King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The sudden death of steroid-abusing MVP Ken Caminiti is an argument against a punitive approach to baseball's drug problem. Plus: McCarver calls this column a liar.


Salon Staff
October 11, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

What an awful day. Two playoff games were played Sunday, one a series clincher and the other a nail-biter, and the Monday headlines are about death.

Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League Most Valuable Player, died of an apparent heart attack in New York at the age of 41. In Panama, two relatives of Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera died Saturday and a third was critically injured in an accident while they were cleaning his swimming pool. Rivera flew to Panama Sunday, telling the Yankees he would be back in time for Tuesday's American League Championship Series Game 1.

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On the field, the Braves beat the Astros 6-5 to force a Game 5 in their series Monday night in Atlanta. The winner will advance to the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, who eliminated the Dodgers with a 6-2 win in Game 4 Sunday.

It seems a bit crude to try to assess what the deaths of two people, one of them 14 years old, thousands of miles away will do to the Yankees' chances against the Red Sox in the ALCS, so let's not. We'll worry about the Yankees and Red Sox Tuesday.

Caminiti retired in 2001, but his death has an immediate impact on the game because he told Sports Illustrated in May 2002 that he used steroids in his MVP season. In a report in which S.I. called baseball "a pharmacological trade show," Caminiti estimated that half the players in the big leagues were steroid users. He later scaled back his estimate.

His revelation, along with a similar admission by Jose Canseco -- who put the figure at 85 percent -- raised the profile of the steroid debate in baseball, and three months later a weak testing plan with ridiculously non-severe penalties was put in place in the new collective bargaining agreement. But it took the BALCO scandal to really bring the issue to the front burner last offseason, and management began publicly pressing the players union to agree to a stricter testing program.

We don't yet know why Caminiti died. An autopsy was scheduled for Monday. In addition to his steroid use Caminiti battled alcohol and drug addictions for years. Just last week he was given 180 days in jail in Houston for violating his probation on a 2001 cocaine arrest. He'd tested positive for cocaine again. He was given credit for time served. We don't know if any of this contributed to Caminiti's early demise.

My guess, though, is that Caminiti's death will bring added pressure on the players to agree to more stringent testing. The issue will be raised in the presidential campaign, I'd be willing to bet if betting weren't so frowned upon in baseball.

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Ken Caminiti, professional athlete and steroid abuser, dead at 41. Can there be a better argument for strict testing and severe punishment for steroid use? That's how it'll go.

But it seems to me that Caminiti's death is a pretty good argument against strict steroid testing. Caminiti's life and death are a testament to the fact that a punitive approach to drug problems simply doesn't work. It doesn't work in civilian life. It doesn't work in sports with strict testing. It won't work in baseball.

Caminiti spent his entire post-baseball life in the criminal-justice system, claiming at every step of the way that he'd realized his mistakes and it wouldn't happen again. And then he'd test positive for coke. I'm going to guess that if you or anyone in your life has ever been a drug abuser, this sounds familiar.

A criminal approach -- testing and punishment -- does accomplish some things. It keeps the testers employed, it makes the lawmakers and enforcers feel like they're accomplishing something and it enriches black marketeers. But it doesn't solve the drug problem.

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What does solve the problem? Search me. If you have a warrant, I mean.

But drug users use drugs because they want to use drugs, not because they won't be punished for using them. Athletes make the decision to use performance-enhancing drugs because in their mind the arguments in favor of using outweigh the arguments against. The key to changing that behavior is to improve the arguments against. Make them earlier, make them more convincing and make them more often.

Will that work? I don't know. But let's ask Ken Caminiti how well the criminal approach worked to solve his drug problem. And while we're waiting for an answer, maybe we should work on some alternative approaches.

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McCarver calls this column a liar [PERMALINK]

Tim McCarver in the ninth inning of the Cardinals' Game 4 win over the Dodgers Sunday night: "Anyone who says that they picked the St. Louis Cardinals to win the Central Division of the National League is revising history. They are not telling the truth."

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That's just slander. Read it and weep, McCarver.

I expect an on-air apology.

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Fox cliché watch: An upset! [PERMALINK]

In the interest of fairness, I feel compelled to bring you a transcript of the introduction to Sunday night's baseball broadcast on Fox.

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These first moments of the show, as you know, are where purple prose, cascading clichés and head-scratching high concept rule -- perhaps you caught that long, long, LOOOOOONG opening Saturday, which had something to do with monsters and scary stuff. I'm not sure. I got distracted because I had two birthdays during it.

Anyway, the Cardinals-Dodgers Game 4 came out of football broadcasts that had run over, and here's what Jeanne Zelasko had to say after a few bars of the synergistic "California" by Phantom Planet, the theme song of Fox's "The OC."

"Right now on Fox: It took 15 years for the Dodgers to get a postseason victory, and they don't have that kind of time with the Cardinals, because tonight it's another do or die. A Dodger loss sends the Cardinals to the NLCS and the boys in blue into the offseason."

That's it! The restraint! The editing! The actually halfway-decent line about the Dodgers not having that kind of time! And only two ("boys in blue," "do or die") clich&eacute's, less than one per sentence.

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Wow!

I'm sorry to say the whole weekend wasn't this kind of success for Zelasko and Co. The sad fact is that the woman just has a penchant for saying weird, wrong things.

Before Game 3 Friday, as Adrian Beltre of the Dodgers and Larry Walker of the Cardinals appeared on-screen, she said, "A couple guys ready to hit it because it's been a collective 14 seasons since these two have been a part of the October landscape. You know they will make the most of it."

A collective 14 years? What was she talking about? Walker was last in the postseason in 1995 with the Rockies. Beltre was last in the postseason ... never. The Dodgers haven't been to the playoffs since 1996, and Beltre came up in '98. If you're thinking she meant the teams, the Dodgers have been out of October play for eight years, the Cardinals -- two. Maybe she meant Walker the person and the Dodgers the team. Let's see, nine plus eight is ... Dang!

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Evidently, Zelasko has taken to just making random stuff up. A few minutes after the mathematical brain teaser, she introduced a mini-feature on Walker: "You've heard the saying 'It comes in threes'? For Larry Walker those are words to live by. He is obsessed with the number. He wears the number 33. The paychecks have to end in three. He's gotta get up early? The alarm is set for 7:03. And while he is now hitting second in the lineup and hit two home runs in the opener, remember: This series is still a best of three."

Well, actually it was a best of five, but thanks for the insights.

And by the way, does it annoy you as much as it does me that Fox refers to the baseball postseason as "the MLB playoffs"? Is there any stone that Fox will leave unturned to show that it has no feel for baseball? Does anybody who's seen more than five baseball games in their life use "MLB" that way?

Previous column: Baseball and debates

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