Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ken Caminiti Game-Used Bat Card

I pretty much stopped caring about baseball following the players' strike in 1994; that, in itself, turned into hatred for the sport in late 2001 when my hometown Montréal Expos were done being dismantled by then-majority owner Jeffrey Loria and 'sold' to Major League Baseball in one of the shadiest deals in the history of the business world.

But for much of the 80s and half of the 90s, it was a sport I would at times partake in with friends, and one I would go see at least 10 times each summer, despite the Olympic Stadium's not-quite-ideal location.

One guy that always gave my team a lot of trouble was Houston Astros' third baseman Ken Caminiti, and the team we'd always have to beat to win our division and make the playoffs were the Atlanta Braves. This Topps card (card #TTR-KC from the 2001 Topps Traded And Rookies set) combines both headache-and-nightmare inducing entities in just one, with an authentic piece of a game-used baseball bat that he likely used to crush the Expos with.

Caminiti's fate, however, is symptomatic of the rampant corruption of the sport from the 90s onwards and of the little care its owners took in ensuring the players - their product, as it were - remain healthy and receive the medical and psychological help they need.

Like many others named in the 2004 Mitchell Report on steroid use - and countless others who got away with it - Caminiti was a bona fide star player, one of the, say, 3 best players on his team; he would bat for .250, hit over 20 home runs, and had the potential to go .300 with 30 homers.

By 1994, he had already admitted to an alcohol problem (one he would not enter rehab for until 2000, though, for some odd reason). Cocaine use was also an issue. By 1996, he'd added steroids to the mix, but instead of people finding his character had changed, he was praised for his new-found power and he won the National League MVP award, batting .326 with 40 home runs, almost double his previous season's numbers. No one found it strange.

In 2001, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and sentenced to probation. In 2002, in a Sports Illustrated cover story, he admitted to steroid use during his MVP season, and even a few seasons after that (likely the end of 1999, when injuries brought his home run totals down to 13, from 29 the previous year).

In September 2004, he was sentenced to 180 days in prison for having been caught with cocaine again - for the fourth time. On October 5th, he admitted in court to having violated his probation (i.e. been taking coke the whole time), and, five days later, was found dead of a heart failure.

Autopsy results showed coronary artery disease and heart hypertrophy (an enlarged heart, a condition that occurs more and more in the sports world when drugs are involved, someone should look into that) but, more importantly, that it was caused by ''an acute intoxication due to the combined effects of cocaine and opiates'', meaning a drug overdose, resulting from a mix of either cocaine and heroin, or cocaine and a legal form of opiates, maybe Oxycontin.

So, not content in being a star player, Caminiti, already using illegal substances and judgement-impaired, chose to enhance his performance for what turned out to be one magical season, in exchange for dying at age 41 in the Bronx, where he seemingly had no business going.

He and at least 89 other players risked their health under the complicit eye of Major League Baseball, who cared less about taking care of its primary source of revenue than putting asses in the seats, and since inflated statistics meant higher ratings and more revenue, they refused to question the obvious.

It's natural for a professional sports league to have 25 to 40 superstars to sell to their public, but when records are shattered every year by previously unheralded players, and suddenly 200 players have superstar stats, not only is the whole situation questionable, it must also be hell for the league's PR department, who no longer have a clue who to promote and make money off of.

It's too bad guys like Caminiti went this route; he'd had a good career, and it could have been twice as long should he not have risked it for one season. Like Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, he didn't need to enhance hi body's already-impressive capabilities - they were all already All Star Game material. And their cheating undermines the exploits of past baseball greats like Felipe Alou, Tim Raines (despite a short bout of cocaine use), Dennis Martinez (as well), Andre Dawson, Babe Ruth (despite his drunkenness), Ken Griffey Sr, Willie Mays and countless others.

It's a shame, it really is, but you lnow what? Given the way MLB has treated my City and the two million people that went to see the Expos when the going was good, it's also just what it deserves. When you disrespect the fans who pay to see your show, and the players they pay to see, it has to blow up in your face at some point. And I'm glad to see the NFL - a real league with decency rules overseeing an exciting sport - stepped in to steal MLB's TV ratings. Karma's a bitch.

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