Why Ken Caminiti?
I couldn't get his story out of my mind.
During the decade or so I spent working on my book, I received one question more than any other: why Ken Caminiti?
Ken Caminiti is one of those baseball names that many have forgotten or overlooked (A Guy, as they say). He was a solid player -- a three-time all-star, the 1996 National League MVP -- but not a major star, like Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds, who has lots of name recognition outside of the game.
I was drawn to baseball by my parents, who were both big fans (my mom the Big Red Machine Cincinnati teams of the 1970s, my dad the hard-luck Phillies) and in 1993, after reading a newspaper article about the ageless Nolan Ryan, I found my team -- the Texas Rangers. Juan Gonzalez's win in the home run derby at Camden Yards that season solidified my fandom (the derby happened on the same day I got my headgear tightened, and it was really, really tight ...) Griffey hit the warehouse, but Juan Gone got the trophy.
But this was a time before MLB Network and interleague play, before streaming video, before so, so much, so I was resigned to only seeing Rangers games on TV a half-dozen times a season, and mainly connecting with the team through baseball cards and SportsCenter highlights. The Big Show. Patrick and Olbermann. When Kenny Rogers threw his perfect game in 1994, I remember watching SportsCenter on repeat so I could see Rusty Greer's acrobatic catches a few more times.
Watching SportsCenter and collecting baseball cards gave me an appreciation for players across the league. And this Ken Caminiti guy always seemed to be doing something special. Especially in 1996, when he carried the Padres to the playoffs despite a badly torn rotator cuff. Like the time he threw a guy out from his butt. Or when he battled food poisoning, ate a Snickers bar, and hit two home runs.
I appreciated his gritty, all-out style of play and the respect he carried across the league. He was someone you wanted on your side.
Ken was on my side in APBA (pronounced APP-Bah), a simulation table game my father introduced to my brother and me in which each roll of the dice matched a player’s predicted outcome on the field. Kenneth Gene "Scary Man" Caminiti's card was electric during the mid-1990s. Roll snake eyes or double-sixes, automatic home run, while 3-3 or 2-2 was either a double or home run, depending on the situation.
I miss those days playing APBA. I miss my dad, too. He died of stomach cancer in 1997, when I was 14 years old.
Ken's career ended in 2001, and his addiction issues quickly spilled into view. The following year, in 2002, he came forward -- voluntarily -- to admit to Sports Illustrated that he used steroids during his career, a massive disclosure that brought an end to baseball's innocence about PEDs.
Within two years, he was gone -- dead of an overdose at age 41.
In part because of my dad's death a few years earlier, in part because of the tragic heaviness, Ken's passing struck me. I wrote a column about it at the time.
Over the years that followed, as my journalism career took off, I couldn't get Ken's story out of my mind. I wanted to read a book about him, but by 2012, no one had written one. I wondered what was stopping me from writing it myself, and I began deeply researching his life -- I was working the graveyard shift at the time and my days were wide open.
I started interviewing people in 2013 and kept at it over the years, continuing to chip away at the project and track people down. All told, I ended up interviewing 400 people.
By 2019, I became a book ghostwriter -- and writing books for other people inspired me to finally bring my book about Ken forward. I lined up an agent and a publisher, and from there, the book came into focus.
I'm certainly biased, but I believe Ken Caminiti's story is the most important in baseball over the past quarter-century because it touches on so many themes, from the will to be great and our societal views on addiction, to trauma and the moral ambiguities around performance-enhancing drugs in baseball during the 1990s.
Ken's life had a deep impact, one that went far beyond the things he put into his body or the manner in which he died. And for me, after a decade of work and hundreds of interviews, his good heart continues to shine through.
I was moved recently when I came across a score sheet from one of my family's APBA games, recalling happy times when the sound of rattling dice reverberated across the basement. There was my own writing from twenty-odd years earlier, names in my lineup. Knoblauch. Gwynn. Griffey. Gonzalez. Delgado. Witt. A-Rod. Rodriguez. Graffanino. Under home runs, I wrote the name of my team's third baseman, a name I would write many, many more times -- C-a-m-i-n-i-t-i.