In Caminiti's sad story, union must share blame

October 12, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

"I got really strong, really quick. I pulled a lot of muscles. I broke down a lot. I'm still paying for it. My tendons and ligaments got all torn up. My muscles got too strong for my tendons and ligaments. And now my body's not producing testosterone. You know what that's like? You get lethargic. You get depressed. It's terrible." - Ken Caminiti, May 2002, to Sports Illustrated

KEN CAMINITI is dead. We don't know the cause. After an autopsy yesterday, it could be a week or more before results from toxicology tests are revealed. But it's difficult not to question whether drugs, including steroids, played a role in his death.

Yesterday, Major League Baseball was unable to say when it will announce revisions to its toothless drug policy.

"We've been having ongoing discussions with the union. I'd like to announce additional negotiated changes. From a bargaining perspective, however, I'm not going to get into [changes being negotiated]," said Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of labor relations.

Translation: The commissioner's office wants a stricter drug policy. Congress told baseball to get one. But the union still thinks its mission is to protect the rights of the minority of players who cheat rather than the majority who don't.

Some of us recall an interesting moment in March when baseball players union chief Donald Fehr was skewered by the Senate Commerce Committee.

"I can tell you and your players you represent, the status quo is not acceptable," Sen. John McCain said.

Imagine if Fehr weren't a friend of McCain's or if the president had not equated the moral character of steroid cheats to Osama bin Laden. Maybe McCain and President Bush and the U.S. attorneys prosecuting the steroid-makers at BALCO have been politicking in grand style about steroids being a national threat. It's an easy issue.

Doesn't mean baseball must not do better.

Lord knows Caminiti was fighting, and losing, the fight against drugs. Now, his name has appeared in the obituary column. Now, his body is at the morgue.

Somewhere else in the Bronx today, baseball's biggest spotlight is going to shine on Yankee Stadium. The Yankees and the Red Sox figured to be the giddy, overwhelming sporting spectacle of the week.

Now, resurgent baseball finds its most insidious scourge sharing headlines.

And Barry Bonds isn't even in the playoffs.

No one is saying Bonds used steroids, not even Gary Sheffield. The Yankees slugger said last week that he unknowingly took a cream steroid while training with Bonds.

Then again, no one is exactly sure Bonds didn't use steroids, which is why his 700-homer assault on Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron summons, at best, ambivalence.

The suspicion, the lingering drug investigation by the feds, the cynicism about what Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire did together - it's their own fault, owners and players who have been feuding so long they've created cynics out of fans.

Mostly, however, it's the union that has stonewalled on this issue. Fehr and the union's chief operating officer, Gene Orza, have balked at doing anything substantive to protect the health of players - not to mention safeguard the integrity of the game.

This, even after Caminiti talked about steroid use in baseball. He took steroids in 1996, the year he hit 40 homers and drove in 130 runs and won the Most Valuable Player award.

A legendary abuser of his body, Caminiti tore off toenails, hooked up to IV fluids on locker room floors and played a season with a torn rotator cuff. No wonder. He was chemically emboldened to play, to win, to deaden the pain.

Sports merely mirrors society. Lawbreakers and drug abusers aren't any more prevalent in baseball than anywhere else in society. No reason to extrapolate his sorry circumstances as a referendum on the seamiest side of sport.

That's one rationale.

Here are others: Cocaine is deadly, but cocaine isn't an issue in baseball or professional sports, not like it was in the 1980s. So why be vigilant against drug use in baseball when it's only marijuana and steroids and those things don't cause you to drop dead? Initial reports said it was a heart attack that killed Caminiti, but he was an addict whose struggles with drugs had been dishearteningly well-documented, so the reasons for his death seem far more complicated.

Now, with Caminiti's body on the coroner's table, there's only one place to lay the blame for the former third baseman's terrible, twisted legacy: How to go from MVP to corpse in eight years? If it's determined the answer is drugs, at least part of the blame lies with the union, which says privacy issues are more important than the health of baseball players. Orioles prospect Steve Bechler died after taking ephedrine at spring training. Then baseball agreed to ban it.

So here we are today. Baseball is still working on a drug policy. And Ken Caminiti, the addict who cracked the door open on a place where cheating and health risks lurk, is dead in the Bronx.

"Look at all the money in the game. A kid got $252 million," Caminiti told Sports Illustrated. "So I can't say, `Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job and make the money."

Rest in peace, Ken.

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