Ken Caminiti: Almost A Hero

The sudden death of Ken Caminiti reminds me of how he was almost one of the baseball heroes of my youth. Sometime in the mid-to-late 1980’s, my parents took my brothers and I to an Atlanta Braves game at Fulton County Stadium. The Bravos happened to be playing the Houston Astros that night, and we were all excited because the “Big Train,” Nolan Ryan was pitching that night.

We arrived at the stadium a couple hours early, and since we were sitting on the Astros side, we went down near the bullpen hoping to catch a glimpse of Nolan Ryan and maybe—just maybe get an autograph. Ryan threw some balls but went inside quickly. Two other Astros were milling around, and I took my brand-new baseball down to the fence, hoping to get it signed. I saw that one of the players was Ken Caminiti, and the other I didn’t recognize. This other person grabbed my ball and signed it, and just as Caminiti got to me, he was summoned from the dugout and he jogged off. No Caminiti autograph for me. Whose autograph did I get? I still do not know to this day. The signature is far worse than any physician’s that I’ve seen.

If I had gotten Caminiti’s signature, it would have undoubtedly made him one of my favorite players. But I didn’t get the signature so my short attention span turned elsewhere. I watched Dale Murphy homer off Nolan Ryan in that game, so Murph retained his “most favored player” status.

Caminiti went on to become an All-Star and an MVP. The tragedy, however was that Caminiti ended his career in shame rather than with the accolades that hard work should reap. He admitted that his 1996 MVP year had been aided by steroids, and that he had been addicted to drugs and alcohol during his career.

Just last week the fallen star admitted to further cocaine use. It’s not a stretch to speculate that this had something to do with the 41-year-old’s death. It’s also not a stretch to say that Ken Caminiti could have done better.

My heart goes out to guys like Caminiti and Daryl Strawberry—guys who have enormous God-given talents, yet time after time, they never can seem to get it together. When I look at them closely enough I realize that they are not all that different from me (save the ability to play baseball on a world-class level!). I stumble just as much, if not more often—though may not be on the same scale, the same source of failure is behind it. It is only by the grace of a loving God that we all do not wander down a path like that of Ken Caminiti. It is only the grace of a loving God that can save us from ourselves. I pray that such grace found Ken Caminiti, and that it finds his family in the time of their mourning.