Plagued with injuries throughout his tenure in the major leagues, Caminiti’s willingness to play through pain became the hallmark of an impressive career. After seven productive seasons in Houston, the gritty third baseman was traded to San Diego and quickly established himself as an elite performer at the hot corner. Along the way, he battled alcoholism, an addiction to painkillers, and a smokeless tobacco habit as well as a myriad of physical maladies to become the undisputed leader of San Diego’s two division-winning teams in 1996 and 1998.
Caminiti’s toughness reached legendary proportions in August of 1996, when two liters of an IV solution and a Snickers bar helped him overcome dehydration, diarrhea, and nausea and hit two home runs for the second straight game against the New York Mets in Monterrey, Mexico. The 8-0 win tied San Diego with Los Angeles for first place in the NL West; Caminiti’s inspiring play eventually led the Padres to their first division title since 1984. Beleaguered at various points throughout the year by an abdominal strain, a partly-torn biceps tendon, a left elbow that required reconstructive surgery after the season and chronic pain in his back, groin, and hamstrings, the beleaguered third baseman became the first Padre ever to win the NL MVP.
Until he came to San Diego in a blockbuster eleven-player deal in December 1994, Caminiti rarely showed the sort of power that would come to be expected of him. There was no doubt that the rising star was a steady fielder but he never hit more than 18 homers a season in an Astros uniform. After a hot start in his first call-up to Houston in 1987, Caminiti’s hitting tailed off, and it wasn’t until 1989 that he finally won a full-time job at third base.
Even though Caminiti batted .255 with 10 homers and 72 RBI in his first full season at the hot corner, the switch-hitter wasn’t immune to the sophomore slump. In 1990, Caminiti slugged just four homers and struck out nearly 100 times in over 500 at-bats, and found his job threatened by top prospect Jeff Bagwell, a late-season acquisition from Boston.
But when Bagwell moved to first base for the 1991 season, Caminiti returned to form. His outstanding play at third and clutch hitting helped him keep his job (were it not for Matt Williams, Caminiti could well have won a Gold Glove or two along the way) and eventually, his rapid improvement as a left-handed hitter would make him a fixture in the Houston lineup.
Ironically, Caminiti credited a separated shoulder suffered during the 1992 season as key to his development from the left side of the plate. “It kept me from trying to pull everything,” he reasoned, “I learned how to hit, how to use more of the field.” Not coincidentally, Caminiti ended the season with a career-high (and team-high) batting average of .294. Two years later, he set another personal best with 18 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
But Caminiti’s emerging power stroke wasn’t enough to stave off another challenge from an up-and-coming prospect. Convinced that Phil Nevin, their first pick overall in the 1992 draft, was a future star at third base, the Astros pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal that sent Caminiti, Steve Finley, Andujar Cedeno, Roberto Petagine, and Brian Williams to San Diego for Derek Bell, Ricky Gutierrez, Phil Plantier, Doug Brocail, Craig Shipley and Pedro Martinez.
The move from the Astrodome to Jack Murphy Stadium — combined with a more rigorous conditioning program — highlighted Caminiti’s growing power. In his first season in San Diego, Caminiti finally topped the twenty-homer mark with a career-high 26 and set a major-league season record by homering from both sides of the plate in three games.
(Making the feat more extraordinary is that all three games came in the space of four days, September 16, 17, and 19 and doing it two days in a row set another mark.) He also achieved new highs in batting average (.302) and RBI (94) as well as doubles and walks, and cemented his defensive reputation by earning his first Gold Glove.
All of this was just a prelude to his gutsy MVP performance in 1996. Caminiti’s shoulder injury was so bad that he couldn’t raise his glove hand above his head or extend his left arm while batting, but he still posted one of the most outstanding seasons in franchise history, setting club records with 40 homers, 130 RBIs and a .621 slugging percentage. Caminiti also won another Gold Glove while leading the Padres to the NL West title. The following season, Clete Boyer gave Caminiti an autographed photo inscribed: “You’re better than Graig Nettles, Brooks (Robinson) and myself. You’re the best third baseman I’ve seen.”
Although he would remain a productive player, winning another Gold Glove in 1997 and returning to the postseason with the Padres in 1998, injuries continued to bother Caminiti. Slowed by a sore groin, Ken batted just .143 against the Yankees in the ’98 World Series, often falling to the ground after hefty hacks in crucial at-bats.
After the Padres were eliminated, Caminiti decided to return to Houston as a free agent. But he injured himself again on an attempted steal of second in May and spent a large part of the season on the DL nursing a torn calf muscle. Caminiti rebounded to play well down the stretch and hit .471 with three home runs in the Astros’ first-round series loss against Atlanta. Less than a month later, he fractured three bones in his lower back after falling from a deer blind during a Texas hunting expedition.
Caminiti hit well in his second stint with the Astros, but after a ruptured tendon in his right wrist ended his season in June the club declined to exercise his option for 2001. The veteran third sacker signed on with the Rangers, but after a poor start Caminiti asked Texas for his release just before the All-Star break. After leaving the Rangers, Caminiti was snatched up by the Braves, who were seeking another power bat for their lineup. Atlanta found playing time for him at first and third base, and while hit batted just .228 for the year, he still launched 15 home runs in 356 at-bats.
Caminiti has the names of his three daughters tattooed on his chest.