The late Ken Caminiti never hid behind his steroid use. Even though he’s gone, he’d still be the captain of our team.
“It’s all about getting an edge.”
In 2002, three years before Jose Canseco’s landmark tell-all book about the insidious steroid underworld in baseball, former National League MVP Ken Caminiti admitted to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci that he had used PEDs for years. The magazine made it their cover story, and America learned just how prevalent the stuff had become in their favorite teams’ clubhouses. In the interview, the third baseman estimated that half the players in baseball used some form of steroids, offering the above quote as part of his explanation.
Two years later, Caminiti died of a probable cocaine overdose in New York. He was 41 years old.
Ken Caminiti’s teammates universally remember him as a warrior; he’d do anything in his power to get out to the field every night and help his team win. That’s why, after suffering a shoulder injury in 1996, he turned to the quick fix that so many players found at the time. Steroids had an immediate effect on his game; he ended up hitting 28 home runs in the second half of the season (after hitting just 12 in the first half), riding a .326/40/130 line to the MVP and slugging the Padres to a division title.
Unfortunately, this story describes all too many players in the era. Over the course of a 162-game season, shoulder tweaks and ankle twists are exacerbated as a player tries to take the field night after night. Warriors like Caminiti often turned to steroids in order to get back in the lineup sooner, then kept using long after recovering. How could you blame them? Their numbers went up, their teams won more games, and most importantly, those who didn’t use would simply be left behind. “I looked around, and everybody was doing it … It’s everywhere, it’s very easy to get,” Caminiti told Verducci.
After hitting 26 home runs in just one of his first eight seasons in the league, Caminiti rattled off three straight 26-plus-home-run seasons from 1996 to 1998. The Padres won two division titles in that time, going as far as the World Series in 1998.
After losing the Series to the dynastic Yankees, Caminiti’s wild ride came to an abrupt halt. San Diego cutties with their 35-year-old third baseman that winter, and he was never the same. He played three more injury-ravaged seasons for the Astros, Rangers, and Braves, but his body had finally caught back up with him. He retired following the 2001 season and came clean about his drug use a few months later.
Caminiti’s peak years and subsequent fall from grace were mirrored all around the league, but credit the man for coming clean in the end. Unlike so many users, who hide behind clubhouse code and, if caught, give tear-filled news conferences begging for forgiveness for their “past mistakes,” Caminiti stood behind his decision to enhance his career.
“I’ve made a ton of mistakes,” Caminiti says in the SI piece. “I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”
Using steroids and other performance enhancers is not a trivial decision. PEDs become a part of a player’s daily routine; they make the decision to use every day. Too many players, once identified to the public as users, hide behind the same tired lines: “I didn’t know what they were.” “My trainer gave them to me without my knowledge.” “I only used steroids once.” Rare is the man who comes forward and defends the decision everyone knows he intentionally made.
When Jose Canseco came forward in 2005, he didn’t do it the way Caminiti had. Canseco named dozens of teammates as users in his book, breaking hallowed clubhouse code for the sake of a quick buck. Heralded as a whistleblower by some, Canseco immediately became ostracized from the baseball community he betrayed. He took the coward’s way out, hiding behind men who had given him their complete trust. He became a pariah.
Some ’roiders, upon being caught, go a different, spineless direction. When Alex Rodriguez’s positive steroid-test results became public (after years of the previously suspected ’roider staunchly denying any use), he claimed to have only used them for a couple years, telling ESPN in a teary interview, “I was young, I was stupid, I was naïve … I am very sorry and deeply regretful.” He had made a repeated decision to inject himself with banned substances, over the course of years, and tried to blame it all on naïveté. His admission of guilt amounted to little more than condescension that insulted the intelligence of baseball fans worldwide.
Caminiti was stronger than both of them. He candidly admitted his own use without ratting out any teammates or offering any feeble, transparent excuses or apologies for his decision.