'All of a sudden it went sideways'
Ken Caminiti, Tony Gwynn and Bruce Bochy were on a flight following the 1997 All-Star Game when a wind shear jolted the plane. The pilot's quick action averted a devastating tragedy.
This text appears in my book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever.
As Ken Caminiti watched the Rocky Mountains out the window, the sky full of bands of amber and purple, he couldn’t help but think about the future.
His wife Nancy and the girls were here, in Padres owner John Moores’ private Challenger jet, along with Bruce Bochy and Tony Gwynn and their families, flying out of Cleveland following the 1997 All-Star Game on their way to connect with the team in Denver to start the second half of the season. The first half was shit—the reigning division champs were in fourth place, thirteen games back at 38–49—but anything could happen.
Ken could feel his bat heating up again, just like it had in his MVP season.
As the plane approached its destination, Ken watched the runway. Wow, that’s neat, he thought. Everything seemed so steady and normal—until it wasn’t.
“And all of sudden it went sideways and the wing almost hit the ground,” Ken said.
A wind shear, a sudden difference in wind speed or direction, jolted the twelve-seater sideways. Quick action by pilot Ken Rogoff kept the plane from crashing, narrowly averting a devastating tragedy for a sport that still mourns the crash deaths of stars Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson during the 1970s.
“If the pilot makes a slip, a half-second wrong decision, we’re all over that pavement,” Ken said later.
Rogoff remained humble about his efforts. “It was a freak thing that happened. Luckily, everyone was OK,” he recalled decades later, not wanting to say much more.
For Caminiti, the near disaster made him reflective. Life is short and fragile. It can be taken away at any time.
“It puts a new perspective, for right now on me, about life,” Caminiti said at the time. “You’ve just got to enjoy yourself, because you never know.”
Ken was enjoying himself on July 10 against the Rockies and emergency starter John Burke to begin the second half. They could have been teammates, Caminiti and Burke, but the pitcher declined to sign with the Astros after being drafted in 1991. So now they were on opposite sides of the field, and Ken was unburdened of care: See the ball and hit the ball.
Quilvio Veras and Gwynn reached base in front of him. Burke worked the count to 1-and-2, but Ken pulverized the next pitch, sending it to the upper deck in Coors Field 465 feet away, near purple-painted seats representing one mile above sea level.
He batted in the fourth, again with two men on, and worked the count to 2-and-0 before smashing the ball off the right field foul pole.
It was his first multi-homer game since the playoffs against the Cardinals the previous season. With his two-homer, six-RBI outburst, Ken was putting the National League on notice: I’m really back.
“My problem is I try to swing too hard,” Ken said. “Today, I had rhythm and timing. Rhythm and timing are everything. If you don’t have timing and rhythm, you’re going to try to muscle everything.”