Claim to fame: Caminiti was a tough-as-nails third baseman with Gold Glove-winning defense and good power, though that was overshadowed by so much. Persistent substance abuse throughout his life ultimately ended it at 41 in 2004. Caminiti was also the first notable baseball player to admit using steroids, in a June 3, 2002 Sports Illustrated cover story, and since then, the sport has changed dramatically. I wouldn’t give Caminiti a Hall of Fame plaque due to his so-so career stats, but I think his impact on the game has been undervalued. Baseball’s gotten a lot better since Caminiti had the courage to speak up.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Not surprisingly, Caminiti received just two votes out of more than 500 cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2007, his only year on its ballot. He will be eligible with the Veterans Committee in 2021 and looks like an extreme long shot for Cooperstown, since the committee will have a backlog in the next 15-20 years of steroid-connected players shunned by the writers. I can’t see Caminiti getting in the Hall of Fame before Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and so many others with better stats.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This was going to be a column about Jose Canseco, whose inglorious retirement was the subject of a recent blog post by Josh Wilker. I wondered if Canseco deserved a column here on the strength of his 2005 book Juiced, which was the first to name other players alleged to have used steroids, and then I remembered Caminiti, who was Canseco three years before him. In fact, there may have been no book from Canseco if Caminiti hadn’t bolstered the market (though the SI story noted that Canseco said upon his retirement in early 2002 that he would write his tell-all, though he didn’t admit to using steroids then.)
Some may credit Steve Wilstein, who reported on a steroid-related supplement in Mark McGwire’s locker during the 1998 home run chase. But Wilstein was excoriated by the baseball community and fellow sportswriters following his story, and the Steroid Era continued unchecked for another few years. The Caminiti piece signaled a turning point, baseball acknowledging steroids for the first time, and while it took another couple years of wrangling between baseball’s ownership and labor union, steroids were finally banned. The game isn’t perfect today, but I wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were.
Others may credit Tom Verducci, the SI writer who broke the Caminiti story and grew it out of what was originally a Where is he now? assignment. Still, I credit Caminiti. With the exception of Canseco, pretty much every other player who’s admitted to using steroids has minimized their usage, making it sound like a one-time thing, a mistake, even an accident. Caminiti told Verducci he used steroids so heavily during his 1996 National League MVP season that “it took four months to get my nuts to drop on their own.” He also estimated at least half the players in the majors were juicing and said, “I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”
Some might call this all gutter bravado from Caminiti, just a drunk looking back at the mess his life became. I call it humility. I don’t know where baseball would be without it.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.
Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Albert Belle, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Dan Quisenberry, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack Morris, Joe Carter, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Larry Walker, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Will Clark