Nothing Valuable Learned

Ken Caminiti tore through the 1996 regular season with the San Diego Padres in a matter that surprised and delight fans, batting .326 with 40 home runs and 130 RBI; his reward was the National League Most Valuable Player award. After his playing career ended in 2001, perhaps to clear his own conscious, he came clean and admitted to Sports Illustrated that his MVP season was not what it seemed; the use of steroids had been the answer to why the ball had flown off his bat that season as well as the latter half of his career. The desire to become a better ballplayer through illicit means developed into a lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol, a fight that he finally lost in early October at just 41 years young.

Caminiti had a rather amazing stretch run that began in 1995, amassing a good percentage of his career highs during his MVP season. Having averaged 12 home runs each season in the first six full seasons of his career, Caminiti went deep 26 times in 1995, then shattered that mark the next season. His slugging percentage in 1996 was .621, better than 100 points higher than his career high. He also drove in an eye-popping 130 runs and stepped on home 109 times, again well above his career averages. He also showcased himself at third base, winning Gold Gloves in three straight seasons from 1995 through 1997.

Perhaps there were whispers outside the clubhouse and around the league that there was something not right about his development, but his all-out style earned him praise and hushed those rumors. As baseball looked to try to heal the wounds of a strike that was still fresh in the minds of fans, it served no purpose to chase after the star players that were the reason that people came back to the ballparks of Major League Baseball. In Caminiti’s own words, a good percentage, perhaps as many as half, of the players were using medicinal means to boost their performance on the field and to compete for that coveted spot in the everyday lineup; were it true, baseball seemed in no hurry to check into this matter.

Sadly, the use of performance drugs, while seemingly innocent to young ballplayer, almost always leads to the use of casual street drugs like cocaine, a fuel that gave Caminiti that high he no longer experienced outside the lines of the playing field. With no guidance except from probation officers, his battle was fought alone and he did not have the strength to win that fight, no matter how large his muscles had been or how acrobatic he was with his glove; in the end, he paid the ultimate price.

There are many examples of sports figures past and present that have battled drug addictions. Who can forget Darryl Strawberry, who for years has battled drug problems; no matter how many times he has been given a chance to reform, he cannot shake the habit and has been jailed numerous times for violating probation. How about Ricky Williams, who turned his back on Miami and the NFL because of his love for marijuana, or Bill Romanowski, who has touted the use of performance enhancers for years and was indicted on charges of obtaining a prescription diet drug?

What about 19-year-old Florida Marlins prospect Jeff Allison, picked in the first round in 2003 and given a nearly $2 million signing bonus, only to leave training camp this past spring and nearly die of a heroin overdose mid-summer? Last but not least, who can forget Steve Belcher, the 23-year-old Orioles pitching prospect that collapse during a spring training practice in February of 2004 and tragically died the next day, his death linked to a dietary supplement that contained ephedera?

To no one’s surprise, San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, dogged by rumors and accusations all year of his connection in the investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), was honored with his fourth straight MVP award this week and the seventh of his career. His numbers this season were impressive, but perhaps what was more impressive, ironically, was that baseball continued to skirt the issue of drug use among its ranks. It’s the fault of not just the owners but the players as well, who clamor about right-to-privacy matters in labor negotiations. Baseball’s drug policy, only recently agreed upon during the last contract negotiations, has fewer teeth than a sock puppet and players continue to play the fans for fools. While it’s true that the home run may be the play that brings the paying customer through the gates, the physical health of baseball players continues to be endangered; at what point will someone finally scream enough?

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