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Wednesday, November 3, 2004
'96 MVP admitted steroid use, fought drug problem
ESPN.com news services
NEW YORK -- On the field, Ken Caminiti's all-out style served him well. Off the field is where it got him in trouble.
The 1996 National League MVP, who later admitted using steroids during his major league career and for years battled a drug problem, died at the age of 41.
Caminiti died of a heart attack in New York City, said his agent-lawyer Rick Licht. The city medical examiner's office performed an autopsy Monday but could not rule on a cause of death until toxicology tests were complete, spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said. That process could take as long as 10 days.
"I'm still in shock," San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "He was one of my favorite all-time players."
The three-time All-Star third baseman often was in trouble the last few years. His 15-year big league career ended in 2001, five seasons after he led the Padres to a division title and was a unanimous pick for MVP.
Just last Tuesday, he admitted in a Houston court that he violated his probation by testing positive for cocaine last month, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
But state District Judge William Harmon gave Caminiti credit for the 189 days he already served in jail and a treatment facility since he was sentenced to three years probation for a cocaine arrest in March 2001. He had pleaded guilty in March 2002.
"This is the largest mistake I've made in my life," Caminiti said when he pleaded guilty. "I had a real good thing going for me, and I got sidetracked. It doesn't have to be that way. It doesn't have to be drugs. It doesn't have to be alcohol. That part of my life is over."
In May 2002, Caminiti told Sports Illustrated that he used steroids during his MVP season, when he hit a career-high .326 with 40 home runs and 130 RBI. He estimated half the players in the big leagues were also using them.
Caminiti returned to baseball this year as a spring training instructor with San Diego.
"When I saw him in spring training, he didn't look good," Towers said. "I'm not surprised."
"The best way to describe him is that he was a warrior in every sense of the word. I can't tell you how many times I remember him hobbling into the manager's office, barely able to walk, and saying, 'Put me in the lineup.' "
Caminiti batted .272 with 239 homers and 983 RBIs with Houston, San Diego, Texas and Atlanta.
Licht said Caminiti hoped to get back into the game, possibly in a position that would allow him to mentor younger players about avoiding the mistakes he made. He said Caminiti was in New York this past weekend to help a friend, but did not go into detail.
"Man, that's just a tough one. I played with him for eight years," Dodgers outfielder Steve Finley said Sunday night, learning of Caminiti's death after St. Louis eliminated Los Angeles from the playoffs.
"He was a great player, but he got mixed up in the wrong things -- taking drugs. It's a sad reminder of how bad drugs are and what they can do to your body. It's a loss all of us will feel."
Caminiti's defining moment during his MVP season came on Aug. 18, 1996, in the oppressive heat of Monterrey, Mexico, as the Padres prepared to face the New York Mets in the finale of the first regular-season series played outside the United States and Canada.
Battling dehydration and an upset stomach, Caminiti took two liters of intravenous fluid, ate a candy bar, then hit two homers and drove in four runs in an 8-0 victory.
"Becky and I are grief stricken at the premature death of one of the bravest athletes that we have known," Moores said. "We admired Ken tremendously and remained optimistic that he would conquer the personal challenges that he was dealing with."
Caminiti teamed with Tony Gwynn and Greg Vaughn in the middle of the Padres' 1998 lineup, leading them to the World Series, where they were swept by the New York Yankees.
"I'm shocked. This was devastating. Even though he was divorced, he had a beautiful wife and daughters," said Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez, who played with Caminiti on the Astros between 1990 and 1994. "He was one of the most intense players I've ever seen. I'm worried for [Craig] Biggio and [Jeff] Bagwell because those guys are playing in the biggest game of their lives [Monday]."
Towers and Licht both recalled the enormous ovation Caminiti received during a 2003 ceremony marking the Padres' farewell at Qualcomm Stadium. The team moved into a new ballpark this season.
Licht said he had to go to Houston to persuade Caminiti to make an appearance, and Towers remembered the former star was nervous.
"He didn't know what kind of reaction he would get," Towers said.
After being showered with cheers, Caminiti told Licht it was his greatest day in baseball.
"It's a shame for his family as much as it is for his friends," former Padres teammate Andy Ashby said. "He's got three daughters who are going to miss having Dad around. It's a shame. It's a terrible thing."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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