Acquaintances hope drugs aren't cause

HOUSTON -- Former National League MVP Ken Caminiti's death came as a shock to those who believed the former slugger was turning his life around after being released from jail last week on a 2001 drug charge.

"He had a lot of setbacks, but he was a person who always overcame adversity," Caminiti's lawyer, Terry Yates, said Monday. "He was a person who was always positive and had a positive outlook on life."

Caminiti, 41, died of an apparent heart attack Sunday 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. The process could take as long as 10 days.

Last week, Yates stood next to Caminiti as the ex-athlete admitted testing positive for cocaine.

State district judge William Harmon sentenced Caminiti to 180 days in jail, which allowed for Caminiti's release last Tuesday. He already had served 189 days behind bars and in a drug treatment center since he received deferred adjudication for felony cocaine
possession in March 2001.

Because of the probation violation, Caminiti was convicted of the felony charge. He had failed four drug tests during his probation, which began in 2002.

Yates, however, said Caminiti was optimistic about his future and planned to pursue some development projects in Montana. He was also talking with the San Diego Padres about returning to the organization, possibly as a coach.

"Ken had been with us Wednesday afternoon and when he left he was upbeat, in a good mood and anxious to come back to Houston so we could figure some things out regarding his future," added another lawyer, Kent Schaffer.

"The biggest hope I have is when the autopsy is concluded, they'll find there was no cocaine in his system ... This is a guy who gave so much of himself for so many years to baseball and to millions of fans that I think it would be an incredible tragedy for people to think of him of the player who died from a drug overdose as opposed to the player who was most valuable in the major leagues," he said

Gus Gerard, Caminiti's drug counselor, said he also hoped the autopsy would detect no illegal drugs.

"But regardless, it's all drug-related," Gerard said. "Drug use over the years weakens your heart muscle and tears the body down. I pray he's at peace now with the demons."

Gerard said he found Caminiti "very depressed the last couple of years."

"He just couldn't let go," said Gerard, a former pro basketball player who now directs a men's drug treatment center in Houston. "You'd think after a 17-year career, someone would be happy in retirement. But he seemed to have some bitterness. I think he was depressed that he abused his body so bad."

Caminiti's probation officer, Tracy Burns, who followed him for more than two years, said the former player was in better spirits when he was released from jail.

"He told me not to worry about him," she said. "He told me he was just going to lay low for a little while. He told me he would contact me if he had any problems."

Caminiti had dinner with a group of friends Tuesday night in Houston and then traveled to Florida, where he visited another set of friends, Yates said. Plans were for Caminiti to then go to Montana, where he wanted to refocus himself to get his life back in order, the attorney said.

Instead, Caminiti headed to New York to help a friend, Yates said, adding he didn't know the identity of the friend or the nature of the help.

"He was always helping people. He would do anything for anybody," Yates said. "Everybody is just shocked and really saddened by this. He was so young."

Friends and relatives, some carrying flowers, arrived at the Houston-area home where Caminiti's ex-wife, Nancy, and three young daughters live. A woman at the home said the family had no statement.

"He was a super-nice guy," Burns said. "He just had some problems he needed to work through."

Caminiti played for the Houston Astros twice over a 15-year career.

"We are truly saddened by the death of Ken," Astros owner Drayton McLane said. "We admired him for his accomplishments and the respect he gained with his teammates because of his passion for playing the game of baseball ... We all rooted hard for Ken on the field, and we rooted equally hard for him in overcoming his problems off the field."

Caminiti acknowledged during his playing days he had been an alcoholic. He told a magazine he was using performance-enhancing drugs when he won the 1996 MVP award as a member of the Padres.

He also split time between the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves in 2001, his final year in baseball. His drug arrest came shortly after that season ended.

"It's upsetting, but hopefully he is at peace now," Caminiti's probation officer said.