A great player on the field and an even better personality off of it, Ken Caminiti was part of a lost breed of ballplayers. Some may remember him as just another athlete whose career went down the pipe but those who truly knew him would argue otherwise.
The Early Years
Always a man of few words, the California native started his illustrious sports career upon entering Leigh High School in San Jose, California. While there, he became a standout in both baseball and football, receiving many invites to all-star games his senior year. One could have predicted he would continue playing football into college but he ultimately elected to attend San Jose State University to play baseball. He only played one season from 1983 to 1984 for the Spartans before he decided to take the next step in his playing career.
In 1984, Caminiti was selected by the Houston Astros in the third round of the MLB amateur draft. Once the paperwork was out of the way, he was shipped off to the Osceola Astros of the Single-A Florida State League in 1985. In 1986, he was promoted to the Double-A Columbus Astros where, for the first time in his professional playing career, he batted .300. The following season would see him remain in Columbus but push his average to .325 with 15 home runs and 95 RBIs, earning him a spot on the South League All-Star team.
Houston, We Have a Problem
All it took was two and a half seasons in the minor leagues to convince Houston that Caminiti was ready for the show. On July 16, 1987, Caminiti made his professional debut against the Philadelphia Phillies at the age of 24. He went 2 for 3 at the plate with a home run, triple, and scored the game-winning run to send the crowd home happy. It was after this showing that the coaching staff decided to keep him as their starting third baseman for the final 51 of 75 games left in the season.
The 1988 season saw Caminiti do a lot of traveling between the Triple-A Tucson Toros and Houston Astros since Denny Walling returned from IR and reclaimed his spot. Walling’s return to the lineup didn’t last, however, as he went back on the IR in mid-June of that same season so the club elected to trade for Buddy Bell. In late July, the injury bug came back for more so the ‘Stros were forced to move Bell over to first base and give the starting job back to Caminiti. He struggled at the plate and was only able to muster up a .176 average over three weeks causing him to be demoted again.
Caminiti would not see the pros again until September call-ups and even then he still had a hard time finding his place in the box. He finished with a .181 average in 89 appearances that year and left many wondering if he was ever going to be able to handle himself at the pro level. With new manager Art Howe at the helm in 1989, the young buck would finally gain some consistency to prove his worth. Over the next six seasons, he went on to average 12 home runs and 69 RBIs while manning the hot corner.
His efforts finally paid off when he obtained an all-star selection in his final season with the Astros in 1994. That year, he posted a career-high in home runs (18) and tied his career-high RBI total with 75. Numbers like this would make one think the club would prepare to offer him a hefty contract but instead of doing this, they elected to trade him to San Diego for younger talent. This move was also in part due to the amount of money they were trying to save on payroll because they knew extending Caminiti could break their bank.
Scary Man from SoCal
After the 12-player trade was sorted out and finalized, Caminiti got to work right away when the 1995 season rolled around. He compiled a .302 average with new career-highs in home runs (26) and RBIs (94) while simultaneously winning the first of his three consecutive gold glove awards. He capitalized on the ’95 season by setting more career-highs in home runs (40), RBIs (130), and batting average (.326). The RBIs he recorded in 1996 is a franchise record that stands to this day and no doubt enabled him to snag the NL MVP award.
The friars went to the playoffs that same year but were unfortunately swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. Caminiti put up three home runs in the three-game set but it just wasn’t enough to carry the Padres through to the next round. It seems a torn rotator cuff wasn’t enough to keep him off the field or stop him from producing like an absolute unit. His numbers weren’t quite the same in 1997 but he still finished with 26 home runs, 90 RBIs, and a .290 average with yet another selection to the all-star team.
Battling through an injury-plagued season in 1998 caused Caminiti’s average to drop to .252 but he and his team were still able to make it to the World Series. The Padres got swept by a juiced New York Yankees squad who won an impressive 114 games in the American League. Once this ordeal ended, San Diego decided not to re-sign Caminiti in an attempt to save on their payroll.
In an effort to bolster their lineup, the Detroit Tigers offered Caminiti a multi-year contract that would have seen him average $12 million per year. Not one to go for the money, he decided to reject this offer in favor of returning to his alma mater in Houston for a two year/$9.5 million dollar deal with an option for a third year at $5.5 million. He would go on to retire at the end of the 2001 season after a 15-year career spanning four different teams.
An Unfortunate Ending
Though he had a career to be admired, Caminiti suffered multiple addictions stemming back to the beginning of his career. He started with an alcohol addiction that slowly grew into abusing painkillers and performance-enhancing steroids. Keep in mind, MLB did not test for steroids yet as the union rejected such measurements due to an infringement on their constitutional rights. His trips in and out of rehabilitation centers were hidden and glossed over due to his domination in MLB.
In 2002, Caminiti was interviewed by Sports Illustrated to highlight his illustrious career but instead became the first ex-MLB player to admit his usage of steroids during the 1996 season. The same season he won his first and only MVP award. He spoke at great length about the effects the drugs had on his body and even went as far to say that his testicles had shrunk and retracted due to his daily usage. He also discussed the fact he was using so frequently that his body had stopped producing natural testosterone. Once this interview came out, MLB immediately blackballed him to save face with the public.
Soon after, his wife divorced him and he continued his destructive path of using illicit drugs while popping in and out of rehabilitation centers. Teammates spoke about how they tried to help him and make him more comfortable especially when he moved teams but getting sober was never at the forefront of his mind. In 2004, Caminiti overdosed in a New York City apartment after doing a speedball (cocaine and heroin mixed) and was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at the hospital. News soon broke of his death and many, including HOFer and close friend Craig Biggio, were at a loss for words.
A Lasting Legacy
Aside from his troubles off of the field, Ken Caminiti had unknowingly become a trailblazer for MLB. His admittance to using steroids during his playing career set the tone for future rules to be formed regarding this matter. Two seasons later, Congress brought in MLB executives and players alike for a hearing before the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform. What came out of this hearing would go on to serve as the strictest PED testing program of any major professional sport.
Looking back, the ostracization he experienced was Major League Baseball was not ready to see the writing on the wall and no one else wanted to admit what was going on. Players, friends, and family alike attended his funeral service and his body eventually became cremated and buried at a ranch he was part-owner with Biggio. Time may go on but one thing is for sure, Ken Caminiti became the largest martyr in MLB history and his memory will live on through those that knew him best.
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