Book Review: Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever by Dan Good

The best book I’ve read about baseball’s steroid era was Jose Canseco’s “Vindicated,” his follow up to the ground-breaking, tell-all tale “Juiced.”  After all, who better to write a book about steroids than the man most associated with them?

The best book I’ve read lately about battling one’s personal demons was SNL alum Darrell Hammond’s “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked.” His was an honest, introspective, and gut-wrenching account of one man in the spotlight’s struggles with addiction.

Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever is not an autobiography.  It is written by Dan Good and is the dark and telling account of a dark and brooding man, Ken Caminiti, and the demons that ultimately led to his demise.

Good seeks to uncover the cult of Caminiti, one of baseball’s forgotten figures, a three-time gold glove winner and former NL MVP.  The task in writing Playing Through the Pain was to discover a man who few really knew, a man one might argue struggled to know himself.  I don’t know if it’s possible to write a biography about a character with so many question marks but Good did just that.  I read through Playing Through the Pain asking myself the same question plenty of his teammates must have asked over the years: who the hell was Ken Caminiti? 

Caminiti’s career spanned a cancelled World Series and an inauthentic time “when a home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa enthralled the nation.  Few questioned the home run display, and those who did were brushed aside.  We were blinded by the power.  We were back in love with baseball.”

While citing multiple old interviews with Caminiti, along with teammates, coaches, friends, trainers and loved ones, what we find is a tragic, personal tale amidst a highly publicized time for the sport of baseball.  Few knew the man and his history, the pain he struggled with, the childhood sexual trauma and the stigma of opening up about it in a male dominated field.  All this fueled his alcoholism at an early age and the experimentation with, and overuse of, every drug under the sun, all the while becoming one of the better baseball players of his generation.  “Beer made Kenny feel less self-conscious.  Beer helped him turns his mind off and stop judging himself.  Beer helped him escape.”

Playing Through the Pain begins with Ken’s childhood, where the demons take root. It traces Caminiti’s college ball, minor and major league careers.  He was drafted 71st by the Houston Astros who were ready to make him their “third baseman of the future.” 

By 1987, Caminiti was listed as one of Major League Baseball’s top prospects.  In his first game in the majors, July 16, 1987, Caminiti hit a home run, a triple and scored the game-winning run.  “And the pill he was given before the game, a little pick-me-up that was popular in major league clubhouses.  Ken’s first day in the majors, he claimed years later, was the first time he tried a “greenie.” He was familiar with recreational drugs from his San Jose days, but speed was different, a performance-enhancing drug that the older players swore by.”  According to Good, Caminiti felt amphetamines made him play better, despite warnings not to overdo it.

Ken was not only known for his bat.  “Ken’s arm was a weapon, his urge to make every throw as hard as he could.”  Symbolically, it was as if he was trying to rid himself of his past with every throw he made.  “He played the position like he had played football, bruising and relentless.  Ken’s play at third motivated and inspired his teammates and competitors.  It made them dig deeper and ask more of themselves.  He was a player’s player and a third baseman’s third baseman.”

Most teammates agreed, however.  They never saw “any signs of internal happiness.”  The drug use eventually got worse, with Caminiti resorting to crack cocaine for immediate highs.  It’s hard to imagine an athlete of his caliber wading through all this madness but this was his life. 

By 1990, “he went from one of the best third basemen in the league to one of the worst.”  His teammates were concerned.  “You wanted to help him and hug him and let him know what he meant to you. A group of Astros players would take turns deciding who would confront Ken to ask him if things were OK and try to keep him on the right path. At a time when teams weren’t drug-testing players, there was only so much a team could do with a player battling addiction.”

The root of his pain, as a young man, Ken was sexually abused by an older male.  It was a secret he kept quiet about.  “There was the fear of what would happen if his secret got out, the fear that people would consider him lesser than, which he wasn’t but that wouldn’t stop guys from messing with him if they found out.  No, Kenny was going to let his actions do the talking.  He would hit the hardest and drink the most and be your best friend and act the craziest and laugh it all off like it was no big thing. Childhood trauma was at the center of Ken’s addictions.”

Ken’s fight was not in total denial.  He entered rehab in 1993.  Major League Baseball struck in 1994.  He was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1995.  “Ken had never embodied the right leadership role in Houston’s clubhouse.  Teammates loved his on-field intensity, but they could never fully trust him off the field because of his substance abuse problems.  He was going to do things differently this time.  He was going to be a model of dependability, the best teammate.”  Caminiti had quit drinking.  San Diego gave him a new beginning.

He became a fan favorite in San Diego, which is not to suggest he wasn’t in Houston.  San Diego was just different.  Caminiti would become beloved.  “Season ticket holders would call the ticket office to ask if they could move their season tickets from the first base line to the third base line” just to be closer to him.  In 1996, his second year in San Diego, his MVP season, Caminiti hit 40 home runs, 130 RBIs and batter .330. 

At this time, however, steroids were prevalent throughout the game, and they found Caminiti. “Major League Baseball gave players who used steroids no reason to stop.”  As Caminiti’s body started to break down, he embraced a stricter drug regimen to keep him in the lineup.

To compound matters, by 1997, Caminiti started drinking again. Despite his steroid use, he had been sober three years.  “If he wanted to sip on a beer, who was going to stop him?  Ken’s reputation on the field made him almost unapproachable off it.  During his Astro’s days, when he was running ragged, he was still a twentysomething who hadn’t begun to tap into his full potential.  Now he was a thirtysomething who was among the most respected and feared players in baseball.  It was bad enough when Ken was using alcohol and drugs but piling steroids on top of his substance abuse made him a different person, difficult and moody.  His body and spirit were breaking down.”

He was still, however, “devoted to helping his teammates reach their potential.  Focusing on others allowed him to spend less time worrying about his own failures.”  By the time 1998 rolled around, the Padres reached the World Series, but Ken’s body was failing him.  Both his personal and professional lives were spiraling downward.

Caminiti was traded back to Houston in 1999 with the promise that his former teammates, primarily Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, would look after him.  They even made the post-season with Caminiti hitting .471 on 8-of-17 and three home runs but the ‘Stros would ultimately lose to the Braves in the NLDS.  This was to be his last hurrah.

By 2000, he was on the back end of his career.  He was thirty-six years old.  He had short stints with both Texas and Atlanta in 2001 but the end was near; his future uncertain. “Baseball gave him structure.  He had no structure now.”  Potential coaching gigs never panned out.

Ken also made his mark with comments off the field.  In an interview with CNN/SI years after retiring, Caminiti not only admitted to taking steroids but said he felt they helped his game.  While most players denied use of performance enhancers, Caminiti was one of the few who came clean. “I’ve made a ton of mistakes.  I don’t think using steroids is one of them.  At first, I felt like a cheater, but I looked around, and everybody was doing it,” said Caminiti in the interview.  “The secret was out.  Pandora’s box was open.  In private, Ken was proud of himself.  He told the truth.  HIS truth.  This wasn’t about ratting out his former players or burning bridges.  This was about Ken’s attempts to break free from his demons.”

Caminiti’s story doesn’t have a happy ending.  He’d be arrested for crack cocaine possession and sent to prison for violating his probation.  Ultimately, his demons took control.  “There was a boy inside that Kenny couldn’t fix.”

He passed away in 2004. “His cause of death was acute intoxication for the combined effects of cocaine and opiates.”  He was 41 years old.

Good’s is Caminiti’s cautionary tale that attempts to explain one man’s struggles that few knew existed.   By telling Caminiti’s story honestly and fairly, Good reminds us of the depths someone will go to hide their troubles or combat them in terribly unhealthy ways.

Playing Through the Pain is a stark reminder that things might never be what they seem, that these issues can happen to anyone, that no one is exempt, and that drowning the noise with drugs and alcohol can only end up one way.  Case in point, Ken Caminiti. “He was the toughest guy in the league, but his toughness made people overlook his weakness.”

This is Caminiti’s story, a story that deserved telling.  Good does it justice.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever by Dan Good

  1. Here’s how low Caminiti’s stock sank when the Astros were trying to deal him. At one point, Houston offered him to the Twins and all they asked for was a middlin’-to-crappy pitcher named Mark Portugal. The Twins passed.

  2. I was a fan of his style, and I do remember being taken aback when his play nose-dived. It all makes sense now. It didn’t then. I am sure those around Ken tried to get him help, but sometimes all the help in the world doesn’t matter at all if someone is determined to do things another way. Sad tale.

  3. On his return to Houston, Dubs, he ended up taking less money than he could have gotten elsewhere. Turns out the guy was less about making money than he was about finding a happy environment.

    I can see, however, where teams who didn’t know him wouldn’t want to deal with the baggage.

  4. Bruce…

    This all took place at a time where teams did little to care for the psyche of their players.

    I remember hearing years ago that John Smoltz was having some issues and that he was seeing a psychologist. This was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing. It was foreign, if not also considered a weakness.

    Playing Through The Pain is full of stories of Caminiti, where the players tried to help him out, but simply didn’t have the knowledge, capacity or wherewithal to do so.

    I’m sure most professional sports teams now have people on staff to treat players with such issues.

    Back then, however, that was not the case.

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