Substance abuse, trauma, and baseball: The Untimely Death of Ken Caminiti

Credit: AP Photo

Spread the love
Credit: AP Photo

Ken Caminiti is likely remembered for his battles with substance abuse but not for what led him down that path.

The 6-foot, 200-pound former Major League third baseman collapsed on the floor of a tiny apartment in Brooklyn. He was surrounded by two people, one he had met that day and another he hardly knew. Caminiti fell victim to a drug-induced cardiac arrest.

But underneath his broad chest and burly stature lay a painful secret. A secret he shared with strangers at substance abuse rehabilitation centers but not with the people closest to him. It led him to substance abuse that started at a young age. From there, substance abuse guided him to his demise.

Today, his memory is enshrined in news reports about abusing illegal substances, including steroids. He admitted to using “the juice” when he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1996. In San Diego, he’s remembered as one of the Padres’ greatest. He played the best part of his career in America’s Finest City from 1995-1998. Over this time, his substance abuse and painful past remained a secret.

Recounting substance abuse in rehab

Details about Caminiti’s traumatic past went public a year ago — 18 years after his death. The details were published in a biography titled Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession that Changed Baseball Forever by Dan Good. The book was released in May 2022.

Good’s retelling offers a version of the late ball player as told through hundreds of people who knew him. The author spoke to childhood friends, former teammates, and people who met him when he sought substance abuse treatment. The details about childhood trauma are vague. Those sharing the details shared them nearly 20 years after hearing about them. Perhaps Caminiti never shared these details with the people who mattered most to him.

According to sources in the biography, Caminiti shared in group therapy sessions that he experienced sexual abuse as an adolescent. The aggressor is an unnamed and unknown “older male.” The abuse was kept a secret, something that led to him trying alcohol while in middle school. This was corroborated by Caminiti’s former attorney Terry Yates, according to the biography. Hiding sexual abuse as a male teenager in the late 20th century was the bedrock of Caminiti’s pain. It eventually led to his untimely end.


Opening the lid on steroid use

In 2002, steroid use was still taboo across baseball. Caminiti changed that perception. Caminiti was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story in June 2002, where he admitted to using steroids in the late 1990s. That included the year he won NL MVP while playing for the Padres. Caminiti hit .326/.408/.621/1.029 with 40 home runs and 130 RBI that season.

The cover story is titled “Totally Juiced,” published in June 2002. Caminiti discussed his steroid use, saying he used them so heavily in 1996 that his testicles shrunk and retracted. In addition, his body stopped producing testosterone. A price he paid without regret.

“I’ve made a ton of mistakes,” Caminiti said in the article. “I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”

Caminiti didn’t provide names but told SI that “at least half the guys” in baseball used performance-enhancing drugs. This confession led to baseball turning its back on him. Aside from the Padres offering Caminiti a part-time job as a Spring Training hitting instructor in 2004, he didn’t participate in any more baseball activities.

Around the same time, in December 2002, his wife, Nancy, filed for divorce. He was again struggling with alcohol and drugs, causing him to burn money. He was on his own, living in Baytown, Texas. His life was spiraling.

Good’s biography visits many occasions where friends, family, and teammates encouraged Caminiti to seek help for his addictions. He refused.

I'd like this amount to  

A drug-induced cardiac arrest

Caminiti went to the Bronx in 2004 to visit the son of his then-girlfriend, Maria Romero. Her son was 15, living in a dangerous Brooklyn neighborhood, and headed down the wrong path. It was in the Bronx where he died on Oct. 10.

Caminiti and Romero met at a New York rehab facility in 1999. The two reconnected on Oct. 5, 2004, the day he was released from Houston’s Harris County Jail. She asked him to go to Brooklyn to talk to her son. Caminiti had plans to travel to Montana for a hunting trip later that same month.

Credit: ESPN

The details of the final hours of Caminiti’s life are murky. He was in the Bronx against the advice of his attorney, Ken Schaeffer. His concern was that going to New York would lead Caminiti to a toxic situation. Friends described Caminiti’s and Romero’s relationship as volatile, sometimes turning abusive.

The morning of his death, Caminiti made two phone calls to Romero’s brother Hector, a convicted drug dealer. A little more than 20 minutes later, he called Romero’s son’s father, Robert Silva. The two men walked around a park and talked for a few hours in the early morning, according to Silva.

Hours later, the two men were at a Brooklyn apartment where Silva’s friend lived. It was a Sunday, and the three watched football inside the apartment. The friend left at halftime for food and drinks. When he returned, he found Silva performing CPR on an unresponsive Caminiti.

His cause of death was brought on by cardiac arrest, induced by a “speedball” — a combination of cocaine and heroin. He was 41.

Caminiti’s death is a tragic tale of the destructive effects that can result from unaddressed childhood trauma. Caminiti was described as quiet and sensitive, yet longed to fit in with his teammates. He never shared his suffering with his teammates, only with other patients at rehab facilities. This led to him seeking external factors as coping mechanisms.

Caminiti is remembered as one of the most exciting players in franchise history. He was posthumously inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in August 2016. He is the only Padre to win an MVP award. Caminiti won a Silver Slugger Award in 1996 and won three straight Gold Gloves while with the Padres. He was a vital part of the 1998 team that won the National League.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *