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The past springs to life on an 80-inch flat-screen in a family room in Reno, Nevada. The television is extra-large because the woman watching it is battling macular degeneration. The man is a reluctant viewer.
“I don’t watch much baseball,” says Lee Caminiti. “I have a hard time with it since Kenny died.”
For a decade now, Ken Caminiti’s father has not watched much baseball. But this afternoon, Ken’s mother wants a visitor to see her son playing in his first major league game. So Lee pops in the DVD, Yvonne smiles warmly and, instantly, it is July 16, 1987, all over again.
“He doesn’t get a hit here,” Yvonne says as her son settles into the box for his first big league at-bat, a routine ground ball to second base. “But the next time he does.”
The grainy picture captured from a sports bar satellite system and since dubbed onto DVD bleeds and moves and fades. But through the fog, youthful promise upholds its end of the bargain. There is the 24-year-old third baseman crunching a stand-up triple in his second at-bat, blasting a home run his next time up and vaulting all around third base in the Astrodome like an Olympic gymnast in mid-routine.
“Ken Caminiti!” the announcer raves. “What a debut from the young man from San Jose!”
The television camera peeks into the dugout and captures a smile. He’s made four spectacular plays defensively within the first two innings. The acrobatic new star is fresh-faced. Clean-shaven. Just off of knee surgery.
Movie-star looks and piercing stare, the young man from San Jose is on his way.
There are at least a dozen large plastic tubs that are stored away here in Reno, crammed with VHS tapes of Kenny’s games. Somewhere, there also is another box. It is packed with sympathy cards that continued to stream in after Kenny was found dead in a seedy Bronx apartment 10 years ago last week, on Oct. 10, 2004, of the cardiac arrest that the coroner said was induced by cocaine and heroin, a lethal speedball mixture.
“From people we don’t even know,” Yvonne says of the cards.
One of the first Lee and Yvonne opened 10 years ago was from a girl with whom Caminiti apparently had connected during one of his many hospital visits doing charitable work with the San Diego Padres.
“Ken, I love you so much, you helped me with my cancer,” she writes.
“We read two cards, and Lee and I started crying,” Yvonne says. “We still haven’t read the rest of them. People we don’t even know.”
What you cannot see in the collection of game tapes and memories is their son’s unwavering generosity, unquenchable appetites and, tragically, his addictive personality. Alcohol, painkillers, narcotics…eventually, each got its grip on him. And, of course, steroids. He was the first player to go public with his use, to Sports Illustrated in 2002.
“He was the first one to come out and admit it,” says Trevor Hoffman, the Padres’ legendary closer and a friend and teammate of Caminiti’s in San Diego from 1995-98. “I think that took a lot of nuts on his end to say, ‘yeah, this is what I did.’ Maybe at the time he was hoping to cleanse himself, to get rid of other demons.”
“There were just real warm moments that he provided with great generosity with his money, time and heart,” says Dr. Charles Steinberg, an executive vice president with the Boston Red Sox who ran the Padres marketing department during Caminiti’s time in San Diego. “I do think about him now, and I miss him now. This should have been someone who was going to be a part of the Padres alumni for years, just as Tony Gwynn should have been a part of the Padres alumni for years.”
Ten years. This is one anniversary you will not find baseball celebrating. But it should not pass unnoticed. Because few players are as beloved a teammate as Caminiti was, and fewer still had the honesty and courage to shine a light on the darkness all those years ago and help baseball come clean.
“It’s amazing,” Lee says. “What’s good…you can never take that away from him.”
Lee and Yvonne moved into this house the day after their son died. Yeah, it’s a game of timing. Downstairs is the guest room that was supposed to be for Kenny and his family.