Ken Caminiti's steroids confession: baseball reflects
Bruce Bochy, Brian Jordan, Doug Glanville, Gabe Kapler and others weigh in on a landmark moment in the game’s history.
Ken Caminiti left his most lasting impact on baseball not with his bat or his glove, but with his words.
Twenty years ago, his voluntary admission to Sports Illustrated that he had used steroids during his career sent shockwaves throughout the game and eventually led to major reforms.
During the long journey to write my biography about Ken, “Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever,” I spoke to many of his baseball colleagues about the impacts of his confession. I’ve developed this oral history based on those interviews, which were conducted between 2013 and 2020. These quotes were not included in the book but provide extra perspective about baseball’s steroids era and Ken’s monumental disclosures about his use of PEDs.
To use or not to use?
Following the MLB strike in 1994, there was more focus on weightlifting, muscle, and supplements among players, and home runs reached record numbers. The power display helped bring fans back to the game, but as we now know, it was aided by players using performance-enhancing drugs. Players at the time were not subjected to drug testing. PEDs shifted the competitive balance in the game and left each player facing their own decision whether to use or not to use.
Doug Glanville, outfielder; broadcaster and writer, author of The Game From Where I Stand: If you're a player like myself who was 175 pounds soaking wet and not a power hitter guy, I had an existential crisis on my hands because I saw the shift at centerfield. It was more like a skill position when I first got up from a defensive standpoint. It was more like, OK, play good defense, and that's gonna be your value out there, to you need to hit 30 home runs to be out there. And that happened just within my career. It was that quickly.
Gabe Kapler, outfielder; San Francisco Giants manager: That was right in the heart of that time when everybody was making their personal decisions about which side of the issue they stood on.
Art Howe, Ken’s manager with Houston Astros, 1989-1993: I don't even think I was even thinking about steroids back then, to be honest with you. … I was clueless as far as steroids are concerned.
Brian Jordan, outfielder: I saw unfairness in it, but you know, I made the choice not to use it. I didn't feel like I needed it. I played in the NFL,1 I lifted weights all the time, I worked out hard. So I settled for being a gap hitter and driving in runs that way. It didn't bother me because it's choices people made, and you know, playing behind Mark McGwire and watching those home runs leave the ballpark. To me, it was a time where baseball needed something big.
Kapler: The one thing it never made me personally do was judge another human being about the choices that they made.
Wes Helms, infielder: It's just a sad thing, we played in that era where you don't know who did it and who didn't.
Jordan: Look, if you're an average player playing in the minor leagues and you have an opportunity to play major league baseball and you have a choice to use steroids or not use steroids, I think more than likely, you're going to use steroids if it's not illegal, and if it's going to enhance your ability to where you make it to the major leagues, it's a no brainer.
Kapler: The group that chose to use steroids during that time period really hurt the group that chose not to use steroids on a monetary level, on a service time level, on a competitive field level.
Jim Riggleman, former Padres and Cubs manager: It was on the tip of a lot of people's tongues, and they just weren't saying it, and it needed to be talked about. It needed to be talked about in the context of what it's doing to the game, but also what it might be doing to you physically down the road in your life.
Brian Johnson, catcher: I was with the Dodgers in 2001. I was just about to retire. I just had hurt my knee for a second time. It was the last week of the season. And Tom Verducci and I were standing behind the batting cage during batting practice one day at Dodger stadium. And he and I had had great conversations previously. And so we just started talking, and I said, “Hey, how come nobody writes about steroids? How come nobody puts it out there? ... For guys like me who are clean, we're getting screwed. The standard of excellence has been artificially raised, and we're getting squeezed, and we're getting pressured to take the stuff, even though we don't want to, or else we're not going to have a job.”
“Good point,” he said. “Would you like to go on the record and officially say that?”
He laughed. “Yeah, that’s the problem.”
“Why don’t you go on the record?” He kind of said it knowing what the answer was.
“They're my brothers. I wouldn't turn in my brother who has a drug problem to the police. I don't want to see him get in trouble, but at the same time, he's hurting himself, but he's also hurting us and hurting me, he's damaging my career from a baseball standpoint. And so, for the greater good, I don't really want to have to have this conversation with my son or daughter 20 years from now and say, ‘Hey, you know, I know steroids is everywhere, but somehow you got to stay clean.’”
‘A huge moment’
A cloud hung over the game as home run records fell. Accusations swirled about the role that steroids played in baseball, but no players were coming forward to speak openly about PEDs. No one, that is, until former National League MVP Ken Caminiti discussed his own use of steroids to reporter Tom Verducci for the June 3, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated. “I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I don’t think using steroids is one of them,” Ken told the magazine, setting off a firestorm and causing him to face waves of criticism.
John Flaherty, catcher; YES Network broadcaster: This guy that I was able to play with for a year and a half2 was incredibly intense and incredibly honest. He didn't say a whole lot, but when he spoke, you paid attention because the words were meaningful. So when I read that article, when I heard about it, I wasn't surprised.
Matt Williams, third baseman: There's many, many things that he dealt with in his life, so I think that it was important for him to speak on it. For whatever reason was in his mind, it was important for him to verbalize, so I admire him for doing that.
Johnson: It was the weirdest mixture of emotions. I was crushed that it was somebody that I liked and that I cared about, but at the same time, there was a little bit of selfish euphoria that finally this farce is gonna begin to stop.
Bruce Bochy, Ken’s manager with San Diego, 1995-1998: At first I was surprised, because knowing Cammy, I know Cammy would never want to throw anybody under the bus. He would never want to feel like he's a guy that's ratting people out. That's not him. I think he did it for himself and maybe to help other players because he saw what it did to him.
Glanville: That was a huge moment, one of the most significant moments of that era in terms of baseball. It led to a shift in so many different ways.
Pete Smith, pitcher: I praised him for it, actually. I thought it was about time that someone came out, stood up and said, 'yeah, I did it,' because everybody was denying it and to this day, people are still denying it, and everyone knows it was happening. So why not just come out? Guys like Pettitte3, come out, admit it, people forgive, forget it and move on with their lives.
Tim Purpura, former Astros executive: I don't know if there's anything that surprised me (about his admission). I mean, the reality of that era was that you kind of wondered what was going on, but you weren't quite certain.
Luis Gonzalez, outfielder: When everything was said and done, he came out saying that he was involved in steroids and different things like that, and that was a crushing blow to everybody, not just the guys that he played with, but just all of baseball.
Kerry Lightenberg, pitcher: I know there was lots of guys that were probably using, and to be honest, I wouldn't have known if he was or not, but after he came forward I was like, “man, maybe that's why he hit that home run4, it went so far.”
Walt Weiss, shortstop; Braves bench coach: It didn't surprise me that he came clean with that. He was such a genuine guy.
Gonzalez: I think for everybody, you know, he was coming clean, obviously saying, ‘Hey, I made some mistakes in the game,’ but at the same time, it made everybody wonder how long he was doing that and playing to that level doing something like that.
Eddie Taubensee, catcher: To me, it was a good thing. It's showing that he's just trying to change his life. He's just trying to be honest with himself and others. For most of us, it's really a confirmation of what we already knew. So, you know, I'm glad he's owning up to a lot of things, but without all that stuff, he would still have been a tremendous player and that type of caliber player.
Greg Vaughn, outfielder: He had to do what he had to do. Cammy wasn't doing it to maliciously hurt baseball or hurt anybody else. He was doing it in the process of healing himself.
Cleaning up the mess
Following Ken’s admission, Major League Baseball could no longer ignore its steroids problem. The players association and league, facing increasing scrutiny from Washington and the public, agreed to allow drug testing for the first time. Congressional hearings, the Mitchell Report, investigations, books and reporting brought forward new discoveries about the scope of the problem. And yet, Caminiti’s honesty has continued to loom large.
Dave Magadan, infielder: It kind of opened up that Pandora's box that was kind of secret for a long time. It wasn't a really well kept secret, but certainly it was being written about a lot. And there were a lot of assumptions made, and for him to really come out and admit it, it kinda got us on that road to fixing what was wrong with baseball.
Glanville: I think of all the things that happened after that. I was on the executive subcommittee of the union and represented pretty much every team I was on, I was the union rep. So I remember working on a lot of the policy shifts and when the public outrage started to rain down, it was sort of like, “what do we do? Do we reopen collective bargaining? How does this work?” It was a lot of unprecedented territory and a lot of political pressure was starting to ratchet up.
Mike Remlinger, pitcher: I think every generation of players has something to deal with. You could go back as far as you wanna go -- there's always something. The union realized that supplemental use had gotten to a point where it was affecting guys who weren't using it, and that's why we implemented the policy that we implemented, to address that issue and try to get out of that era, that rut. As long as there's money and competition involved, you're going to have people trying to push forward and find ways to be better than they can.
Johnson: Caminiti's story was really the first chip off the big iceberg.
Glanville: Looking back now, it's like, wow, so many other great players of my era were in the crosshairs of steroids, whether allegedly or admittedly, or tested, or whatever. That was the time. And Caminiti was brave and bold to just talk about it.
Russ Johnson, infielder: That was Cammy. He was right by doing that. He was right by saying, “you know what, I ain't perfect, I've made some mistakes, I did this.” Man up. He did that, and I respect that about him. There's a lot of 'em that's gutless, ain't going to say a word about it. Cammy had the balls to back it, he wasn't going to sit there and deny it.
Bo Porter, outfielder and former Astros manager: Any time when you look at that whole era, there were so many different stories floating around about who used it and who didn't. There's a lot of speculation. When you had a person come out like Ken Caminiti did, it just speaks to the man that he is, that he wasn't going to try to hide behind what people did, he wanted to have an opportunity to tell the story the way he wanted it to be delivered. So I personally admire him for standing up and saying what he said.
Jordan: Everybody knew that Ken Caminiti, along with a bunch of other players, were using steroids. It wasn't rocket science. There's a lot of guys who really developed their bodies using steroids, and at the end of the day, I still blame Major League Baseball. It wasn't illegal for players to use steroids. There was a dark cloud.
Chris Donnels, third baseman: I'm proud of him for being honest. If he felt like he had to discuss that with somebody, then God bless him.
Phil Nevin, infielder and outfielder; Angels third base coach: There was part of him that just felt like he needed to come clean. It was part of his healing process at the time. Not once did I think any less of him, and the things he did in his life on the baseball field, because I know where his heart was. I know where his heart was with the players, with his teammates, and wanting to win.
Tom Pagnozzi, catcher: I remember when he first came out with that percentage of guys using. I was like, there's no way that percentage could be that high. There's no way, because pitchers aren't using it. Who were the first 10 guys to get caught? Most of them were pitchers, it seemed like. Because he was using it, he knew who was using it. He was right on, and people just wanted to, at that time, disregard what Ken Caminiti was saying.
Bochy: Looking back, I admire him for having the cojones to come out and admit that he took steroids, because as soon as he did that, it tarnished what he did as a player. I'm sure he knew that, but I think this was his way of saying, “Hey, I can help these players. I gotta be honest with me.” He was looking more internally. Hey, I gotta deal with this like a man. And I came to admire the fact that he did what he did.
Jordan played with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons from 1989 to 1991.
Flaherty and Ken played together in 1996 and 1997 with the Padres.
Former Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte admitted to using human growth hormone while recovering from an elbow injury.
Ken hit a game-winning home run off of Ligtenberg in Game One of the 1998 NLCS.