Steroids, Ken Caminiti and the inside story of the SI article that changed baseball forever
- Sports Illustrated's June 3, 2002 cover story featured an admission by former NL MVP Ken Caminiti detailing his steroid use, an admission that formally ignited the worst baseball scandal in decades.
When the truth finally arrived, it came not from on high but from a folding lawn chair in a garage. Ken Caminiti, a commoner of a ballplayer if ever there was one, sat there across from me at his Houston-area home in May of 2002 and without regret dared essentially to expose one of the biggest problems in sports. Baseball, he said, is rife with steroids, just as he admitted he was when he won the 1996 National League Most Valuable Player Award.
The admission was the key piece in the SI Special Report cover story I wrote, “Totally Juiced.” The bombshell hit May 29, 2002, in the issue dated June 3. It was 15 years ago this week. It changed baseball, in great part because of Caminiti’s honesty.
Two months earlier, while negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, major league owners had presented the players association with a proposal to begin steroid testing. The union, forever resistant to random testing because of privacy concerns, didn’t bother to respond. That calcified stance on performance-enhancing drugs was bound to change the minute Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) read the story in Sports Illustrated.
After McCain finished reading it, he picked up the phone and called Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Foreign Commerce and Tourism. “Call a meeting,” McCain told him.
Fifteen days later, union chief Donald Fehr and chief labor negotiator for the owners Rob Manfred were called on the carpet in Washington, where they testified in front of the committee. And just 50 days after that, with their reputation in cartoonish disrepute, the players suddenly got religion when it came to steroids: They agreed to the first random drug tests in their history.
To understand the impact of that story, first you have to understand what baseball was like in 2001. As I wrote the next year, it resembled a pharmaceutical trade show. Players were free to use any performance-enhancing drugs they wanted. Games and jobs were being won and lost not so much on skill but as to who had the better chemist. At age 36, Giants outfielder Barry Bonds—his head and body having thickened noticeably since his 1986 arrival in the majors—hit 73 home runs, 24 more than he had hit in any of his previous 15 seasons.
What started as a few renegade users mushroomed into scores of juicers. The more steroids worked (measured in jobs, statistics and pay), the more players turned to the drugs.
There were only two hurdles to clear for a player to start juicing: they had to get beyond the fear of the side effects of steroids (this was an easy leap for most, given how regimens were becoming more sophisticated and informed) and they had to be comfortable with the moral decision of using illegal substances that clearly are intended to subvert the basic tenets of sportsmanship and competition. The second hurdle became easier to clear as steroids grew in popularity, though no one dared admit to using them.
I began to better understand this slippery slope during the 2001 season when more and more clean players began complaining to me about what baseball had become: a game in which you either juiced or you were disadvantaged, perhaps even out of a job. The anger I heard in their voices will stay with me forever.
Steroid use, in general, was no secret then. Bodies were growing freakish, and clean players would whisper about their suspicions about certain players. One veteran described the “steroid starter kit” look: glistening, watery skin (from the HGH), shaved body hair, a helmet that doesn’t fit properly on a growing head, protruding brows or chin, braces on the teeth to accommodate growing facial structure, and a sore buttocks (from the needles). Caminiti defined a thickened tongue, which compromised speech, as another tell-tale sign. Then-Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling would later tell me that the 'roiders looked like Mr. Potato Head, with their mismatched body parts.
But no one knew for certain the specifics or true prevalence of the usage. Steroid users formed a kind of secret society; they spoke about their usage and the culture of the drugs only with other steroid users.
In the winter of 2001-02, as SI's baseball writers and editors met to discuss story ideas for the upcoming season, I said, “The biggest story is steroids in baseball. It’s also the worst kept secret. Somebody is going to write this story—and it better be us.”
I wasn’t talking about yet another story with anonymous sources and guesses about the usage rate. I was talking about absolutely defining the problem. It needed attribution—real people, real facts.
I knew the difficulty of cracking this kind of shadowy culture. Before the 1998 season, I had sat across from Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire in the living room of his home in California's Orange County and flat out asked him if he used steroids. I told him I had heard whispers that the many injuries he suffered resulted from packing on too much muscle through steroid use. (It shocked me when McGwire told me that his famously huge forearms were 17 inches around. I sat there thinking, This guy’s forearms are thicker than my neck.)
Of course, McGwire looked me in the eye and denied using steroids. He told me, “I’ll use anything that’s legal.”
He was playing a nifty game of semantics to ease his conscience. By “legal,” McGwire didn’t mean the laws of the United States. He meant the rules of baseball, in which you could shoot up in the middle of your clubhouse if you wished without any repercussion.
About two months into my reporting on the 2002 story, I got my big break. I called Caminiti, who had played his last game the previous October. I knew him well, and in the same way most everybody knew Caminiti: a model teammate, a tough dude and an honest man.
“Sure. Come to Houston,” he said.
He gave me his address. I met him the next afternoon. He told me he was going through drug and alcohol rehabilitation, that he needed another surgery on his ankle (he had suffered a series of joint and muscular injuries as a player) and that all the synthetic testosterone he shot into his body had shut down much of his natural testosterone production. He was only 38 years old, but he seemed weary.
We sat on lawn chairs in his big garage (he loved to work on cars) and talked for hours about drugs in baseball. He detailed how he got started on them: To play through a shoulder injury in 1996 he drove to Mexico, bought steroids and self-administered, knowing nothing about “cycles” and how to use them. On steroids, he immediately hit more home runs in the second half that season than he ever did in any full season.
“I felt like Superman,” he told me.
Ever the ideal teammate, not once, either on or off the record, did he name another player who used steroids. I’m sure he knew of others, but he took responsibility only for himself.
If the complaints of clean players in 2001 had begun to convince me that steroid use had grown beyond a few renegade players, then what Caminiti told me convinced me it was an epidemic. He had no regrets about using steroids and given the choice he would use them again. Why? Because they were so prevalent they were becoming not just an “edge” but what you needed to do to keep up.
Before amphetamines were banned, a player who played without popping pills before a game was said to be “playing naked.” It was not a compliment. It inferred that you weren’t using everything at your disposal to be your best. Steroids weren’t quite on that same level of ubiquity, but they had become mainstream. Baseball had become a game that turned itself over to chemists and drug gurus.
That night Caminiti and I went for dinner at his usual place, a pancake house, where they knew to bring him his usual order of 10 egg whites. During the dinner he turned to me and said, “Is this a pretty big story?”
“Yes,” I said. “This is going to be pretty big.”
He paused just a moment and then said, “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
The unflinching honesty and accountability of the man impressed me, especially against the backdrop of a bastardized game with institutional protection for liars and cheats.
When the story hit, people revealed themselves with their reaction.
The media fixated on Caminiti’s claim that about 50% of the players were using steroids. They took it as if Caminiti had conducted a scientific poll, when he fact he was just a ballplayer giving his thumbnail guess at the usage rate.
The exact percentage wasn’t important. What was important was that Caminiti knew drug use in baseball was so prevalent that it could be true that half the players in the game were juicing. Would it have been okay if he said 40% were juicing? Thirty? Twenty? That would still mean there were 240 juicers on 40-man rosters. Would that have been acceptable?
(Caminiti wasn’t alone with his claim. Schilling also claimed 50% were using, and the other 50% were thinking about it. Chad Curtis, whose last major league season had come the year before with Texas, estimated to me that 40 to 50% of the players were juicing.)
The best response to the claim came from future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who said, “The article said 50%. Well, I’m not one of them. So that’s 49% right there.”
Major League Baseball suddenly grew tough on steroids. Yes, commissioner Bud Selig had instituted drug testing the previous year in the minors, where union cooperation was not needed. But nobody in the commissioner’s office was making steroids a front burner issue, which is why the union could get away with no response to their March 2002 proposal.
The old guard in the union, who back then still cast a long shadow over Fehr and the association, blasted MLB for essentially colluding with the media. Former counsel Dick Moss said MLB was trying to “embarrass the players association.” Former executive director Marvin Miller said the league was “using whatever leverage they can get from the media, Sports Illustrated, for example.”
Rank and file opinion split along very telling lines. Clean players rejoiced and called for immediate testing, a public stance that before Caminiti would have been viewed as mutinous. The large chorus that suddenly found their voices included big names like Lance Berkman, Mark Grace, Trevor Hoffman, Eric Karros,Robb Nen, Jorge Posada and Frank Thomas. Royals All-Star Mike Sweeney said, “If you’re a player that is clean and other players are out there who are not clean, it gives the other players an unfair advantage. In Major League Baseball, they’re talking about disparity, creating a level playing surface. That’s one way to create it, among the players at least.”
Said Hoffman, “It should be illegal in baseball. If you have something to hide, you’re probably not going to want [testing].”
Others, for instance, reacted with incredulity and bitterness.
Mets catcher Mike Piazza, repeating the most hackneyed defense of steroids, inferred that steroids did nothing for a baseball player. Ignoring that ballplayers already have world class hand-eye coordination, he said, “If being big and strong is a prerequisite for hitting 70 home runs, you’d have every Mr. Olympian contestant coming out because God knows there’s no money in body building, at least not the money we make.”
He went even further in his absurd defense of steroids, saying, “If you’re going to test in baseball, you might as well test in bowling and darts.”
Bonds and the Yankees' Jason Giambi, the latter of whom would later admit to using steroids, cribbed from the same script of canards. Said Giambi, “It doesn’t help you hit the ball. In a lot of cases it’s a detriment to your career. If you are going to achieve a lot of potential things, there is one common denominator, and that’s longevity.”
Bonds earlier had told reporters, “You still have to hit that baseball … I think [steroid use] is really irrelevant to the game of baseball.” After the story came out he told Bob Costas he didn’t need steroids because “I’m a good enough ballplayer as it is. I don’t need to be any better. I can’t get any better at this age.”
In fact, Bonds hit 317 home runs starting in his age-36 season of 2001, a whopping 72 more than any of the more than 18,000 major league players in history had hit after age 35.
Dodgers catcher Paul LoDuca, another player who later would admit to using PEDs, unwittingly identified one of steroids’ corrosive elements when he reacted by saying, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. If you’re battling for a job, and the guy you’re battling with is using steroids, then maybe you say, ‘Hey, to compete I need steroids because he’s using them.’ Maybe you feel that’s the only way to compete with him.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone it, but it’s a very tough situation. It’s really all about survival for some guys.”
Apparently it wasn’t about survival for the clean guys.
Fehr went in front of Dorgan’s Senate committee and complained about—yep—the media.
He testified that people would get the wrong impression of the union’s concerns “if one were simply to pay attention to cursory sound bites or sensational magazine covers or some of the other press coverage that we’ve seen …”
Right. That “sensational” magazine cover was the real problem.
He also clung to the union doctrine that no player should be subject to random testing for PEDs, though it was a fact of athletic life in most places around the world.
“The players association has always believed,” he testified, “that one should not, absent compelling safety considerations, invade the privacy of an individual without a substantial reason—that is to say without cause—related to conduct by that individual and not merely to his status as an employed baseball player.”
It would be the last breath of the union’s "privacy" defense. It crumbled the next month. Bowing to public pressure with their image battered and the steroid problem finally defined and out from the shadows, the players agreed to a CBA that included survey testing for steroids in 2003, which included a mechanism that triggered full-scale random testing in '04. It has remained since. Miller, who died in 2012 at age 95, went to his grave insisting it was a mistake for the players to agree to testing.
Testing didn’t end steroid use in baseball. As I’ve written recently, it still goes on, and always will as long as there is big money at stake for young, competitive people, especially when the risk/reward calculus of the Joint Drug Agreement is not prohibitive. Players can’t be barred for good unless they fail three tests. But at least there is a posted speed limit now.
The game has changed for the better. The joke of players getting better at baseball in their late 30s, for instance, ended with steroid testing. The number of hitters who qualified for the batting title or pitchers who qualified for the ERA title at age 35-and-over has dropped 40% in the past two years (36) as compared to the last two seasons without steroid penalties (60).
The number of 60-home run seasons also is revelatory. In just a four-year window at the height of The Steroid Era (1998 to 2001) there were six such seasons, all by hitters connected to steroids: Bonds, McGwire (twice) and Sammy Sosa (three times). In the 137 other seasons before and since that tiny window, it has happened only twice.
When the story broke, Caminiti drew the wrath of the union and the players who wanted to keep their secret going. Giants manager Dusty Baker called him a “snitch,” though Caminiti named only himself as a PED user and took full responsibility. Former Astros teammate and friend Jeff Bagwell gave Caminiti no support, saying, “This whole thing is a shame. The only thing I’m saying about the whole deal, everyone is a grown man. Everyone makes their own decisions. To come up with numbers—50%, 85%—unless you're in every single clubhouse, you can’t make that assessment.”
Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn said he never used steroids and ripped Caminiti for “belittling other people’s success.” According to 2007's Mitchell Report, in '01Vaughn wrote at least three checks totaling $8,600 for PEDs to clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, who delivered the drugs to him personally.
The attacks on Caminiti were cruel. His peers abandoned the most honest man in a den of thieves—all because he had the nerve to tell the truth. So dishonest and illegitimate is steroid use that of the hundreds of players who chose that path only a handful have ever willingly admitted it without being pressured to respond to a report or failed test. Caminiti is one of them, as are Gary Sheffield (to me in SI in 2004), former pitcher Dan Naulty (to Sen. George Mitchell) and maybe one or two others.
The San Diego Padres, and general manager Kevin Towers in particular, did reach out to Caminiti, their former star whom Towers once called one of his “all-time favorite” players. They gave him a part-time job in 2004 as a spring training instructor. Later that year, just days after testing positive for cocaine in violation of his probation from an earlier drug charge, Caminiti dropped dead of a heart attack in a Bronx apartment. He was just 41 years old.
Caminiti was one of the many who prospered because of steroids. He earned $37 million playing baseball. Last year the Padres even put their only MVP winner in their Hall of Fame. As we sat in those lawn chairs 15 years ago, his lack of remorse about using steroids staggered me, even as he explained to me how his body could no longer produce enough testosterone, which was impacting his physical and mental health.
“You know what that’s like?” he said. “You get lethargic. You get depressed. It’s terrible.”
Even living with those effects, he told me he would not warn a young player to stay away from steroids, not when that player’s job and his money were at stake, not when playing clean was a competitive disadvantage.
“I’ve made a ton of mistakes,” he said. “I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”
On that day, with only three years left to live as it turned out, Caminiti defined the Steroid Era. He defined a rogue game left unchecked, a game in which you either played dirty or you played disadvantaged. He put his name on it willingly, with nothing to hide. That alone made him rare. But 15 years later, he should be remembered for something even bigger: making possible the next era, an era with testing. The game we have today, better but forever vulnerable, began in that garage.