Ken Caminiti steps in, his game face ready for New York. His
blue eyes are as piercing as daggers, even from the shadow of
his bony brow. His mouth is tightly shut, the corners turned
down as if from the weight of his thick black goatee and
mustache. His eyebrows are scrunched together in a knot. This is
the visage that earned the San Diego Padres' third baseman the
nickname Scary Man from the hometown fans. He is a dangerous
hitter who is causing people to squirm. How, they must be
wondering, can we possibly get this guy out?
Then the doors to the number 7 subway train close behind him,
and the metal cars go clacking and clanging off to Shea Stadium.
The first pitch of the Padres' game with the Mets is seven hours
"He's got that look," says Padres utilityman Scott Livingstone,
Caminiti's roommate and commuting partner from Manhattan to
Queens last week. "You could tell people were thinking, He'll be
robbing the train. I always feel safe riding the train with
Cami. He gets on, and people just start handing over their
Intimidating? Just imagine this Merchant of Menace with a bat in
his hands. The damage looked like this at week's end, with 24
games still remaining for first-place San Diego: .316 batting
average, 31 home runs, 108 runs batted in, the most home runs in
one month (14, in August) by a National League switch-hitter and
the most career games with dingers from both sides of the plate
(seven) in league history. Now that's scary, man.
September 8, 1996
That seventh switch-hit homer game came after the 7 train let
him off at Shea, on Aug. 28. With his team trailing the Mets
2-0, Caminiti led off the seventh inning with an opposite-field
home run batting lefthanded against Mark Clark. Caminiti then
tied the game leading off the ninth with a 409-foot bomb batting
righthanded against John Franco. San Diego won 3-2 in 12 innings.
The world of sports hasn't seen a game face with this kind of
intensity since Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary retired
in 1992. And Caminiti hits harder. He's not only a tough out but
also a tough hombre. This season Caminiti, 33, played a stretch
with such a badly strained left shoulder that he could not lift
his elbow out from the side of his body. (Even now he can raise
the elbow no higher than his shoulder.) Earlier this season he
played with such a badly strained groin muscle that one doctor
thought he had a hernia. And recently he played most of a game
just minutes after plucking an IV needle out of his left arm. No
wonder Caminiti, who is as spectacular as ever afield and has
the best infield arm in baseball, looks like this, too: the
front-runner for the National League's Most Valuable Player award.
"He has single-handedly kept us in this thing," San Diego
pitcher Bob Tewksbury says of the Padres' one-game lead through
Sunday in the National League West. "He has the best combination
of mental toughness and baseball ability of anyone I've ever
Caminiti is a throwback, the kind of ballplayer who would look
good in heavy flannel. He runs hard on routine fly balls and
doesn't tiptoe around catchers. "If it's close," he says of a
play at the plate, "I'm going to clean the guy."
He is fiercely loyal. He married his high school sweetheart,
still drives his first set of wheels (a '73 pickup, which he has
rebuilt) and forsook the greater riches of free agency after
having had the best year of his career (.302, 26 homers) in 1995
to remain with San Diego for $6.1 million over two years. "I
have a very addictive personality," he says.
"Whatever Ken does, he does all out," says his wife, Nancy. That
would apply not only to baseball but also to riding his
customized motorcycle; obsessing about his '55 Chevy, which he
built into one of the country's top show cars; and, more sadly,
to his years of drinking that once made a season like this
impossible for him.
Caminiti, his darkly tanned face gone a ghostly alabaster, is
lying on the floor of the manager's office in Monterrey, Mexico,
hooked to an IV that is hung from the ceiling with a bent coat
hanger. It is the second liter of fluids being pumped into his
dehydrated body. The first pitch of an Aug. 18 game against the
Mets is seven minutes away. San Diego manager Bruce Bochy has
left a blank space next to the third base position on his lineup
card. "I think I can go," Caminiti says.
"Get out of here," the manager scoffs.
How could Caminiti possibly play? He hadn't slept the previous
night. He had been violently ill from something he ate, so sick
that when departure time neared for the bus that would take the
Padres from their hotel to the ballpark, Caminiti thought, No
way I'm getting out of bed. I'm going to miss the game. I'm
going to miss the flight. I'll be a resident of Monterrey,
Mexico. I don't care.
But bent at the waist, he struggled into the shower, packed his
bags and made it to the bus and the ballpark, whereupon Padres
doctors rigged the IV just before he was ready to pass out. Now,
at 4 p.m. with Bochy off to the dugout, Caminiti announces, "I'm
ready to go." Wait, the doctors tell him, we have to check your
pulse and blood pressure. But he is gone. He races to the field,
runs a couple of sprints, throws a couple of baseballs and tells
Bochy, "Let's go."
Famished and wobbly, he wolfs down a Snickers bar before his
first at bat. He slams a home run. His next time up, in the
third, he bashes a three-run homer. After striking out in the
fifth inning, he can barely stand up and has to be tethered to
the IV again. He does not return to the game.
"You really had to be there," Bochy says. "He looked so bad--I
mean, all curled up in pain on the floor--that I figured he'd
miss two or three days. Ken Caminiti is the toughest, most
intense player I've ever been around."
"Then, the first day home, he hit a grand slam," says teammate
Tony Gwynn. "The next time up he gets a two-run single. In five
at bats he had four hits, three home runs, 10 RBIs, three IVs
and two Snickers. The guy is amazing."
"That topped it off for me," says Tewksbury. "I'll carry his
bags to the plane from now on if he wants."
Talk about your sugar buzzes. After the Snickers episode, the
Padres went 10-1 to reach a season-high 16 games over .500. What
Montreal Expos outfielder Henry Rodriguez did for O Henry! bars
and what Jerry Seinfeld did for Junior Mints, Caminiti has done
for Snickers, which has since paid him a nominal fee for
promotional purposes. People keep giving him the gooey ingots.
And San Diego hitters have come up with a new rally cry to bust
out of slumps: Get me an IV and a Snickers.
"This is the way I see it," Caminiti says. "I love to play. We
get paid a lot of money to go out and play, so I'm going to
play. For me, it's easy to go out there. Playing baseball is
what I love to do."
He picked up that ethic from his father, Lee. "He was so
mentally tough," Caminiti says. Every morning Lee left the
family home in San Jose to work at Lockheed. He never told his
children what he did there. It was classified information.
Whenever Ken would ask, Lee would respond only with, "I work in
space, son." Lee is retired now. Ken still does not know what
his father did at Lockheed.
Caminiti earned a scholarship to San Jose State, where he played
two years, was drafted in the third round by Houston in 1984 and
was in the big leagues three years later. He enjoyed the major
league lifestyle, especially on the road. He was out drinking
virtually every night on trips. Once, after several drinks
following a day game in Chicago, he walked into a tattoo parlor
and came out with a panther on his left calf. By 1993 he was
often telling himself in the morning that this was the day the
drinking would stop--and by nighttime he was in another bar,
telling himself tomorrow would be the last of it, for sure.
Finally, after that season, and after a full week of crying, he
did "the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life." He admitted
he wasn't so tough. He admitted he needed help. He checked into
Caminiti avoids public discussion about his drinking. But the
rehabilitation clearly turned around his career and his life.
"Oh, yeah, I've noticed a change," Nancy says. "Just to be able
to sit still, be calm. And he's more talkative."
Now a fitness buff, well-sculpted at 220 pounds, Caminiti has
gained 20 pounds of muscle while reducing his body fat from 16%
to 9%. He entered rehab a .257 career hitter and has batted .301
since, which includes the past two seasons with San Diego after
being sent there as part of a 12-player trade by Houston.
Post-rehab, he has hit more home runs (75 to 57) in less than
half as many at bats.
Caminiti is still getting better. Last month he set franchise
records with 14 home runs and 38 RBIs. "I'm in a tree," Caminiti
says, "and I'm holding on to the branch. Right now I'm groovin'."
Caminiti travels with two stacks of pictures: one of Nancy and
their two daughters, the other of the motorcycle and the '55
Chevy. The car has 1,100 horsepower. He has put $11,000 into the
exhaust system alone. Caminiti acquired the car from a little
old lady in Oklahoma five years ago for $3,900, and he rebuilt
it so meticulously that he applied the front bumper in eight
seamlessly welded sections so "it fits like a glove."
"When he gets back to the room after a game," Livingstone says,
"he doesn't even like to watch himself on SportsCenter
highlights. He just likes to talk about his motorcycle and his
Scary Man can intimidate even his own teammates. "I played with
Kirk Gibson in Detroit and was his partner in cards,"
Livingstone says. "He was so intense, there were times I was
afraid to put down the wrong card and set him off. Cami is
intense like that too. You've really got to know him before you
joke around with him, and even if you do, he might take it the
wrong way. We like to say he has a hard laugh at a joke if more
than one tooth shows. Guys on this team just watch him and are
in awe. You see how many guys on this team have goatees? It's
because of him. It's like a tribute." No one, though, has quite
captured the ferocity of Caminiti's look. Of course Nancy laughs
about this Scary Man business. "I think it's funny," she says.
Tough? You know that panther tattoo? After Nancy caught one look
at it, Ken spent the next three nights sleeping on the couch.
And the goatee? "It's gone after the last inning of the last
game," he says.
"Actually, I think he looks better without it," Nancy says, "but
last year he shaved it during the season, and all the [Padres]
pitchers begged him to grow it back. They said he looks a lot
tougher with it."
So Caminiti goes on scaring the bejabbers out of pitchers and
straphangers alike. No one else works harder at it. That day he
rode the subway in New York was typical: rise at 8 a.m. for a
lumberjack's breakfast ($35 worth of eggs, pancakes, ham, toast,
etc.); ride the train to the park around noon; take early
batting practice (he does so almost every day); study videotape;
get a cranky back manipulated into place; play 12 innings; bang
two home runs; drink two protein shakes; lift weights for 30
It was one o'clock in the morning--a little more than 12 hours
away from the next game--when Caminiti finally headed to the
showers. The rest of the team was on the bus, ready to return to
the hotel, when Bochy asked Caminiti if he was coming. "I'll get
a taxi," he said.
"No," Bochy said. "You'll come with us. We'll wait for you.
You've been carrying us for a while; I think we can carry you."