. But it should not pass unnoticed. Because few players are as beloved a teammate as Caminiti was, and fewer still had the honesty and courage to shine a light on the darkness all those years ago and help baseball come clean.

    "It's amazing," Lee says. "What's good...you can never take that away from him."

    Lee and Yvonne moved into this house the day after their son died. Yeah, it's a game of timing. Downstairs is the guest room that was supposed to be for Kenny and his family.

    Generous to a Fault

    One thing Ken Caminiti never did learn to master was the art of saying no. Always, he was so giving.

    Once, he gave his father a Houston Astros windbreaker. Then a friend asked for one, and Ken went back to Lee and asked whether it would be OK if he gave his friend his father's jacket.

    "He gave two of mine away," Yvonne says, smiling. "I got one back."

    Yvonne is 83 now, Lee 82. They have a daughter, Carrie, 56, and a son, Glenn, 53. They have seven grandchildren, including three from Ken and Nancy, who became high school sweethearts after meeting in the ninth grade and were married from 1987-2002: Kendall, 23, Lindsey, 21, and Nicole, 17.

    Nancy and the girls still live in Houston, and attempts to speak with her for this story were met by roadblocks. "Good luck reaching Nancy," Yvonne had warned.

    Baseball people either connected with the Astros or living in Houston say they have not seen her quoted on this subject anywhere, since the man she painfully divorced out of self-preservation in '02 died two years later, at 41.

    "Nancy did a really nice job of raising those girls," says Hoffman, whose wife, Tracy, remains close enough with her that they have vacationed together. "She made sure her girls were raised properly, made sure they had all of the necessities."

    Former Astros great Craig Biggio and his wife, Patty, remain best friends with Nancy and, now, her fiance, Brian. Annually, the two families spend Thanksgiving together at Biggio's ranch, where a heartbroken Craig buried his onetime best friend under a shady oak tree. One of the most affable players in the game, Biggio, like others around Nancy, is fiercely, and sweetly, protective.

    "When you try to move on, it's hard," Biggio says.

    Though he played his first eight seasons in Houston, it was in San Diego where the legend of Ken Caminiti took root. The Astros dealt him to the Padres in a monster 11-player deal in December 1994. Once he got over his initial hurt at being jilted by Houston, Caminiti flourished.

    "When I look back, it was the best thing that ever happened," Lee Caminiti says. "He bloomed in San Diego."

    He won his first of three Gold Gloves in 1995, but it was in 1996 when everything clicked on the field. He won the NL MVP that year, batting .326 with 40 homers and 130 RBI. He did all of this with a wrecked left shoulder that would require reconstructive surgery at season's end.

    He was the guts of a team that was a surprise winner in the NL West. He played with a maniacal zeal that left those in his wake astounded.

    "One of the most intense competitors I've ever had as a player," says San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who was managing the Padres in those years. "He played with such an attitude, and he was such a great teammate and ended up being a good friend."

    "Boch and I always used to say he was a 'Foxhole Guy,'" says Kevin Towers, the Padres general manager at the time. "He always had your back. Boch and I felt he would go to the wall for us at all times. That's a lost breed. Those guys are special. When you're around 'em, man, they stand out."

    There was a pitcher on that '96 team named Tim Worrell, who was quoted in the newspaper at one point criticizing something Bochy did. When Worrell got to the park that day, his uniform was not in his locker. He looked and looked and, finally, he found it: in Bochy's office.

    So he went in to retrieve it, turned around...and Caminiti was standing in the doorway, blocking his exit.

    "If you wanna manage this team," Caminiti hissed, "then get dressed in here."

    Says Towers: "He was a man of very few words. One of those guys who, when you walked into the clubhouse, you'd get fired up. It literally was like when you watch the movie Gladiator for the first time. That's who Caminiti was for me. A man's man. Who would you want to be? Cammy. Good looks, good talent, a guy who played through I don't know how many different injuries.

    "I remember him hobbling into Bochy's office so many times saying, 'How come my name is not in the lineup?' He almost didn't seem real. One of the best leaders I've ever had. He hardly ever said anything. He'd just look at people."

    Caminiti's locker in old Jack Murphy Stadium wasn't far from Bochy's office. Once, he overheard a struggle the manager was having trying to get a certain player into the lineup. The player had been nursing a nagging injury, and Bochy had reached wit's end attempting to get the player to play.

    So one day Caminiti walked into Bochy's office and told the manager, "I'll take care of this."

    "Cammy," Bochy said. "You can't beat him up."

    About 20 minutes later, the player stepped into the manager's office (no black eye, no bruises) and said, "I can play."

    "It was one of those medical issues where you couldn't really say much to the guy," Bochy says. "But the players could. There were times when I'd say, 'Cammy, take care of this.'"

    And he always did.

    A Beloved Figure

    At his home in Poway, California, Bochy to this day keeps one of Caminiti's gloves and caps in his office.

    At her home in Oregon, Kathy Towers, Kevin's mother, has devoted an entire room to the Padres, though in reality, it doesn't take long to see her favorite.

    "The Cammy Room," Kevin Towers says. "There's a picture of him on his motorcycle, signed personally to her. She's got probably five or six different large, large pictures of him in that room. And when she has guests, she's not afraid to bring them into her showcase room. She's got a lot more pictures of him than she does of me."

    Above his desk in the Fox Sports San Diego offices, Mark Sweeney, now an analyst, has a large framed photo collage of his fallen teammate featuring every face Sweeney can remember. There Ken is flying with the Blue Angels, suspended in the air near third base, firing a throw to first, chatting with fans, batting, celebrating.

    "He had a genuine smile that a lot of people didn't see," Sweeney says. "Because what they saw was three hours of a guy in a fight."

    Clubhouse enforcer. Intimidating opponent. Caminiti's image developed fast because he said little, stared hard, pumped iron and wore the thick goatee of a movie villain.

    "He didn't have a mean bone in his body," Towers says. "He played like a badass. That's what he did. The way he played, looked, carried himself, walked. But inside, he had a great heart. He was almost a softy."

    Once, not long after he made the majors and came into money—he earned close to $38 million over a 15-year career—a couple of his old minor league teammates approached. Hey, man. We're short on dough. We need to borrow a thousand. Maybe two? We'll pay you back.

    "I said, 'Ken, you have an agent now—he handles that,'" Lee Caminiti says. "Just tell them he handles your money."

    Clubhouse attendants, batting practice pitchers, bullpen catchers—they all loved him because he never big-leagued anybody. Cammy. Always a kind word. Always a helping hand.

    "He was a lot of fun to watch, but he was also very sensitive," says Tom Krasovic, Padres beat writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune during Caminiti's four seasons there.

    "I would say he's the only player I ever got close to. He had a charisma and an appeal to him that was a little different.''

    But he could be blindingly sensitive. For example, Krasovic says, he would write an "inside baseball" type of story, and in it Caminiti would complain that his hands were weak, keeping him from being the kind of power hitter he would have liked to have been.

    Before arriving in San Diego, Caminiti had topped out at 18 homers in Houston in '94. He hit 26 in his first season in San Diego in '95.

    "This guy was 6-foot and did, in fact, break a bat over his leg several times," Krasovic continues. "He was built like a football player, yet he made comments about his strength. Then it dawned on me: He meant it. He had this image, and it didn't dovetail with reality."

    A Fierce Competitor

    Thanksgiving, early 1980s. A whirling dervish of a defensive back at Leigh High School in San Jose, Caminiti had suffered a broken hand earlier in the season. Now, with the rivalry game coming up, the doctor told him that his hand was healing but that he still could not play.

    As they drove home, Yvonne noticed a smile and wondered why he was so happy. Because, Ken explained, he would be able to play that week. His big brother would help him with the splint and the tape, and the coach would never know. He had it all figured out.

    He usually did, eventually. The diving board at the family pool, basketball, whatever the sport, Kenny had to figure out a way to do it better than his dad. Lee, an old Army man, was quite an athlete himself. He played baseball, basketball and football in high school, baseball and basketball in junior college and then played some semi-pro baseball.

    One day, when Kenny was 12 or 13, having watched mom and dad battle on the family pingpong table, he asked his mother to teach him to play.


    "I want to beat Dad."

    "So I taught him how to slam the ball," Yvonne says, chuckling. "And I had little ball bruises all over my chest."

    Sometimes, Yvonne would suggest to her husband, maybe let the kids win every once in a while. The answer always was the same: No way.

    "That's where he got his toughness," Yvonne says.

    Yes, he was his father's son. And his father recognized it. In 1990, when Rudy Jaramillo was hired as Houston's hitting coach, he asked Lee early on: How do I get to Ken?

    "No. 1, don't criticize him," Lee told Jaramillo. "As soon as you do, he'll cut you off. You've got to be tactful. Give him options. Tell him, 'Kenny, don't change a thing. But maybe try this.'"

    Pain and Snickers

    Sprawled flat out on the floor of Bochy's office in Monterrey, Mexico, Caminiti was dehydrated and nearly comatose on that August day in 1996. The Padres were about to play the New York Mets, and IVs drained into him like coolant into an overheated radiator.

    Moments. Talk to Caminiti's former teammates, and that's what they remember. Moments.

    But none rise to the legend of that day in Monterrey.

    "We were really concerned that guys would get sick with diarrhea and vomiting, as hot and humid as it was," Padres trainer Todd Hutcheson says. "I went to his room at 2 a.m. the night before, took him some Gatorades and told him to get as much sleep as he can. I don't know if he was sick or if it was induced by something else."

    Next day, there Caminiti is, on the floor, IV fastened to a coat hanger as Bochy's office became a makeshift recovery ward. The lineup was written. Caminiti wasn't in it. No chance he could play.

    Next thing Bochy knows, he's walking toward the field and Caminiti suddenly is behind him, badgering the manager to include him in the lineup, which he did.

    "He was at third base right before the game started, and as we're getting ready to take the field, Steve Finley comes up and says, 'Hey, can you get me some of those eye-black stickers?'" Hutcheson says.

    So he sticks them on Finley's face and, from third base, Caminiti hollers something in Hutcheson's direction. Mariachi music is blaring, the crowd is bellowing and the trainer can hardly hear.

    "Get me a Snickers," Caminiti hollered.

    "Stickers?" Hutcheson says, thinking of Finley's eye-black stickers.

    "NO!" Caminiti shouted. "GET ME A SNICKERS!"

    "So I ran up to the clubhouse and got three Snickers bars," Hutcheson says. "We come in from the first inning and he ate two of them."

    First at-bat: Home run.

    Second at-bat: Home run.

    Bochy finally lifted him after he fanned in his third at-bat with the Padres ahead 5-0.

    "It's one of those stories that people find hard to believe, but every bit of it is fact," Bochy says. "It's one of those Paul Bunyan stories."

    The rest of that season, the fans heaved Snickers bars onto the field at Jack Murphy Stadium.

    Says Yvonne: "I would ask him sometimes, 'Kenny, how do you manage the pain?' And he would say, 'Mom, it will be hurting so bad I can't stand it. But when I go across the line, I can't hear the people and I don't feel the pain.'"

    Saddled with Addiction

    There were ways he managed the pain, of course. The trade to San Diego may have been the best thing that happened to Ken, but Lee Caminiti spent much of that first spring training, in 1995 in Peoria, Arizona, by his son's side.

    "I went to keep him company," Lee says. "He was with a new team, and I wanted to make sure he didn't get in with the wrong people.

    "I think what had happened with the Astros was that he was in with the veterans and he wanted to be one of the boys, show them he could do what they could do, and maybe more."

    Already by '95, he had been through alcohol rehabilitation. Nancy was still at home in Houston with a growing family and would be moving out to San Diego when the season started.

    That Caminiti battled both alcohol and painkillers was an open secret around the clubhouse. The "Caminiti Cocktail," folks in Houston had called it, whatever his mixture of pills was that kept him on the field. He carried what he called a "goody bag" with him by the mid-'90s.

    "He showed it to me," Krasovic says. "And I wrote about it. He had all sorts of powders and pills and supplements in there. He was big on weight training. He hung out with bodybuilder types and his own personal trainer. You wrote in detail about this stuff, how big he had gotten, how important it was to him.

    "I can still see it, standing there looking through the bag with him. Tiger's Milk, creatine, all sorts of stuff that he was taking."

    So many teammates and friends over the years tried to help when signs began to appear that he was going too far. Wally Joyner was set to room with Caminiti one spring when the two were teammates in San Diego, but Caminiti backed out at the last minute.

     Scott Halleran/Getty Images
    During spring training with Houston, Biggio set it up so that he was living in the same complex with Caminiti. He did what he could.

    "But a lot of times, Craig would go check the parking lot before going to bed, come back inside and say, 'Ahhh, his car is gone,'" says agent Barry Axelrod, who represented Biggio and was a close friend of Caminiti.

    "He knew. He knew that by not going home to his wife and kids, he was crushing himself."

    "At some point, all of our sensibilities were sharpened to realize that maybe certain things were going on with certain ballplayers," Red Sox owner and former Padres president Larry Lucchino says. "We never specifically, in the early years, had any sense that Caminiti was using or juicing. We really didn't.

    "Maybe in retrospect, you look back and think maybe we should have, given the body type he developed, the intensity and, maybe, the moodiness. It's easy to see, with 20/20 hindsight."

    And impossibly difficult to see in the moment, given that the only thing visible is what's on the surface.

    "All of us tried," Sweeney says. "We wanted control. But it's like dipping. You can't sit here and say, 'Don't do that.' I wasn't the Almighty. But I wanted to be there for him."

    Yvonne's brother died an alcoholic, and she says, "I was suspicious of Ken. When he didn't play well, I would ask if he's getting enough sleep. And he'd get furious."

    The Beginning of the End

    During a regular-season series with the St. Louis Cardinals in Hawaii in 1997, it was so blisteringly hot that Caminiti nonchalantly stripped off his shirt during one point while the Padres were taking infield. Movie-star eyes, Hollywood looks, true grit and, now, shirtless.

    Someone had a video camera running. The clip made its way into a Caminiti video they regularly showed on the scoreboard between innings back home in San Diego, and the place would go nuts. It made it into television broadcasts. With Lucchino and Steinberg running the show, the well-oiled marketing machine was humming.

    "He was a rock star," Krasovic says. "I'd be driving and listening to FM radio, and you'd hear a female DJ oohing and aahing, and it had nothing to do with what he was doing at the plate, or with his glove, or how he was moving to his left."

    When he batted, the Padres would play bites from a popular song at the time, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" Or from an older Jimi Hendrix tune, "All Along the Watchtower." The package was sold. Fans cheered. Girls screamed. Snickers bars sailed.

    By '98, the Padres were steamrolling toward the NL West title and only their second World Series appearance. Momentum had just about locked up the public vote in favor of a new downtown ballpark.

    But nothing is forever. By the '98 World Series, Caminiti's knee was so wrecked that, as the Padres were getting swept by the Yankees, he would fall down while swinging. His winces made you cringe. He hit .143 in the four games. Then, with payroll bulging and the new stadium secure, the Padres scaled back. They allowed Kevin Brown, Finley and Caminiti to walk via free agency.

    The Padres subtly telegraphed their intentions during the season.

    "He was wounded by that quite a bit," Krasovic says. "There was a quote from him like, 'They're going to put me out in a field and shoot me.' It was really a graphic quote. He would say these quotes with a lot of emotion in his eyes. I know it sounds melodramatic, but he really was wounded."

    Looking to stay close to his girls in Houston, Caminiti re-signed with the Astros, leaving some $12 million on the table from the Detroit Tigers in the process. The Padres were losing one of their most popular players and a personal favorite of then-owner John Moores.

    But their marketing in those days was so smooth, so efficient, that when players left, "It was like they were money-grubbers or traitors," Krasovic says. "I don't think that was the intent, but fans are not going to be dispassionate because they're fans.

    "I remember after the fans booed him when he returned with Houston, John Moores sought me out after the game and said please, please, please, put in the paper that I apologize for what happened tonight. John knew how Ken was, and he knew he didn't deserve to be booed."

    Caminiti would play just three more seasons. He spent two of them with the Astros. He split 2001 between Atlanta and Texas.

    Then, after 15 seasons that produced 1,710 hits, 239 homers, three All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves, he was done.

    Except the next summer, in the pages of a national magazine, he would take one more swing. And it would change things forever.

    Coming Clean

    It was in the June 3, 2002, issue of Sports Illustrated that Caminiti went public with the admission that he started taking steroids during his '96 MVP season to combat the shoulder problem, and then continued taking them for the next five seasons.

     Sports Illustrated, June 3, 2002.
    Caminiti told the magazine he originally purchased his stash across the border, in Mexico. He said that he used steroids so frequently that by season's end, his testicles "shrank and retracted," that his body stopped producing testosterone and that "the level of the hormone had fallen to 20 percent of normal."

    "Probably the one thing I've heard the most is people try to guess his motivation," says Tom Verducci, the author of the piece. "I can only guess, because he never told me why.

    "He had a lot of demons in his life. When we talked, he was in a period of recovery, and anybody who's gone through that knows that it begins with honesty and self-examination. I don't think he had an agenda. The thing that stuck with me also was that he made no apologies. There were no regrets for what he had done. I don't think he felt he was giving anything away that he shouldn't give away. This is what he did; this is the way the game is played. I don't think there was any larger agenda.

    "The next couple of years, among players, I think he got a bad rap. I know he got a lot of negative feedback from the union itself from his comments. I thought that really was a shame. I don't think he had any agenda. All the time I spent with him, on the record or off, he never mentioned another name. Not once."

    At the time, the players' union adamantly opposed testing for performance-enhancing drugs because they said it was a violation of civil liberties. This was still a wild-west baseball world in which Gene Orza, one of union boss Don Fehr's chief lieutenants, said that "cigarettes are worse than steroids."

    Caminiti did not mention any names. He did say "at least half the guys" in baseball were using.

    "I suspect his motivation was multiple things," Lucchino says. "One, to tell the world about himself so he had a world looking at him more carefully, almost as a protection against himself. And second, maybe if I tell my story, more guys will tell their stories."

    Less than a year later, by the spring of 2003, MLB and the players' union had agreed to institute drug testing—after the union had rejected several proposals presented by the owners during the collective bargaining talks in 2002.

    Two springs after that, in March 2005, Congress hauled MLB officials and players in for a hearing before the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform, a mere five months after Caminiti's death. Crushed by the Caminiti news, Towers grieved publicly, saying that it led him to wonder: Had he done things differently four or five years ago, might Caminiti still be alive today?

    "That quote ended up sending me on St. Patrick's Day to Congress," Towers says. "I meant it. You never saw it, but personalities changed. I always thought with Cammy that maybe his PED problem led to other addictions. When you're doing those things, you have to do something to bring yourself down at night.

    "It was a perfect storm, and he didn't know how to get out of it. You hate to call a guy on the mat if you really don't know for sure. You're suspicious of it. That's probably why I was so outspoken 10 years ago. I felt like I had lost a family member. I knew Nancy, the kids. It crushed me."

    Two years later, in 2007, Caminiti appeared on the baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first and only time. A record 545 voters cast ballots. Two people voted for Caminiti.

    "I took a lot of crap for that vote," says Gwen Knapp, then a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and, of course, one of the two who voted for him. "I think he did a service to the game. I had covered so many doping scandals in the Olympics. Everyone doesn't tell the truth until they get caught. And people who do tell the truth are ostracized, as I believe Ken was.

    "I don't know if he did it for noble reasons. But I'm sure baseball wouldn't have implemented testing that quickly without him. I think that was a big motivating factor. He went on the record, which maybe wasn't the wisest thing for him to do for himself."

    Little more than a year after Caminiti's confession, on Sept. 3, 2003, the Feds raided BALCO. Jeff Novitzky, who led the investigation, did not return phone messages for this story asking whether Caminiti's public admission helped heighten the government's awareness (Caminiti had no ties to BALCO).

    Today, with the union and owners working together, baseball has the strictest PED testing program of any professional sport.

    "I think he changed the game," Verducci says. "You can make the argument, and I probably would, that there was going to be a flashpoint, or a point where baseball would have to deal with steroids. That definitely was going to come. But the history is, it began with Ken Caminiti."

    "I agree," Towers says. "It took a lot for him to stand up. He had young kids at the time. That's just who Cammy was. He was very honest and forthright. I think he knew what it had done to him, his wife, his family, his marriage. It probably caused him to be moved from club to club to club. I think it opened baseball's eyes, that one of our greatest players is no longer around. It led to strict drug testing.

    "In a way, I'm very proud. He's not only one of the greatest third basemen San Diego ever had, one of the greatest teammates I've ever been around, but what ultimately took his life probably saved other people's lives and stopped a lot of young kids who thought the way to the big leagues was through PEDs. Maybe they saw Ken and thought differently."

    Life as an Outcast

    The end came swiftly after that, his time fading more rapidly than the standing ovations that once demanded curtain calls.

    No longer sober and burning through money rapidly enough to potentially put the girls he treasured in jeopardy, Nancy divorced Caminiti in December 2002, in time to protect her family.

    Not only was his baseball life finished, but his confession to SI left him feeling like an outcast.

    "Right after the article, baseball blackballed Kenny," Lee Caminiti says. "They didn't mention his name. When I look at some of these guys, they weren't half the guy Kenny was. I guess that's the way things are."

    Alone in Houston, he moved into a place in the Baytown area, near a drag racing facility. Looking for a fresh start, he dabbled in business rebuilding engines that blew out at the raceway. He always loved engines, and motorcycles, and he could always fix a blowout, couldn't he? An IV, a Snickers bar, a wrench.

    The drive back across town from visiting his girls, though, dragged him past his old drinking haunts. Past places he knew he could score cocaine. He had been in rehab facilities in Arizona. New Mexico. New York. Texas. He could never completely find a way out of the maze.

    "When you get into that situation, they push away the people who love them," Lee Caminiti says. "Because they don't want to hear what those people will say."

    His baseball friends mostly couldn't, or didn't, find him. For those who did, he didn't look good and there was nothing they could do about it. Some reached out. Moores, the Padres owner, suggested to Towers that maybe they make Caminiti their strength coach.

    "You've got an owner with a creative idea trying to get him into a place where we could get our arms around him," says Towers, who knew that idea was a bad one.

    Instead, the Padres invited Caminiti to spring training in 2004 as a part-time hitting coach.

    "He had real dark eyes," Towers says. "He was traveling with a shady crowd that was always around him. He was out of place. I remember him in the coaches' room, a fungo bat in his back pocket, saying, 'KT, I don't feel right. This ain't me.'

    "He was trying. But I think he was to a point where baseball wasn't going to save him."

    That summer, things spun even further out of control. Caminiti veered toward the shadows. By September, he was back in a Houston rehabilitation facility.

    "We were always trying to help him out," Lee Caminiti says. "If he needed me, I'd be there for him, especially after he got divorced.

    "You're down, the whole world is against you, you're out of baseball…it's like, 'What do I do?'"

    It was a question Ken Caminiti never answered. Once freed, he couldn't avoid some of his old running mates. Including some of the people he met in previous rehabilitation centers.

    Time was, those rehab centers provided hope.

    Now, his only ties to them were the frayed strands of questionable friends.

    In a New York rehab clinic five years earlier, Ken had befriended a woman named Maria. It was with her that he reconnected when he was released from custody in Houston in October 2004. And he was in the Bronx, with her, for reasons still sketchy, when he died.

    Fond Memories Remain

    This is the toughest time of the year for Lee and Yvonne Caminiti. Where they once shared in World Series joy with their son in 1998, now the beginning of October brings only searing emptiness.

    For one hour each day, Yvonne walks on the treadmill in the basement. Usually, she will dig out one of Kenny's games on VHS and continue her project of transferring them to DVD as she walks. The macular degeneration makes it challenging.

    But in some ways, she's already seen too much.

    "We always worried," Lee says softly. "You can't control their friends, who they pal around with. I don't think any parent has 100 percent access to their kid."

    That his son had the courage to go public with baseball's dirty little secret is of little consolation now. He considers the idea of Ken performing a public service, contributing to the greater good, maybe even saving some lives while losing control of his own. Still.

    "You don't like to lose a son," he says, noting that what Ken did was not against the rules at the time. "I just don't like to talk about it."

    They're thankful that Ken and Nancy had good business instincts, that some things were put in the girls' names when they were very young. Kendall, 23, was at the University of Texas and now is studying in San Diego to be an audiologist. Lindsey, 21, is at Louisiana State University.

    As best they can, Lee and Yvonne choose to remember the good times. They think back to the time in high school when one of Kenny's acquaintances was hit by a car. He survived, but was left with scars. Though they weren't particularly close, Kenny was a gentle enough soul that he felt responsibility to become the boy's protector. He walked the kid to and from his classes, all to keep the bullies from picking on him.

    "I remember Nancy telling me, 'I'm his girlfriend, and he never walks me to class,'" Yvonne says, chuckling. "But Kenny knew when he didn't make it, the other kids would be mean to this boy."

    They think back to the time in the Astrodome, when they overheard a father viciously chewing out a son for losing his baseball glove.

    "I was going to say something, but I decided to back off," Lee says. "I told Ken about it after the game, and he said, 'You should have come down. I would have given him my glove.'

    "That's the kind of kid he was."

    Tears in his eyes, Lee stands up and turns away.

    Out in the garage sits the old '73 Chevy half-ton pickup truck that Ken was rebuilding. When he feels the urge, sometimes Lee tinkers away at finishing the job.

    Nearby is Kenny's custom-built motorcycle, an absolutely beautiful machine, with a baseball logo on the back containing his autograph. The Texas plates are still attached, and when you look at the expiration tags, it rips your heart out.

    They read JUN and 04.

    #1 codell, Oct 15, 2014
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2014
    1 person likes this.
  2. Buck Turgidson

    Feb 14, 2002
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    Everyone loved him but he hated himself.

    Such a sad story.
  3. cardpire

    cardpire Member

    Feb 6, 2008
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    Jeez, I didn't know he was buried at Biggio's ranch.
  4. kaleidosky

    kaleidosky Your Tweety Bird dance just cost us a run

    Mar 20, 2002
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    Rough on the parents. Glad his kids are doing well

    I met Cami and Biggio out with their wives as a kid. Nice as can be to an 10 year old kid. But it's weird to remember it given the context of all this.
  5. yaoishung7575

    yaoishung7575 Member

    Jul 1, 2014
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    My sister sent out a letter and card for several players to autograph and respond to way back when. Caminiti was the only one who wrote back. That always stuck with me.
  6. PhiSlammaJamma

    Aug 29, 1999
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    I went to an Auburn Astros single A game, squeezed between the fence and dugout on the third base side and leaned into the dugout shadow to ask for Luis Gonzalez autograph, they passed my request one guy at a time down the bench verbally until it reached Luis on the far side of the dugout, he looked over, and then passed a message back one ball player at a time until the last guy on the bench got the message, peered in at me, grabbed me by my jersey, looks me in the eye, "after the game kid, behind home plate." Luis was a third baseman at the time. So after the game, behind home plate, under the big lights, Luis comes over and starts to sign my ball. He had a baby face. And his whole life in front of him. It was just me and him. I didn't even know what to say. So I just spit something out of my mouth. And ask him if he thinks he has a chance to play third at the majors with Caminiti already holding the corner position. And he tells me, "Not likely kid." He hands me the ball. "You ever play outfield?" I said "Second base." "Too bad. I could use some tips. See ya round kid."
  7. msn

    msn Member

    Dec 31, 2002
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    I remember watching and listening to those first games in Cammy's career. So exciting.
  8. Nero

    Nero Member

    Jun 12, 2002
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    Who was the owner of the Astros when Cammy was traded away? Was it McLane yet?
  9. yaoishung7575

    yaoishung7575 Member

    Jul 1, 2014
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    Yes, it was McLane.
  10. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

    Feb 28, 1999
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    Yes to McLane... and the trade was consummated between father and son (Randy Smith of the Padres and Tal Smith of the Astros).
  11. Hey Now!

    Hey Now! Contributing Member

    Jan 20, 2000
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    I read it yesterday; very sad story.

    BTW, I hope this doesn’t derail the thread - but any names noticeable by their absence? The tenuous link to Bagwell and PEDs almost always sits on the foundation of him being BFFs with Caminiti, which was never true. Biggio and Caminiti were the really good friends; Bagwell an admired teammate (and not much beyond that - the Bagwell/Biggio relationship is also often way overblown, too, BTW.)

    Caminiti was 33 when he had his MVP season with San Diego (’96), the season he also reportedly tried steroids for the first time. I've never bought into the way steroids are often portrayed by the media (as some miracle drug), but looking at Caminiti's numbers... it's pretty striking: he slugged .760 after reportedly taking steroids for the first time (post-ASB, '96). He hit roughly 13 more HRs/year and his slugging eventually settled in at +118 points, which is just bananas, through 1999. And he was playing in a traditionally unforgiving pitcher’s park.

    If I were to list greatest Astro What Ifs… protecting Hidalgo *and* Abreu (instead of Hidalgo and Derrick Bell) in the ’98 expansion draft and keeping Kenny Lofton are probably 1-2 on my list. Keeping Schilling might be 3rd. Not making the ’94 trade with San Diego is a viable top-5 candidate.
  12. bobrek

    bobrek Politics belong in the D & D

    Sep 16, 1999
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    I'd go with the Joe Morgan trade to the Reds as well as the Rusty Staub trade to the Expos. I'd also rank "don't pinch hit for Don Wilson, Preston Gomez. Let him try and finish out the no-hitter - even if he loses" up there. Had he finished it off, it would have been his third.
  13. yaoishung7575

    yaoishung7575 Member

    Jul 1, 2014
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    No Miceli in Game 6. Oswalt was available.
  14. Granville

    Granville Member

    Jul 23, 2009
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    I remember hearing Cammy on the Rome Show during his second stint with the Astros. He sounded like a broken self loathing guy. Lost a sister to drug addiction, reminded me of her mental state.
    1 person likes this.
  15. Nick

    Nick Contributing Member

    Feb 28, 1999
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    Oswalt was pretty bad in the 2004 NLCS.... and they lost it in extra innings when they let Isringhausen off the hook (and he went on to pitch 3 innings to match Lidge, who was the most lights out he's ever been... 3IP, faced the minimum, 5K's).
  16. msn

    msn Member

    Dec 31, 2002
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    this, this, and this. *sigh*
    1 person likes this.
  17. Granville

    Granville Member

    Jul 23, 2009
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    Reflecting back on my sister's death. I can remember being angry with her after she passed for choosing scumbag drug addicts over her own family. I met one after one of these low life friends as I was removing my sister's belongings from her apartment.

    I remember Cammy getting busted here in Houston when he let a dope fiend drive his car and that guy lead the Police back to a motel room where Cammy was smoking crack with a 18 or 19 year old girl. My heart goes out to Nancy and the kids having to cut him loose for the sake of the family.

    As a competitor Cammy was probably my favorite Astro of all time. He was our flawed frail version of Brooks Robinson who wanted to be Mike Schmidt.
  18. yaoishung7575

    yaoishung7575 Member

    Jul 1, 2014
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    Oswalt had scuffled a bit in the NLCS but had been fine in the NLDS. I'd take my chances with Oswalt over Miceli every single day of the week in a big game. Miceli was a very mediocre pitcher. But I would have pitched Clemens on short rest in game 6 over Pete friggin' Munro to start with. You had your foot on their throat. Send out your stud to crush them. JMO. I was never a big fan of Scrap-Iron and his managing skills.
  19. King1

    King1 Contributing Member

    Feb 19, 2004
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    Sad story. One of my favorite Astros ever
  20. tmac2k8

    tmac2k8 Member

    Oct 15, 2008
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    I worked at Nick's Italian Restaurant near Sugarland back in 2001 when Ken Caminiti came in with his wife and kids. I didn't realize it was him until he handed me his credit card to pay for the check. He didn't say much to me, his wife was very sweet though.

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