A CNN/SI producer and a motorcycle rally: The full story behind Ken Caminiti's steroids confession
Before Ken talked to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci about steroids, he spoke to someone else.
This text is adapted from my book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever.
Jules Roberson-Bailey couldn’t get past the changing bodies. Players’ heads were bigger. Their jaws were more pronounced. This wasn’t normal. Roberson-Bailey, a producer with the sports network CNN/SI, had spent half a decade covering spring training, and by 2002, performance-enhancing drugs were an obvious problem. The problem was obvious to her anyway.
All told, the top six single-season HR totals in major league baseball history were set between 1998 and 2001. And yes, expansion meant a watered-down talent pool, and ballparks were smaller, and the balls were livelier, and the bats more explosive, but the most notable change had to do with players’ bodies.
Lots of people in baseball saw the same changes Jules Roberson-Bailey did, but the topic was more of a whisper. Speculation. Innuendo. It was damn near impossible to come out and accuse players of using the stuff without proof, even if the proof was visible in larger hat sizes or indescribable power numbers, or guys coming to spring training looking like they’d pop if you pricked them with a pin. Hell, during the height of the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, AP reporter Steve Wilstein was vilified for reporting that McGwire had a bottle of androstenedione, a steroid precursor, in plain view in his locker—not McGwire for using, but Wilstein for reporting. By 2002, the problem was out of control. Roberson-Bailey, who was based out of Texas, called her boss in Atlanta and asked to pursue the story.
“There is something going on,” she told him.
They talked about how to best approach the topic. They needed a player who was willing to talk about his own use of steroids. A player who was open to discussing what he did, someone who was respected and trusted.
They cycled through a number of names before coming to Ken Caminiti. He’d discussed his alcoholism in the past, and given his cocaine arrest in a Houston hotel room months earlier, it was possible he had tried steroids, too. The transformation of his body throughout his career, from a skinny rookie to a muscle-bound masher, was difficult to ignore, and his late-career power spike stood out. Roberson-Bailey did her homework, getting Caminiti’s cell phone number through a close contact. She called the number.
Ken answered, and Roberson-Bailey said they ended up talking for half an hour. He was in Nevada attending the Laughlin River Run, a popular motorcycle show. He seemed open to talking for her story.
“Why don’t I fly out to Laughlin? Let me come out, let’s talk, let’s sit down, let’s have a conversation. I’ll come out, and let’s just see where this takes us,” she said.
“No, you bring a camera,” he told her. “I have no trouble, I’ll talk about it. I’ll talk about what I’m trying to do. I’ll talk about why I’m trying to stay clean.”
Caminiti’s motivation for talking, she said, was driven in part because he wanted teams to know that he was staying on the right path.
“At the time, he had talked to a couple of teams,” she said. “He was trying to get back in the game, either as a player or as a coach or manager. And I think there had been some minor interest, but I don’t believe anybody was going to take that step, knowing his drug history.”
Those close to Caminiti and familiar with his recovery believe his desire to talk was a direct result of his time in rehab. In rehab he had been told the truth would set him free, and that his secrets could hurt him only if he tried to bury them.
Roberson-Bailey approached the meeting in Nevada with cautious optimism. She warned her bosses that Caminiti could change his mind at any point and the story could fall apart. But it was worth a shot. So she flew to Nevada and hired a freelance videographer, and they went to a hotel room and set up for the interview.
The Ken Caminiti who met with Roberson-Bailey was windburned, his skin the color of a worn glove from hours on his motorcycle. His face was puffy, and he wore a flannel shirt.
He wasn’t afraid to talk and didn’t shy away from any topics, including his use of alcohol and amphetamines and cocaine, his relapse at the ESPY awards, his mindset as a player, the pride he had playing the game the right way.
He discussed his disdain for counseling: “I go because I’m supposed to.” It was tough for him, he said, to keep spilling his secrets.
He also found it difficult to watch baseball, given that he still identified as a player—it wasn’t easy for him to shift to the next phase of his life, to turn the page, to move on. He fidgeted and got nervous if a game was on.
Family came up, too. He discussed the toughness his brother and father had ingrained in him, as well as his three little girls, and the difficulty that his addictions had caused them. “I know people at school give them a hard time. I know that they’ve had to deal with all this,” he told Roberson-Bailey. “I just keep telling them, ‘Daddy’s sick, but Daddy’s gonna get better.’ ”
Roberson-Bailey waited until the second half of her interview before asking about the S-word.
“OK, we’ve talked about your alcohol and your cocaine use, and we’ve talked about the amphetamines. Have you ever done andro?”
“No,” Ken said.
“What about steroids?”
“Were they readily available like amphetamines were?”
“I took a black market deal, and, uh…” he said, inhaling loudly, his brow furrowed. “It’s the worst thing I did. Because I got the strength, whatever. I built the muscles up.
“I was trying to do anything to play, and I knew I was tore up. So I said, ‘OK, do it, you know, just hold it together, hold it together, hold it together.’ And I played that whole year, you know? And I was MVP.”
As Caminiti discussed his use of steroids, Roberson-Bailey felt a rush—that holy shit moment as a journalist when your interview subject says something earth-shattering.
“He admitted that he had taken steroids. You’re sitting there as the person doing the interview, going in your head, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s just admitted this,’ ” she said.
This was THE STORY, the thing that everyone was talking about, and Ken Caminiti’s words would change the conversation about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. This was a player admitting—voluntarily, without reservation—that the steroids had helped him achieve his greatest seasons. Up to that point, guys would talk in generalities, brush off the impact of PEDs, or go off the record as a means of protecting themselves and their fellow players. The admission that would impact baseball’s past and alter its future began with a field producer and a freelance videographer in a hotel room above a motorcycle show.
The interview was cordial, and Roberson-Bailey left the hotel hopeful that Ken could overcome his personal struggles.
“I really rooted for him, and as a journalist you know you’re not supposed to take a side. You just come out going, ‘Man, I hope the best for him,’ ” she said.
John Covington—who’d built motorcycles for Caminiti and was at the show with him—said reality started to sink in for Ken after the interview concluded that he was too truthful about what he’d done.
“He was too honest with somebody he shouldn’t have trusted,” Covington said. “And it was sad, because he was talking all the way up there about how he’s a new guy, he’s got nothing to hide. This is who I am. I’m OK with me now. So he went and he was fresh out of this therapy and just was too open with somebody. He just didn’t know who to trust again, y’know?”
The day after the interview was recorded, in the early morning hours of April 27, two rival motorcycle clubs, the Hells Angels and Mongols, got into a brawl at Harrah’s Laughlin Casino, leaving three people dead. The “River Run Riot,” as it was dubbed, forced a lockdown, which meant Ken was stuck inside his hotel room. Which only made him stew even more. When the lockdown was over, Ken and a buddy from Houston who’d been along on the trip ended up flying back to Texas.
In the ensuing weeks, Roberson-Bailey traveled to Caminiti’s home in Baytown for a follow-up interview. But during the second interview, she said, Caminiti’s mood quickly shifted. “The interview went well for the first five minutes, and I asked him some more questions about the steroids because at this point, word’s out,” she said. “We had crews around the country going to major league ballparks and asking teams, whether it be in St. Louis or New York—they were asking teams and players about steroids.”
Midway through the interview, Caminiti had enough of the questions and ripped his microphone off. He leaned toward Roberson-Bailey, who was sitting in an adjacent chair. She didn’t know what he was going to do.
“He stood up and he kicked the chair out of the way and he stormed off,” she said. “At that point, we left. He was done.”
Roberson-Bailey called her boss in Atlanta. She had gotten all she was going to get from Caminiti, so for her, it was on to her next story—to St. Louis for coverage ahead of Ozzie Smith’s induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame that summer. While there, she played video from Caminiti’s interviews on a tape deck, cycling through the footage and logging his quotes. When she finished, she sent the log of her interviews with Ken to her boss, as well as Tom Verducci, the well-respected Sports Illustrated baseball writer who’d spent months trying to crack a story about steroids in baseball for the magazine. He listened to agonizing pleas from clean players seeking a level playing field. Verducci had profiled Caminiti during that magical 1996 season, and he would be picking up the next story involving Caminiti, the coverage that began with Roberson-Bailey. As a seasoned TV producer, Roberson-Bailey didn’t mind handing off the story—she simply wanted it to be told. She was more worried that a competitor (namely, ESPN) would break the story first than she was about getting publicly credited for her efforts.
“It was a big story to be a part of. I felt good about the job I did, but then I had to hand it off, and that’s just how it works,” she said. “Those decisions were much higher than my pay grade.”
Beyond corporate synergy, there was another reason CNN/SI wouldn’t break the story about Caminiti’s steroids admission: It was folding. The twenty-four-hour network, which launched in 1996 as a marriage between the two Time Warner brands, was seen as a rival to ESPNews and Fox Sports Net’s National Sports Report. Though CNN/SI broke a number of major stories, most notably a story about an Indiana University basketball player accusing famed coach Bobby Knight of choking him, it never fully found its footing, and its reduced reach—only about twenty million homes—meant weakened interest from sponsors.
CNN/SI went off the air on May 15, before the story about Caminiti ran. Roberson-Bailey was offered a job in New York City, but she turned it down—“I had a house, dogs, cars, husband. I didn’t want to live in New York. I love visiting, I love going, but it just didn’t fit my lifestyle at that time,” she said. She ended up taking a buyout.
Verducci initially thought steroids was a “niche element” in the game, an endeavor pursued only by the José Cansecos and Lenny Dykstras, but by 2001, as the clean players kept complaining to him, the scope of the problem started coming into focus.
“Players felt like they either had to compromise their integrity, which they didn’t want to do, compromise their own health because at the time there were still a lot of concerns about the effects of using steroids, or play at a disadvantage. None of those options is good,” he said.
“It was no longer just the niche thing going on in the game, but it became a highly competitive thing that to keep up with the game, you really did need to use some kind of PED, or else you were behind.”
Before the 2002 season, the SI team discussed coverage topics for the coming year.
“The biggest story in baseball is going to be the use of steroids in the game, and somebody’s going to write it, and it better be us,” he said.
Verducci started chipping away at the story, but he still had a ways to go. He needed someone to come forward, “someone to say that the emperor had no clothes and have their name attached to it.”
And then he got the tip about Caminiti from Roberson-Bailey.
“She said, ‘You may want to talk to Caminiti, because he seems like he’s open to the idea of discussing the subject,’ ” Verducci said of Roberson-Bailey. Verducci called Caminiti, and Ken—encouraged by Roberson-Bailey to speak to the SI scribe—invited Verducci to visit him in Texas. “To my surprise, he immediately said, ‘Sure, fine, I’ll talk to you. I’ll talk to you about whatever you want to talk about,’ ” Verducci said.
They sat on lawn chairs in Ken’s garage. “We were there for hours, and it was just a very comfortable conversation,” Verducci said. “You think some guys might be a little reticent, or hem and haw a little bit, but I gotta say, the questions about his own use, he met them head-on.”
Verducci asked Caminiti what percentage of players he estimated were using steroids. Caminiti guessed about half. Following the interview, Verducci said, he and Caminiti went to eat at a nearby restaurant. Caminiti, who was known by the waitresses and cooks, ordered an egg white omelet.
“This is going to be a big story, don’t you think?” Ken asked.
“Yeah, it is. I’m not going to tell you otherwise. It’s gonna be a big story.”
“Well, I understand. And I don’t care, because this is what happened. I’m just answering questions.”
As Verducci worked on his story, another outlet was advancing a story that threatened to pull back the lid on steroids in baseball. On May 17, Fox Sports Net aired an interview between José Canseco and host Jim Rome in which the former Oakland A’s star, alleging that he was blackballed by Major League Baseball, said he was ready to spill the beans about everything, PEDs included, in an upcoming book.
“How prevalent is steroid use in major league baseball right now?” Rome asked.
“It’s more than what people think, and it’s more [than] people can imagine. It’s rampant,” Canseco responded.
“How rampant? I mean, half the guys in major league baseball? Two-thirds of the guys in major league baseball? If you had to put a percent on it, what would it be?”
“There would be no baseball left if they drug-tested everyone today,” Canseco said.
Rome pressed the “Bash Brother” on whether he had used steroids himself.
“That will be covered in the book. Everything’s gonna be covered in the book, who’s involved in it, who’s done it—there will be certain names in it that will shock the world,” Canseco said.
“That’s not a no,” Rome responded.
As Canseco continued to evade the questions, Rome challenged Canseco’s claim that nearly all major league baseball players were using PEDs.
“If 85 percent of the guys in major league baseball are doing steroids, very clearly this has had an effect on the game, to the detriment, right?” Rome asked.
“It’s completely restructured the game as we know it,” Canseco said.
Canseco’s comments, at the time, were curious but drew mixed reactions. What was the truth? Someone else needed to come forward, someone who wasn’t interested in burning everything down. Someone who was worth trusting.