Plagued with injuries throughout his tenure in the major leagues, Caminiti's willingness to play through pain became the hallmark of an impressive career. After seven productive seasons in Houston, the gritty third baseman was traded to San Diego and quickly established himself as an elite performer at the hot corner. Along the way, he battled alcoholism, an addiction to pain-killers, and a smokeless tobacco habit as well as a myriad of physical maladies to become the undisputed leader of San Diego's two division-winning teams in 1996 and 1998.
Caminiti's toughness reached legendary proportions in August of 1996, when two liters of an IV solution and a Snickers bar helped him overcome dehydration, diarrhea, and nausea and hit two home runs for the second straight game against the New York Mets in Monterrey, Mexico. The 8-0 win tied San Diego with Los Angeles for first place in the NL West; Caminiti's inspiring play eventually led the Padres to their first division title since 1984. Beleaguered at various points throughout the year by an abdominal strain, a partly-torn biceps tendon, a left elbow that required reconstructive surgery after the season and chronic pain in his back, groin, and hamstrings, the beleaguered third baseman became the first Padre ever to win the NL MVP.
Until he came to San Diego in a blockbuster eleven-player deal in December 1994, Caminiti rarely showed the sort of power that would come to be expected of him. There was no doubt that the rising star was a steady fielder but he never hit more than 18 homers a season in an Astros uniform. After a hot start in his first call-up to Houston in 1987, Caminiti's hitting tailed off, and it wasn't until 1989 that he finally won a full-time job at third base.
Even though Caminiti batted .255 with 10 homers and 72 RBI in his first full season at the hot corner, the switch-hitter wasn't immune to the sophomore slump. In 1990, Caminiti slugged just four homers and struck out nearly 100 times in over 500 at-bats, and found his job threatened by top prospect Jeff Bagwell, a late-season acquisition from Boston.
But when Bagwell moved to first base for the 1991 season, Caminiti returned to form. His outstanding play at third and clutch hitting helped him keep his job (were it not for Matt Williams, Caminiti could well have won a Gold Glove or two along the way) and eventually, his rapid improvement as a left-handed hitter would make him a fixture in the Houston lineup.
Ironically, Caminiti credited a separated shoulder suffered during the 1992 season as key to his development from the left side of the plate. "It kept me from trying to pull everything," he reasoned, "I learned how to hit, how to use more of the field." Not coincidentally, Caminiti ended the season with a career-high (and team-high) batting average of .294. Two years later, he set another personal best with 18 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
The move from the Astrodome to Jack Murphy Stadium -- combined with a more rigorous conditioning program -- highlighted Caminiti's growing power. In his first season in San Diego, Caminiti finally topped the twenty-homer mark with a career-high 26 and set a major-league season record by homering from both sides of the plate in three games.
(Making the feat more extraordinary is that all three games came in the space of four days, September 16, 17, and 19 and doing it two days in a row set another mark.) He also achieved new highs in batting average (.302) and RBI (94) as well as doubles and walks, and cemented his defensive reputation by earning his first Gold Glove.
All of this was just a prelude to his gutsy MVP performance in 1996. Caminiti's shoulder injury was so bad that he couldn't raise his glove hand above his head or extend his left arm while batting, but he still posted one of the most outstanding seasons in franchise history, setting club records with 40 homers, 130 RBIs and a .621 slugging percentage. Caminiti also won another Gold Glove while leading the Padres to the NL West title. The following season, Clete Boyer gave Caminiti an autographed photo inscribed: "You're better than Graig Nettles, Brooks (Robinson) and myself. You're the best third baseman I've seen."
Although he would remain a productive player, winning another Gold Glove in 1997 and returning to the postseason with the Padres in 1998, injuries continued to bother Caminiti. Slowed by a sore groin, Ken batted just .143 against the Yankees in the '98 World Series, often falling to the ground after hefty hacks in crucial at-bats.
After the Padres were eliminated, Caminiti decided to return to Houston as a free agent. But he injured himself again on an attempted steal of second in May and spent a large part of the season on the DL nursing a torn calf muscle. Caminiti rebounded to play well down the stretch and hit .471 with three home runs in the Astros' first-round series loss against Atlanta. Less than a month later, he fractured three bones in his lower back after falling from a deer blind during a Texas hunting expedition.
Caminiti hit well in his second stint with the Astros, but after a ruptured tendon in his right wrist ended his season in June the club declined to exercise his option for 2001. The veteran third sacker signed on with the Rangers, but after a poor start Caminiti asked Texas for his release just before the All-Star break. After leaving the Rangers, Caminiti was snatched up by the Braves, who were seeking another power bat for their lineup. Atlanta found playing time for him at first and third base, and while hit batted just .228 for the year, he still launched 15 home runs in 356 at-bats.
Caminiti has the names of his three daughters tattooed on his chest.
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FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»July 7, 1992: Pittsburgh's Andy Van Slyke becomes the first OF in nearly 18 years to record an unassisted double play, in the Pirates 5–3 win over the Astros. Van Slyke raced in from center field to catch a fly ball, then continues in to double up Ken Caminiti, who was running from 2nd base on the play.
»September 16, 1995: San Diego beats the Cubs, 12–4, as Sammy Sosa and Ken Caminiti each pound a pair of homers. Caminiti collects one from each side of the plate. Tony Gwynn (.367) has three ribbies going 3-for-5.
»September 17, 1995:
San Diego whips the Cubs, 11–3, as Ken Caminiti homers from both sides of the plate for the 2nd game in a row, tying a ML record. Only Eddie Murray (May 8, 9, 1987) has done that.
»September 19, 1995:
San Diego pummels Colorado, 15-4, as 3B Ken Caminiti drives home eight runs with four hits, including a pair of homers, again from each side of the plate. Caminiti has now hit a pair of homers, right and left-handed, in three of his last four games. He's the only major leaguer to ever to do it three times in a month. Jody Reed has four hits and four runs for the Pads. Andres Galarraga connects for his 30th homer, giving the Rockies four players with 30+ homers. This matches the 1977 Dodgers.
»August 20, 1996: Ken Caminiti has a grand slam and six RBIs to lead the Padres to a 7–4 win over the Expos. Starter Scott Sanders (6-4) pitches six 2/3 innings of no hit ball before Darren Fletcher singles.
»October 8, 1996: Padres star Ken Caminiti undergoes an operation to repair the rotator cuff in his left shoulder, injured against Houston in April. Caminiti's 40 homers, 130 RBI, and .621 slugging mark set Padre records, and he will be the unanimous choice for National League MVP.
»November 13, 1996: San Diego 3B Ken Caminiti is named the MVP of the National League. After the All-Star break, Caminiti led all NL players with a.360 average, 28 homers, and 81 RBI. He sealed the Padres NL West title by going 4-for-4 on September 27 against the Dodgers Ismael Valdes.
»October 7, 1998:
Atlanta scores a run in the last of the 9th to tie the NLCS opener with San Diego at 2–2, but the Padres win in the 10th on Ken Caminiti's home run. The 3–2 victory goes to reliever Trevor Hoffman.
»November 15, 1998: The Astros sign free agent 3B Ken Caminiti to a multi–year contract as the Padres championship team begins to come apart.
»May 11, 1999:
The Astros pound out 18 hits in defeating the Pirates, 19-8. CF Carl Everett drives home five runs for Houston, while 1B Jeff Bagwell and 3B Ken Caminiti plate four apiece. Pirate backup catcher Keith Osik takes one for the team when manager Gene Lamont puts him on the mound in relief instead of his overworked relief corp. With the Pirates down 15-8 in the 8th, Osik walks two, strikes out one, hits a batter and gives up two hits. He allows four runs in his inning of work.
»October 5, 1999: The Astros defeat the Braves, 6-1, in the opener of their division series. Shane Reynolds gets the win for Houston, as 3B Ken Caminiti notches three hits, including a 3-run home run.
»October 6, 1999: The Braves defeat the Astros, 5-1, to even their series at one game apiece. Kevin Millwood hurls a 1-hitter for the victory, the only Houston safety being a 2nd-inning home run by 3B Ken Caminiti. It is the 1st complete game 1-hitter hurled in postseason play in 32 years.
»October 9, 1999:
The Braves jump out to a 7-0 lead, then hold on to defeat the Astros, 7-5, to win their division series, 3-games-to-1. John Smoltz gets the win for Atlanta, while 3B Ken Caminiti hits his 3rd home run of the series for Houston.
»May 16, 2000:
The Brewers defeat the Astros, 6-5, in 16 innings. 3B Ken Caminiti gets five hits for Houston, including a double.
»May 12, 2001:
Texas whips the White Sox, 16–6 as Alex Rodriguez hits a 1st inning home run, his 200th. He's the 5th youngest to reach the mark. He adds his 201st, a 3-run shot, in the 9th. Gabe Kapler and Ken Caminiti also homer.
»November 14, 2001:
Former NL MVP Ken Caminiti is arrested in Houston on drug possession charges after being found with crack cocaine.
»May 29, 2002: In an article in Sports Illustrated magazine, former National League MVP Ken Caminiti says that about 50 percent of current ML players use some form of steroids.