Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Cheering for a False Idol

June 30, 2011

My heroes always carried a glove, not a cape.  Somewhere in my closet, I had a nice collection of comic books, but they were just a collection.  My pride and joy were my baseball cards.  I spent countless hours memorizing stats, sorting them and creating trades in my head (an early precursor to fantasy baseball).  These weren’t just guys playing baseball.  They represented everything I wanted to be.  Simply put, the Houston Astros were my life.  To a large degree, they still are, but it’s not and will never be the same again.  As a kid, I was fortunate enough to have had many encounters with these superheroes, but in the end, those experiences have become a touch too bittersweet.

Ken Caminiti was the greatest 3rd baseman I’d ever seen.  Maybe he wasn’t, but when you’re nine, you have a distorted frame of reference.  All I knew was that he could stop a bullet down the line and fire off a fastball to first that would have made Nolan Ryan blush.  Yeah, and he swung a mean stick.  But more than that, he was a good guy, and he played for my team.  Bagwell, Biggio, Gonzalez, they all were.  How could they not be?  I cheered for them, I wore a smile for weeks after I got one of them to sign a ball for me, and I religiously watched them at night.  Even after Caminiti was traded to San Diego, he was still a Houston Astro for me.  Being one was more than a jersey; he just happened to play elsewhere.  I had no perspective at that age about the “business” end of sports.  It was so much more than just that.

In 1996, Ken Caminiti reached the top with the Padres.  He was named the 1996 National League MVP and won his second consecutive Golden Glove.  A couple of years later, he made it to the Series.  And like many athletes, he had a rough end to his career.  Suddenly, he could no longer make the plays or manage his way through the pain.  Ultimately, he flamed out at first base for the Braves.  All in all, though, it was still a great career.

And then it happened.  Eight years and many confessions later, Caminiti was dead.  I had lost a part of me.  I had lost my innocence.  Superheroes weren’t supposed to die.  Or have a cocaine habit.  Or cheat.  Watching his fall was painful.  I poured over his Sports Illustrated story and tales of steroid abuse.  All those stats I had memorized now had a nice, big asterisk.

But this is not about steroids or other drugs.  It’s about last piece of the puzzle that Caminiti’s demise helped me figure out about baseball, sports and, well, everything.  What I saw so clearly as a kid became an impossibility as an adult.

Realizing that so many of my idols were false idols makes it hard for me to be a baseball fan nowadays, or at least one that’s not cynical.  Baseball is a proud and stubborn sport, to say the least.  It’s basked in tradition and numbers.  And for a good part of my youth, many of those playing at the highest level blatantly disregarded this history.  I’d like to believe baseball has cleaned itself up over the last few years.  And while the cynic in me is ready to forgive the sport, I refuse to forget.  After all, I still find myself comparing every third basemen today to Caminiti.

But cynicism has its limits: As an adult, I realize athletes aren’t mythological.  They’re just people like you and me.  Like many, Caminiti had his flaws and made his share of mistakes.  Unfortunately, his mistakes (and those of other athletes) were put in the spotlight for everyone to see.  But I still believe he was a good guy.  He had to be.

  • annon-o-mouse

    Come on, couldn’t you see the straw behind his ear?

  • Jbenner60

    Just like you, although I wasn’t a kid, I loved Caminiti. He was awesome and could do no wrong. And slowly everything started to unravel and his whole life was posted for everybody to see. Even tho he was traded I still followed him. He was and still is my “Hero”.

  • Realizing that your favorite athletes aren’t perfect is definitely a hard lesson to learn.  As an Astros fan, however, I must say if I ever find out anything seriously negative about Biggio, I’m not sure what I’d do.  He, above all, has been the cornerstone of my love for the team.

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