MLB

The Tragic Death of 1996 NL MVP Ken Caminiti

In 1996, San Diego Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti was the best player in the National League. He won the MVP that season en route to hitting .326 and belting 40 home runs. Behind those numbers was an open secret known in MLB locker rooms around the country—Caminiti was using steroids. He wasn’t the only one. Unfortunately, those weren’t the only drugs he was using, and it all tragically caught up to him less than a decade later. 

Ken Caminiti breaks into MLB

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Ken Caminiti made his MLB debut with the Houston Astros in 1987. It didn’t last long. As is often the case for younger players, Caminiti bounced up and down between the minors and the parent club until he finally stayed up with the Astros in the 1989 season. 

For the next six seasons, Caminiti was the everyday starting third baseman in Houston. During that time the switch-hitting Caminiti had a .264 average and delivered a dozen or so homers each season. His highest number of 18 came in 1994, the same year he made his first All-Star Game. 

A year later, the San Diego Padres and Astros made a blockbuster trade and Caminiti headed out west. In California, Caminiti took his game to the next level. His first season with the Padres he hit .302, slammed 26 home runs, and drove in 94 RBIs, all career-best numbers for him. Those numbers, however, paled in comparison to Caminiti’s production in 1996.

That season he had a .326 average, and he blasted 40 homers and drove in an impressive 130 RBIs. He was named the National League MVP. Remarkably, all of his success came after suffering a shoulder injury early in the season. Years later, Caminiti admitted it was that shoulder injury that resulted in his success.

He played five more seasons with San Diego, Houston for a second time, Texas, and Atlanta, before he retired in 2001.

Caminiti blows the cover open on rampant steroid use in MLB 

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A year after retiring, in a 2002 bombshell article titled “Totally Juiced,” Ken Caminiti revealed to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci how he got started in steroids. In order to play through that shoulder injury in 1996, he drove to Mexico, bought steroids, and began using them. The on-field results were astounding as Caminiti hit more home runs in the second half that season than he ever did in any full season before.

“I felt like Superman,” Caminiti said. He also revealed in the article how steroids were common in the clubhouse. “It’s not a secret what’s going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using steroids. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other.”

Caminiti’s comments were the first major admission of steroid use by a player and its impact was huge. He received a swift and severe response from players, including some of his former teammates like Jeff Bagwell. Caminiti didn’t flinch. He said he didn’t have anything to hide anymore and wanted to “walk with my head held up.”

Ultimately, that article was used in congressional hearings and was the beginning of the end of steroid use in baseball.

Ken Caminiti’s tragic death stuns the baseball world

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While Ken Caminiti cleared his own conscience by blowing open the case of steroid use in baseball, behind the scenes he was still battling his own demons. He had admitted as far back as 1994 he was an alcoholic. He also struggled with cocaine use. 

In 2000, during his second stint with the Astros, Caminiti checked himself into a rehabilitation center. A year later, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and received probation. In February 2003, he tested positive for cocaine and was ordered to visit a Texas Department of Criminal Justice-operated treatment program. 

In September 2004, he once again tested positive for cocaine for a fourth time and received a 180-day sentence. He was given credit for time already served and spent four weeks in jail before he was released on October 5, 2004. 

Five days later Caminiti was in a friend’s New York City apartment when the friend and another person left to go get food. When they returned, Caminiti came out of the bathroom and he reportedly told them he wasn’t feeling well and collapsed. 

Caminiti had gone into cardiac arrest. Paramedics tried to revive him but were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead a few hours later. Autopsy reports later revealed he died of “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of cocaine and opiates.” He was 41 years old. He was inducted posthumously into the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame in 2016.