Braves One Year Wanker, Ken Caminiti: Who’s On First?
Lots of teams, faced with a gap at some position and no one ready to promote, will sign a washed up star and try to get one more useful year of production out of him. This occasionally works really well (looking at you, Julio Franco) but usually flops: Zoilo Versalles in 1971 is a good example, as are many of the other One Year Wankers in this series who I won’t list here, but this leads me to Braves One Year Wanker, Ken Caminiti.
But what is really unusual is to try and squeeze another year out of a former MVP at a position he hadn’t played since grade school, if then. On July 5, 2001, the Braves signed Ken Caminiti three days after he had been released by the Rangers and decided that he was going to be a stopgap solution at first base. The 2001 Braves were in the midst of their run, but until the 42 year old Julio Franco showed up in September, first base was a complete mess. Andres Galarraga had moved to Texas as a free agent and the Braves had no one ready to replace him. For the first half of the season they went with free agent Rico Brogna who put up a punchless 62 OPS+, for -1.0 WAR. This shouldn’t have been any great surprise, since Brogna’s career WAR was -1.1, so his time in Atlanta was only slightly below par. Then Caminiti was available, so they got him.
Up to that point, Caminiti had played in 1610 games in the field, every one of them at third base. (He had another 500 games or so in the minors at third base as well.) The Braves already had a third baseman who would play in 149 games at 3rd that season, I forget his name, but that position seemed taken. So despite the fact that there were probably 100 or so professional first basemen around, they seemed to think this was a good idea.
Ballplayers are athletes, though, right? And first base is for some slow schlub who can just plant a size 14 shoe on the sack and shove Ron Gant off the base, right? And this was a guy with 3 Gold Gloves, albeit at the mirror-image position. They didn’t just throw him out there, either. He DHed in his first appearance and then played 3rd three times while he was “learning” to play first – in 6 days, including the All Star break. OK, here’s Mac:
First base is an odd position in that it’s where you stick the unathletic hitters, but at the same time a really bad defensive player is going to make you totally miserable. They don’t have to be good, but they have to catch the ball when it’s thrown to them — an activity that isn’t the major part of the job description for anyone else but catchers.
Remember Ken Caminiti? The Braves tried him at first base at the end of his career, and he made six errors in 33 games. Over the course of a full season, that would have been about thirty errors. Throw in the errors charged to the other infielders, and you see the problem.
At that point, they let Wes Helms play first for a month until they acquired Julio Franco, the then 42 year old brought in from the Mexican League who improbably nailed the position down for the next five years.
Ok, sure, that was a bad idea. But what about at the plate? After all, Caminiti at this point was a lifetime .800 OPS player. The year before, he was an option-year 1.000 OPS player. He had won the NL MVP 5 years earlier.
His first day in Atlanta he was 3 for 4. That was not a harbinger of things to come. He ended up with a .222 average in 64 games played (they let him spell that other 3rd baseman a few times and he did some pinch hitting after that disastrous 33 games at first) with 6 homers and 16 RBI. The Braves, a first place team that year, were 27-37 in games he played in. That’s really hard to do… a bad pitcher can manage it, of course, if they let him pitch that often, but for a position player that’s hard to do. The Braves were 61-37 in the games he didn’t play in. To be fair (though I am under no obligation to be fair) guys who pinch hit a lot tend to have worse records than others, but he only pinch hit 17 times. He pinch hit, fecklessly, in the first and last games of the 3 game sweep of his former team, the Astros and did not appear in the NLCS against the Diamondbacks. He was released and done.
Braves One Year Wanker, Ken Caminiti, the Juice
Caminiti is unfortunately not most famous for being an NL MVP, or a bad Atlanta Brave. He is remembered today for breaking the wall of silence on steroids in a Tom Verducci story Sports Illustrated at the start of the 2002 season. In that article he is quoted as saying that 50 percent of players used steroids. (Best response goes to Rickey Henderson – “The article said 50%. Well, I’m not one of them. So that’s 49% right there.”) But it was his position about it at the time that was shocking:
Yet Caminiti, a recovering alcoholic and former drug user, defended his use of steroids and said he would not discourage others from taking them because they have become a widely accepted–even necessary–choice for ballplayers looking for a competitive edge and financial security. “I’ve made a ton of mistakes,” said Caminiti. “I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”
I am on the record (for those who want to search Braves Journal comments) for thinking he was right about this, as long as it doesn’t violate any rules of the game, and when the article was written, it didn’t. So I’m not going to discuss steroids any more, and note only that we can now prove that steroids don’t help you play first base even one little bit.
The other thing Ken Caminiti is known for is drug and alcohol abuse. It should be noted that he had undergone alcohol rehab in 2000 and was convicted of cocaine possession and sentenced to probation four months before the Braves signed him. He violated that probation in February 2003 and again in October 2004, where he was sentenced to time served. He then flew to New York City and died from a mixture of cocaine and heroin that stopped his heart in The Bronx in 2004. We can’t ask him, but I wonder if he feels the same way about speedballs that he felt about steroids. I suspect not. RIP, Ken.
Thanks for reading. On this day, the day after up music legend John Prine’s passing, give this a read if you missed it.