Padres vs. Dodgers, once again
In 1996, the National League West division title came down to the wire. Los Angeles was favored. But San Diego never lost faith.
With the Padres and Dodgers set to face off in the National League Division Series, I wanted to look back at the close of the 1996 season, when the teams found themselves fighting for the division title — and Ken Caminiti and Mike Piazza were both in the running for league MVP honors. The following text is adapted from my book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever.
As the season entered its final month, the M-V-P chants became louder for Ken Caminiti. Every time you checked the box score, it seemed like he was picking up two or three hits, or hitting a home run, and that didn’t account for the Gold Glove defense or leadership. He even received support from Dodgers manager Bill Russell, whose catcher Mike Piazza was also having a good season.
“To me, I think Caminiti is obviously the leading candidate,” Russell told reporters on September 19. “If you’re going to be objective and you’re not allowed to pick one of your own players, he gets my vote.”
After Piazza complained about the perceived slight, Russell met with the catcher and later clarified that “Mike Piazza is the MVP for me.” Piazza believed, according to his book, Long Shot, that Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully was also overenthusiastic in his support for the Padres third baseman.
Piazza had a great season in 1996: 36 home runs, 105 RBIs, a .336 batting average, and .985 OPS.
Caminiti hit 40 home runs, drove in 130 runs, batted .330, and had a 1.028 OPS.
Advanced stats such as WAR (wins above replacement) show Caminiti with 7.5 offensive WAR for the season, compared to 6.4 for Piazza, meaning Ken’s bat was worth one more win for the Padres than Piazza’s for the Dodgers. In terms of overall WAR, three National League players topped Caminiti in 1996: outfielders Bernard Gilkey and Ellis Burks, also having career seasons, and Giants superstar Barry Bonds, who topped all position players with 9.7 WAR. If anyone had a gripe about Ken being named the MVP, it was Bonds, not Piazza. (Bonds would win seven MVP awards during his career; Piazza received MVP votes in nine seasons but never won the award on his way to the Hall of Fame.)
But Bonds and Piazza weren’t sentimental favorites in 1996. They didn’t have the season stories Ken did—the torn rotator cuff, the throw from his butt, the Snickers game, overcoming addiction.
However, before MVP voting was finalized, the players needed to finish the season. The Padres against the Dodgers for a three-game series in Los Angeles. San Diego was two games behind LA in second place.
All the Dodgers had to do was win one of those games, and the division title was theirs. The loser was in the mix for the wild card as the league’s best second-place team.
The Dodgers were six outs from winning the division title on September 27, and Ismael Valdéz was dealing, scattering five hits for the game’s first seven innings.
Top of the eighth. Caminiti was leading off the inning. He worked the count to 2-and-2. Ken had seen the ball well throughout the game—he already had two singles and a walk—but now he was scuffling, fouling off Valdéz’s offerings to stay alive.
As he started digging back into the box, a paper airplane sailed from the stands. Ken called time. Breathe. Made some shadow swings. Dug back in.
The next pitch sailed in, and Caminiti sent it flying—beyond center fielder Chad Curtis’s reach for a home run.
“A shot of Vitamin Cammy, right in there at the right time,” Padres broadcaster Ted Leitner called the home run.
The crowd reacted with a smattering of boos, then quickly grew silent. The celebration would wait. The Padres’ bullpen kept the Dodgers at bay. Doug Bochtler in the eighth inning, Tim Worrell in the ninth.
In the top of the tenth inning, the score still knotted at 2, it was time for another shot of Vitamin Cammy. Steve Finley started the inning with a single, and Cammy came up against Antonio Osuna, making his seventy-second appearance of the season.
First pitch, ball one. Second pitch, ball two. Third pitch, ball three.
The fourth pitch was a fastball in the strike zone, and Caminiti was waiting for it, lacing a shot into the left field corner. Finley danced around the bases, and Caminiti had a double, and the Padres had the lead, and they wouldn’t lose it.
After a Wally Joyner walk, Padres shortstop Chris Gomez singled to left field, scoring Caminiti. Los Angeles outfielder Todd Hollandsworth tried to get Joyner at third and ended up overthrowing the ball, allowing Joyner to score to make it 5–2 Padres. The game ended with Piazza grounding into a double play.
Dodgers fans headed for the exits, the champagne stayed on ice, and the plastic sheets in the home locker room came down. Game 1, Padres.
Game 2, the Padres fell behind again—by the third inning, it was 2–0 Los Angeles, and Hideo Nomo, who’d clinched the division against San Diego the season before, was in a groove, keeping the Padres scoreless through five innings. This time, it was Steve Finley’s turn. The other big star in the Astros-Padres mega trade in December 1994, Finley had found a new level of success in 1996, hitting .298 with 45 doubles, 30 home runs, 22 stolen bases, and a .885 OPS. If not for Caminiti, Finley might have gotten more MVP attention.
Finley led off the sixth by depositing Nomo’s pitch beyond right field for a home run. The Padres had life. Caminiti followed with a single, as did first baseman Wally Joyner, and then it was Chris Gomez’s turn.
The soft-hitting shortstop, who had had a key extra-inning hit the game before, struck again, doubling down the right field line and scoring Caminiti. Tie game, 2–2.
Worrell—who begrudgingly accepted his bullpen assignment after grappling with Bochy and Caminiti earlier in the year—was masterful, allowing only one base runner and one ball out of the infield over two innings of work.
The score was tied in the eighth inning, and Dodgers pitcher Darren Dreifort got two quick outs when second baseman Jody Reed came to bat. Reed—who spent his best years with the Red Sox—was on the tail end of an eleven-year big league career, the type of player who understood the size of the moment and the importance of every at bat. Even if he only batted .244 in 1996, he wasn’t going to waste this chance. And he didn’t, singling to keep the inning going.
That brought up the pitcher’s spot. Bochy turned to Greg Vaughn, Caminiti’s new friend and roommate, to pinch-hit. The outfielder had struggled after getting traded from the Brewers, but he was true here, hitting a single to make it first and second.
Top of the order—Rickey Henderson. The best leadoff man in baseball history worked a walk to load the bases, chasing Dreifort.
Mark Guthrie came on to pitch. He’d be facing “Mr. Padre,” Tony Gwynn, the team’s only mainstay from the last playoff team in 1984, and the best pure hitter in the game. Gwynn settled into his stance, worked the count to 2-and-1, and did what he did best—slicing a single through the left side of the infield, past the outreached glove of diving shortstop Greg Gagne, to score Reed and Vaughn.
The Dodgers tried to muster a rally. First baseman Eric Karros opened the ninth inning with a double to right field, but Karros would not advance—San Diego’s all-world closer, Trevor Hoffman, struck out three batters to seal the win. Game 2, Padres. The Dodgers’ celebratory champagne was still on ice, and now the teams were tied atop the National League West, 90–71, with one game left to play. The winner would notch the division title and face the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of the Central Division. With Montreal eliminated from contention, the loser would wind up with the wild card, the honor for best second-place team, and travel to Atlanta to play the juggernaut Braves, defending their World Series title from the season before.
But Ken wasn’t content with a wild card berth—the Padres didn’t celebrate. “We’re gonna win this thing tomorrow, because they’re going to answer the phones Western Division champs, not wild card team,” pitcher Bob Tewksbury, who was starting the final game, remembers Ken saying in the dugout the day before. “And I was like, ‘Yep, got it, thank you. I’ll do what I can do, Cammy.’ And so I hardly slept a wink that night.”
Despite the lack of sleep, Tewksbury pitched well in Game 162, keeping the Dodgers scoreless in seven innings of work. Dario Veras followed with three innings of scoreless relief. But the Padres weren’t scoring, either. LA starter Ramón Martînez was pulled after one inning to keep him fresh for the playoffs, and the Dodgers bullpen matched the Padres, inning by inning, zero by zero. San Diego nearly broke the shutout in the eighth, when pinch runner Doug Dascenzo was thrown out at home trying to score from second on Finley’s single; then, after Caminiti was intentionally walked to load the bases, Vaughn popped out to end the threat.
The top of the eleventh opened with Finley hitting a single to center against Chan Ho Park. The Padres were in business. Caminiti battled back from 0-and-2 with a single of his own through the right side of the infield, with Finley moving to third. The lead, and potentially the game and division title, were ninety feet away. But next was the pitcher’s spot—Bochy had done a double switch in the eighth inning and used Vaughn’s spot in the lineup for the pitcher.
The Padres needed a pinch hitter. Sometimes, as a manager, you go against statistics and logic and let your gut guide you. And that’s what Bochy did in Game 162, in the eleventh inning, with the division title on the line. He went with Chris Gwynn, Tony’s younger brother, who’d teamed with Ken on Team USA more than a decade earlier. By 1996, Chris was a seldom-used pinch hitter in his brother’s shadow. Chris, since July 19, had one hit—a 1-for-19 cold streak that saw his average dip to .169. As a pinch hitter, he was batting .135—seven hits in fifty-two at bats. But Chris Gwynn was a veteran, and he’d played parts of seven seasons for the Dodgers, including 1995, after which he was granted free agency.
The Dodgers didn’t want him anymore. And here he was, with two men on and a bat in his hand. Park delivered.
“He threw me a changeup, and I saw it,” Gwynn said. “So I put the bat on the ball.”
The ball rolled all the way to the wall in right-center, scoring Finley and Caminiti. It was the final swing of Chris Gwynn’s regular season career, and oh doctor, what a swing it was.
Three quick outs later, the Padres were celebrating on the Dodgers’ field and in the clubhouse, spraying the champagne, carried to the division title by a man who played the entire season with a damaged shoulder.
As Ken stood in the locker room, victorious, playoff-bound for the first time, with beer seeping into his eyes, his teammates broke into a chant: “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!”