10/15/2004 9:28 PM ET
Family, friends remember Caminiti
Former NL MVP honored at memorial service
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
|Over 1,000 paid tribute to Ken Caminiti, including many former teammates. (Chris Covatta /Getty Images)
HOUSTON -- A lone bag piper. A solo pianist. A photo of Ken Caminiti projected on a screen the way he was. Navy blue racing cap and a Navy blue pull over. A big bright smile gleaming through his trademark goatee.
The National League Championship Series between the hometown Astros and St. Louis Cardinals took a moment's respite. And across town from Minute Maid Park at the Second Baptist Church, part of the baseball world lingered for two hours on Friday to pay tribute to the All-Star third baseman and 1996 NL Most Valuable Player, who came up with the Astros and had his best years with the San Diego Padres.
Caminiti died on Sunday at 41. His agent said it was of an apparent heart attack, although few doubt that his last years of drug abuse finally took their toll. Talk of the demons he battled hung like a shroud over the memorial service, which was attended by more than a thousand, including many of his former Astros and Padres teammates, Padres owner John Moores and Astros owner Drayton McLane.
"I was so worried it was going to catch up with him sooner or later," said Steve Finley, a Dodger this season, who played with Caminiti on the Padres team that went to the 1998 World Series.
A family member said during one of several eulogies that as Caminiti became more troubled in recent years he became harder to reach.
"The closer we tried to get to him, the more he pulled away," he said.
Craig Biggio, who played with Caminiti in the Astros' minor league system before they both joined the big club, tears flowing during the eulogy, spoke to Caminiti's ex-wife Nancy and their three daughters, telling them that despite the pain of recent years, the husband and father truly loved them.
He recalled the minor-league days of hope and promise.
"It's hard to believe that here we are 18 years later...," Biggio said.
ESPN has reported that Caminiti died on the floor of an apartment of an acquaintance in the Bronx from a drug overdose, although an autopsy, conducted on Monday, is not complete. A toxicology report is still pending.
Caminiti had tested positive for cocaine use only two weeks ago, breaking the terms of his probation determined by a Houston court stemming from a possession charge in 2002.
Caminiti believed he had wrecked his life with drugs and alcohol. He reportedly spent his last hours depressed, far from his loved ones in Texas. His baseball days and all the adoration were evidently far behind him. Caminiti hadn't played in the Major Leagues since 2001 and had only visited a ballpark once, in 2003, when Moores and Caminiti's agent, Rick Licht, prevailed on him to attend the closing weekend at Qualcomm/Jack Murphy Stadium.
During Licht's eulogy on Friday, he told the story about how reluctant Caminiti was to return to the scene of his greatest heroics. Caminiti made it and was gratified by the overwhelming reaction of the San Diego fans, who had already voted him the top third baseman in the club's then 35-year history.
When the last out was recorded at what is now a football stadium in Mission Valley, the Padres introduced each of the team's all-time stars, who trotted out to their old positions, massaged by a seemingly endless ovation. Finley to center field, Tony Gwynn to right field and Caminiti for one last time to third base.
San Diego manager Bruce Bochy was there on Friday along with a number of players from that 1998 championship team: Finley and Joey Hamilton and Trevor Hoffman and Andy Ashby; Moores and general manager Kevin Towers. All flew to Houston via a charter from San Diego, making the trek this time to celebrate a life instead of a pennant they had clinched in Atlanta almost precisely six years ago.
They talked Friday about how Caminiti's golden heart matched his Gold Glove. And the Astros who came up to the Majors with him -- Biggio and Jeff Bagwell - openly wondered how things could've changed so quickly and so irrevocably.
Outside the church, traffic kept moving in its usual mid-day ebb and flow. The lone bag piper played. Inside, a soprano belted out the lyrics of Amazing Grace, "how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.