By Marsha Smelkinson
There’s a photo in my mind’s eye of Ken Caminiti, the hero. Wearing Padres pinstripes of 1996, he is sprawled outside the diamond, a cloud of clay dust in his wake, only his butt touching the green ground beyond the third base line. Feet are lifted, body straining, right arm pulling against an invisible bow, he is about to unleash an impossible throw across the field, amazingly low and straight, humming with speed and certainty, defying the energy layered against him.
I can hear the sounds as well: the quick suck of air at the line driving from the batter’s swing, the simultaneous single syllable reflexes (oh, ah, ooh, wow) as his diving glove vacuums away the ball, the bang-bang thuds of ball meeting the first baseman’s glove, split-seconds before the running cleat pounds the padded base below. And then the roar, the testimony of thirty thousand witnesses to an impossible act, exclaiming with equal parts amazement and worship and thanks. It is loud and long, and accompanies the hero as he brushes off the dust and heads to the dugout to the huzzahs and high fives of appreciative teammates.
He gives us so much that summer. Big, dramatic hits and highlight reel plays night after night, the legendary rise from a hospital cot to scarf down a Snickers bar and bash two homers into the Mexican sky, the muscular motorcycle pinup photo, and the magic of those three season-ending pennant-winning games over the Dodgers. (Yes, all due kudos to the others – Finley, Wally, Andy, Trevor and both the Gwynns; this is Cammy’s team, his year, and his gift to all of us who care.)
We care. We cheer his daring feats. We dance at his altar — the Macarena is made for these moments. We must thank him for all he gives us, so we roar and clap and laugh with giddy glee at our good fortune, even as he runs to the dugout with eyes down. He rarely looks up to the crowd, but we believe that he hears us.
Six years later he tells us about the steroids, and a year after that he falls all the way from grace to the pit of prison. Today Ken Caminiti is dead, a 41-year-old victim of a drug-induced death in a dingy New York den, far from the sun-filled field where he gifted us with his soft-spoken modesty and monumental generosity. A classic tragedy: heroic triumphs over daunting odds, tempered and then ended by an Achilles heel of human weakness.
Maybe he never heard our cheers, all that appreciation and admiration we felt. Maybe his intricate chemistry denied him the powerful elixir of esteem. Maybe his personal demons yelled louder than his adoring fans. Whatever moved him from stardom to early death, whatever caused him to lose his family, his reputation and his life, I choose to remember Ken Caminiti, the baseball hero, the man who left us with a summer of beautiful memories.