He also will be remembered for his eye-opening interview with Sports Illustrated in 2002, when he tore the cover off the baseball establishment by admitting he used steroids during his career. It was a brave move that isolated him, but it revealed a festering problem in the game that still lurks today. Baseball officials finally were forced to confront an issue that had been simmering under the surface for at least a decade.
When Caminiti died, there was an underlying “tsk, tsk” tone among headline writers, and by players who meant well. A sampling:
“He Couldn’t Conquer Demons” — The Sacramento Bee.
“A Strike to the Heart” — Miami Herald.
“Caminiti haunted by own demons” – Ventura County Star.
“It’s a terrible thing,” former teammate Alan Ashby said.
“He was a great player but he got mixed up in the wrong things — taking drugs,” said another former teammate, Steve Finley.
You get the idea. But Caminiti’s life was not that simple.
“His story was too sad and too complicated,” author Dan Good writes in his compelling new biography about Caminiti.
Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession that Changed Baseball Forever (Abrams Press; $27; hardback; 378 pages) is a well-researched, unvarnished look at the life of Caminiti, who won three Gold Gloves and was a three-time All-Star during his 15-year career in the majors with the Astros, Padres, Rangers and Braves.
There were plenty of highlights but some devastating lows. Yes, Caminiti used steroids, and while they helped him, they did not totally define his statistics or his marvelous fielding skills.
Good spent 10 years researching Caminiti and interviewed 400 different sources. Add the thousands of documents and articles Good sifted through, and the reader is presented with a well-rounded picture. Good pulls no punches, and while there may be a hint of sympathy for Caminiti — he was, after all a likeable guy early in his career before drugs changed his moods — the author maintains balance and presents all sides.
That is a credit to Good’s reporting skills honed during his years on the desk and in the field with the New York Post (where he is currently the deputy managing editor for news), the New York Daily News, ABC News and NBC News. Playing Though the Pain is his first major sports biography. Good also wrote 2020’s The Microsoft Story: How the Tech Giant Rebooted Its Culture, Upgraded Its Strategy, and Found Success in the Cloud, and he partnered with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Art Cohen for the 2021 self-published book Trump You: Promises, Lies, and Corruption: My Battle with Donald Trump’s Fake University.
What is impressive about Good’s approach is how he referred to Caminiti. It was “Ken,” or “Kenny.” Very informal, and an effective way to introduce the various stages of the player’s life. There is something almost collegial about it all, as if the reader is sitting in the room listening to a storyteller — and Good is a very effective one.
This was especially a useful device when Good writes about Caminiti’s early years, his college athletic career, his attempt to make the U.S. national team that went to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. One also has sympathy as Caminiti toils in the minor leagues, showing flashes of talent but making rookie mistakes after reaching the majors, like showing up late during spring training in 1988 — twice.
For example, Hal Lanier, the Astros’ old-school manager when Caminiti broke into the majors, “made porcupines and thumbtacks look soft.”
He was “like a bottle of turpentine,” Good writes, “Extremely useful but mildly toxic with increased exposure, apt to cause headaches and dizziness.”
Or, watching Caminiti play third base “was like listening to Hendrix wail on guitar.”
“It was a revelation,” Good writes.
As a player, Caminiti was all in, all the time.
“(Caminiti) kind of played baseball with a football mentality,” former San Jose State teammate Dana Corey said in a 2017 interview commemorating Caminiti’s induction into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame.
One play defines Caminiti’s career. On April 22, 1996, during the sixth inning at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, the Marlins’ Greg Colbrunn hit a ball “that screamed down the line like a tired toddler: waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”
Caminiti dived to his right and caught the ball, then rolled over and threw Colbrunn out while sitting on the ground — by three steps.
Go to Retrosheet.org and you would never know it was a great play. “Colbrunn grounded out (third to first),” the entry reads.
Go watch the play on YouTube to get the full effect.
“That was the best play of my career, so far,” Caminiti said. “I knew I did something good, but I didn’t know how good.”
Assistant team trainer Todd Hutcheson and team doctor Jan Fronek gave the player two bags worth of IV solution. Just before game time, Caminiti asked Hutcheson for a Snickers bar to give him some energy. He responded with two home runs and four RBI in San Diego’s 8-0 victory.
“Some IV fluid and a Snickers bar, and Ken went from death personified to hitting a home run,” Good writes.
The Padres would win 10 of their next 11 games en route to winning the N.L. West title.
Chapter 14 is only seven pages long, but Good says that other than the final passage of the book, this chapter was the most difficult to report and write. Caminiti was a victim of child abuse, a secret he buried for years until he revealed it during rehabilitation sessions in 2001 and 2002.
“Devastating to learn,” Good told KHOU-TV during an interview in May.
Caminiti was in middle school when the abuse began. His parents never knew about it, and the man’s identity remain unclear, Good writes. When his shame would resurface, Caminiti would use drugs and alcohol “to try and anesthetize his inner pain.”
“He spent years trying to escape, but eventually he couldn’t run from his secrets anymore,” Good writes. “The things he couldn’t talk about were consuming him.”
And when confronted by teammates, Caminiti startled them with his honesty.
“He was quite honest about what he was doing, and I was actually stunned,” Phil Garner told Good.
“He was very honest about it,” teammate Bip Roberts told Good. “As a teammate, I knew exactly what was happening.”
Through the years, Caminiti’s wife, Nancy, was his foundation. “She was a rock,” Brian Jordan told Good.
Nancy was responsible and trustworthy, “the kind of girl you’d want to start a family with someday,” Good writes. It was a great choice for Caminiti, as his wife stood with him for many years, trying to keep their family together. It did not work, but Nancy certainly tried her best before divorcing her husband in 2002.
Good concedes he was unable to do on the record interviews with Nancy and her three daughters, but that was not surprising.
“Good luck reaching Nancy,” Ken Caminiti’s mother, Yvonne, had warned Scott Miller of Bleacher Report for a 10th-anniversary story the website published in October 2014.
Good also came up short, but he said he respected the family’s privacy and did have casual contact via text messages with Caminiti’s youngest daughter. He sent family mmebers copies of Playing Through the Pain before it was published to give them a sense of what was included.
“There were people close to (Caminiti) including relatives who decided that they didn’t want to participate, and I was as respectful as possible in trying to get them to connect … trying to get them to talk,” Good told KHOU. “I respect their decisions not to talk to me. Obviously, I wish that would have happened, but eventually I just said, ‘You know, I need to move forward,’ and there it was.”
Good writes that the steroids cloud that hovered over baseball both “tarnished and burnished” Caminiti’s reputation.
“As the years pass, Ken’s words loom larger and larger,” Good writes. “Who else has come forward voluntarily to talk about what they took? Who else spoke as unflinchingly as he did?”
Caminiti was found dead in a seedy Bronx apartment in 2004. He was in town to help his girlfriend’s son, who had run afoul of authorities. Caminiti died from cardiac arrest that the coroner said was caused by a mixture of cocaine and heroin. He died near Yankee Stadium, where he appeared with the Padres in 1998. The “speedball” caused his accidental death, the same mixture that killed John Belushi and Chris Farley.
Playing Through the Pain is an important book, a necessary book. It is at times uplifting and funny, but also sobering and too sad in a complicated way.
“You think you're like iron and steel,” Elvis Costello sang in 1996, which was coincidentally Caminiti’s MVP season. “But iron and steel will bend and break in those complicated shadows.”
And so it did.