Take Me Out

My version of Spring Fever involves less birds and bees and more dogs and dugouts. Here’s the story of the highs and lows I’ve experienced by virtue of loving America’s pastime.

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Since I was a child, spring has always meant one thing: baseball.

Now, there are football families, basketball families, and even, God help them, NASCAR families. Mine just happens to be a baseball family. We watch baseball, we play baseball, we talk baseball. We wear comfortable clothes to large family gatherings, because we know it’s inevitable that an impromptu game will break out. We come together across political, religious, and socioeconomic lines to cheer for our favorite professional teams and trash talk each other’s. We believe that there’s no issue that can’t be resolved by putting on a glove and having a game of catch.

Consequently, from the time the first first trees start to bud and the groundhogs start to search for their shadows, my mind turns to peanuts, Cracker Jack, and not caring if I ever get back.

And I’ve had heroes. I’m from San Diego and am a Padres fan from way back,1 even during the rough years–and there have been a lot of rough years. Greats like Tony Gwynn, Steve Garvey, Benito Santiago, Dave Winfield, and incredible closer Trevor Hoffman, have all been cheered by me until I was red-faced and hoarse. But my favorite of all time has to be Ken Caminiti.

Playing for the Padres from 1995 to 1998, “Cammy”, as he was called by fans, had it all. The three-time All-Star batted .272 with 239 homers and 983 RBIs; covered third base like he owned the property on which it was built; and had the stocky good looks and masculine energy of a lumberjack. A sexy, sexy lumberjack.

At a time when I was much too old to be starry-eyed and dreamy over cute boys, I idolized Ken Caminiti like he was the sensitive, quiet, oft misunderstood one in the latest popular boy band. I was 24 years old and doodling “Jennifer Caminiti” (sounds good, right?) on my paperwork at the office in which I worked. I went to games and fantasized that he’d somehow notice me in the crowd and fall in love. I woke up in the middle of the night, damp from dreams that he and I were an item.

But Cammy had problems. In 2000, he checked himself into rehab for a problem with alcohol. In 2002, he admitted to Sports Illustrated that he had used steroids during the 1996 season–the one in which he led the Padres to a division title and had been unanimous pick for MVP. In 2001, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and spent the next three years in and out of courtrooms and rehabs. In 2004, Ken Caminiti, only 41 years old, died of a drug overdose leaving a wife and three daughters behind. And a fan with a broken heart.

And like the guy who exposed poor working conditions at an Apple factory, the guy who made the Kony 2012 video, and that guy who wrote Three Cups of Tea, a hero had fallen.

But what hadn’t fallen was my love of Ken Caminiti and of baseball, in general. Though Cammy’s downfall was sad and his time on top tainted, after the fact there’s no denying he was a great player. After all, I could take all the steroids that exist in the world and I’m still not going to hit 26 home runs in a season.

So when the weather begins to warm, first I get itchy for a ball and glove, then melancholic for the one I lost, then hungry for a hot dog cooked on rollers and a steamed bun.2 Oh, and I call my dad because for the next eight months we finally have something to talk about.

Play ball.

— ∮∮∮ —

Footnotes

  1. Time spent living in the Tampa area and attending Devil Rays games–just to get a fix, I swear–felt like cheating on a beloved. 
  2. With too much ketchup and some raw onions which I also insist my date get on his because that’s what gentlemen do. 
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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

3 comments on Take Me Out

  1. We were never a baseball family – or much of a sports family in general, though minor league baseball outings were an occasional thing for us. (I swear, I love Salem Memorial and The Diamond far more than I could ever love Turner Field or Camden Yards.)

    My connections to baseball, especially as a kid, were threefold: TBS (when we had cable TV in the house or were visiting grandparents); nighttime AM radio, when I could pick up Braves games direct from 750 WSB-AM in Atlanta; and baseball cards.

    Of the three, the last probably had the most significant impact on me, mostly because it was the most regular exposure I had to the game. 2”x3” stacks of cardboard and brittle, flavorless pieces of chewing gum. I still have them today – several Rubbermaid tubs worth, blocking the view from our kitchen into the living room.

    I learned a lot about the rosters of the teams back then just by seeing who showed up wearing the same team’s colors in multiple successive years. Ken Caminiti was a regular in my collecction; long before he went to San Diego, I knew him as the third baseman for the Houston Astros. I saw him, year after year, show up along with Craig Biggio and some of the other Houston regulars. In my mind, that made him a “good” player.

    I was glad to see Ken reach success in San Diego, because I thought “good” players deserved to do well and win awards. I remember the steroids announcement, and I remember reading about his passing. I don’t think I ever felt the same way about him as you do, but I know my heart sank that day. Despite his drug use, Ken was still one of the “good” guys to me. I was 19 and struggling a lot with my own identity and adulthood when Ken died. I’d like to think that Ken’s passing had some impact on that, and I can’t really say whether or not it did, but at the very least it meant that things that were once very regular – like finding a Ken Caminiti baseball card – couldn’t be so regular anymore.

  2. I had forgotten this until just now, but Ken’s last season in baseball (2001) ended in Atlanta, where he helped the Braves win their 9th straight division title and sweep his former Astros 3-0 in the NL Division Series.

    (Also, I was actually 22 when Ken died, but I was still struggling with a number of the same questions.)

  3. Jennifer on said:

    My husband is a huge Phillies fan. He has family from Philly and visited often when he was growing up. Our 2.5 year old is already well on his way to being a full-fledged Phillies fan himself.

    A while back, I posted something James wrote in 2008 after the Phillies won the World Series, and after we’d had some big changes happen in our family:

    http://bagpipefever.wordpress.com/2008/11/08/just-a-few-of-the-traits-that-prove-my-husbands-awesomeness/?preview=true&preview_id=286&preview_nonce=a3c76f163b

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