What do we choose to remember about a sportsman like Ken Caminiti? Is he the tragic figure who died of a drug overdose having alienated those who loved him? Is he the drugs cheat who won an MVP on the back of taking steroids? Is he the guy who courageously lifted the lid on the steroid era and gave credibility to Jose Canseco’s omerta shattering revelations about the extent of PED in baseball? Or is he the handsome, charismatic, supremely talented player who played through injuries and pain to an almost unbelievable extent?
In Playing Through the Pain, Dan Good presents the many sides of the former Astros, Braves and Padres third baseman. Good avoids moralizing, instead presenting Caminiti through the eyes of the more than 400 people he interviewed. What emerges is a portrait of a deeply kind, compassionate but troubled and complicated man. Caminiti was immensely popular with fans, fellow players and almost everyone he met but he could never overcome childhood trauma and his own addictions.
The book is a comprehensive bio of Caminiti’s life and career. Throughout the book, the seeds of both his success and eventual demise are signposted and explored. I particularly enjoyed the account of his early playing days through college and the minor leagues with the trials, tribulations, insecurities, talents and friendships of that time of his life wonderfully explored. In particular, his willingness to play through pain, to insist he was fit when clearly injured and the trauma he put his body through tells us as much about Caminiti as any interview could.
Caminiti’s career also serves as a backdrop to a broader look at the remarkable era in baseball where it recovered from the 1994 strike and became global news through the steroid fueled home run bonanza before the sport finally, and in no small part thanks to Caminiti, had to reckon with the reality of PED use. (For more on this era, check out the excellent Juiced by Howard Bryant).
Caminiti’s openness about his use of PEDs with almost everyone he met, together with the breath of Good’s research, means there is ample detail on the decision to dope that would ultimately define Caminiti’s legacy. His motivation to dope appears to have been multifaceted – he wanted to recover from injury faster but also to get stronger, he wanted to be a better teammate but also to reap the financial rewards, he wanted to earn praise to help silence his constant inner doubts but also knew he was cheating. He cheated and he was wrong to do so but, in the wider context of his life, the decision begins to look more nuanced than simply ‘bad man does bad thing’. Good, through the quality of the book, forces us to assess doping as just one aspect of Caminiti’s complicated legacy.
The best biographies require a compelling subject and an excellent writer and on both counts this book is a home run. Caminiti is an endlessly fascinating figure, somehow representing both the darkness and the light, the beauty and the tragedy of top level sport. What elevates the book from good to great however is the quality of the writing – clear, evocative, memorable and effortlessly readable. It is unputdownable and as good as a biography as I have read in a long time. A wonderful, heart-breaking, compelling, fantastic book.