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.
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.
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