You never forget your first
Ken Caminiti's MLB debut came in a 1987 Astros-Phillies game. It was a special start.
With the Astros set to face the Phillies in the World Series, I’m taking a look back at Ken Caminiti’s first MLB game, which featured those very teams. The following text is adapted from my book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever.
You never forget your first—and Ken Caminiti’s major league debut was special from beginning to end.
It was July 16, 1987, and Ken was playing in the Astrodome, the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” with 19,614 fans watching on, wondering who the hell this new third baseman was, Ken Cama-who?
The first batter of Ken’s first major league game, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Juan Samuel, slapped a one-hopper down the line, which Ken backhanded cleanly and threw to first for the out—the same play he had made thousands of times before.
The highlights continued later in the first inning when first baseman Von Hayes hit a slow roller. Ken charged, planted with his foot in line with the ball, picked it up, and fired off-balance in one fluid motion. Ken made two more diving stops in the second inning to keep the game scoreless.
“By the time the rookie took his first major-league at bat in the bottom of the second, he had become a crowd favorite,” the Houston Chronicle wrote. “It mattered little that Caminiti bounced out routinely, the fans were on his side. Their reward would come later.”
After his groundout to second base in the second inning, Ken came up again leading off the fifth against the Phillies’ Kevin Gross—they’d later become friends, two gamers who enjoyed competing and hunting. Gross was pitching with a herniated disc. Ken, hitting from the left side, started his hands high before settling them closer to his body as the pitch came in, a fastball up. He slashed the bat head through the strike zone.
The ball flew into right field, climbing, climbing, before landing at the warning track near the 378 sign on the wall. Right fielder Glenn Wilson tripped over himself, and the ball kicked back into right field. Center fielder Milt Thompson grabbed the ball and threw it to the infield, but by that point Ken was on third base.
“His first big league hit is going to be a stand-up triple. Holy Toledo!” Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton said.
When Ken came up two innings later, with the Phillies up 1–0, Gross pitched him in pretty much the same spot, and Ken pounced, smooth and strong and steady, driving the ball to right field. As the ball left Caminiti’s bat, manager Hal Lanier screamed from the dugout, “Get up! Get up! Get up!” The ball obliged, and it was over the fence—a home run! Ken glided around the bases, and the fans didn’t stop cheering until the rookie took a curtain call, something he’d never done before.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the game tied 1–1, Ken came up again, this time against reliever Michael Jackson. He worked the count to 3-and-1 and fouled off three fastballs. The next fastball “just missed,” Jackson said later. Ken was on base again, with a walk. He moved to third on a single by shortstop Craig Reynolds, and Jackson intentionally walked sure-hitting outfielder José Cruz, who was pinch-hitting, to load the bases.
Up came Gerald Young, Ken’s minor league teammate, the two best position players for Osceola and Columbus, now playing with the parent club after being called up a week apart. Young hit the ball to where Wilson would have been playing in right field—but Wilson was positioned behind second base, a fifth infielder to guard against balls up the middle.
Ken scampered home, scoring the game-winning run to cap a stellar debut. He was buzzing. All the hard work . . . all the frustration . . . all the extra BP and infield practice . . . all the time in hell . . . three years, nearly to the day, after playing in this stadium for the first time and then getting dumped from Team USA, Ken Caminiti had finally arrived.
“His first game left all the guys in the dugout just kind of looking at each other going, ‘Wow, we got a player,’ ” said catcher Alan Ashby. “He put on quite a show.”
Ken’s magical week continued in the following days against the Phillies. He went 2-for-4 in his second game, a 2–1 loss (Houston mustered only eight hits). During the first inning, with runners on first and third, Phillies catcher Lance Parrish hit a slow roller down the third base line. If it was fair, Philadelphia’s first run would score. A foul ball would keep the runner at third. Ken stood watch over the ball like it was a wounded bird. Get up, fly away . . . go over to foul territory . . . c’mon, you can do it . . . but the ball rolled and rolled, until it came to a stop near the base in fair territory to give the Phils the lead.
One day later, Ken was flexing his muscles, hitting a double and a single in a 4–2 loss. And to close out the four-game Philadelphia set, Ken slugged his second major league home run, this one off Bruce Ruffin—the only run as Houston fell 4–1. For the series, Ken batted .500 (7-for-14) and factored into five of Houston’s six runs. But three of the games ended in losses, and the three-game losing streak sent the Astros under .500.
“I hope I didn’t bring them bad luck,” Ken said.
Even with the new spark plug, this Astro van wouldn’t start. But the baseball world was taking notice of his exploits. After four games, in a week that began with him playing Double-A ball and included him rubbing shoulders with Hank Aaron and hitting a homer against Tom Glavine, Ken was named the National League’s Player of the Week.
For Ken, the honor was a chance to reach out to some of the people who’d helped him along the way, including his manager with Double-A Columbus, Gary Tuck.
“Tuckster, I won National League Player of the Week, I just wanted to thank you for helping me get to the big leagues,” Ken told him, adding, “It’s really easy up here.”
“Is it?” Tuck responded. “You’re seeing all fastballs right now, son. See if you get Player of the Week next week when you’re getting all breaking balls.”
As Tuck predicted, pitchers started throwing breaking balls at Ken, and he soon crashed back to earth after his meteoric start. His .500 average dipped to .389 . . . then to .333 . . . then to .273. The hot streak wasn’t sustainable.
But oh, what a way to enter the majors.