- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Even through a television set 3,000 miles away, the eyes revealed it: Something burned deep inside Ken Caminiti, a fire that ultimately consumed him.

Caminiti — former National League MVP, admitted steroid user and convicted cocaine abuser — died Sunday not far from Yankee Stadium, where the New York Yankees will take on the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series tonight.

He died of a heart attack at 41, and the demons that drove him to excel on the field also sent him to a deep, dark place that led to his death.

Along that path were alcohol and painkiller abuse, cocaine addiction and — perhaps his lasting legacy — steroid use by a man who once told Sports Illustrated “at least half the players” in baseball were using performance-enhancing drugs.

For that reason, his passing should cause baseball at least to pause before another showcase showdown between the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Consider the Yankees’ clubhouse, where questions persist about Jason Giambi. The first baseman showed up for spring training looking much smaller and subsequently had his body turn on him. The illness, reported as anything from a parasite to a benign tumor, turned him into a tabloid medical oddity.

Just last week, Giambi’s teammate, Gary Sheffield, admitted to SI he used steroids, though he told the magazine he had been tricked into using them by an associate of one of the game’s biggest stars, the man who will pass Babe Ruth next season and then set his sights on Hank Aaron — the Giants’ Barry Bonds.

Speaking of San Francisco, the BALCO trial there still could force Bonds, Sheffield, Giambi and others to testify under oath about the things Caminiti spoke of when he said “I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”

He was wrong. They are all wrong.

There are those who remember him fondly — some former Astros teammates said so before last night’s Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Braves.

“He loved and respected his teammates and his family,” Craig Biggio said. “He was the greatest third baseman I ever played with.”

Said Jeff Bagwell: “His heart was one of the biggest attributes he had. He would go out of his way for you. That’s how I will remember Ken.”

That hardly honors his memory, though. The truth is he went out of his way mostly for himself, more than his teammates or his three children. His heart came in second to his addiction, which landed him in a Houston courtroom just last week, when he admitted he violated his probation by testing positive for cocaine last month.

Caminiti was sentenced to 180 days in jail, but the judge gave Caminiti credit for the 189 days he already served in jail and at a treatment facility since he was sentenced to three years of probation for a cocaine arrest in March 2001.

“He was a great player, but he got mixed up in the wrong things — taking drugs,” another former teammate, Steve Finley, told reporters Sunday night after the Dodgers lost to the Cardinals. “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.”

What will all of them do with that loss, though? Will Caminiti simply be labeled as a drug addict and his steroid abuse left an afterthought? Will those who dismiss the dangers of performance-enhancing substances say Caminiti would have been doomed even if stronger tests existed because he was an addict, no matter what the substance?

Or will these players who revered Caminiti find some meaning in his loss — perhaps a demand for stricter testing for the substances that can cause their bodies to turn against them or their hearts to fail?

Will they remember the look in Ken Caminiti’s eyes and finally see what was burning?

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