Opinion: Fallen hero

Matt Vroom

Matt Vroom

By Adam Zmick

Sunday, the eyes of the baseball world were on Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, where preparations were being made for the upcoming Yankees-Red Sox American League Championship Series. Away from the glamour, in another part of the Bronx, a baseball hero quietly passed away.

Former Astros and Padres star Ken Caminiti died of a heart attack Sunday night at the age of 41. Caminiti had a stellar 15-year career highlighted by his 1996 MVP season when he hit 0.326 with 40 home runs.

He is best remembered, however, for a 2002 Sports Illustrated interview in which he admitted to using steroids during the 1996 season.

Although an autopsy still is pending, there is no doubt that Caminiti’s steroid use had something to do with his passing at such a young age.

I think many people would say Caminiti got what was coming to him. Yes, I accept that he was forced to deal with the consequences of his actions, but I also feel sympathy for him as a man who was crushed by the weight of the temptations of fame and money that shape American sports.

Ken Caminiti paid the ultimate price for the win-at-all-costs mentality of today’s sports culture. His steroid use propelled him to the top of his profession before it dragged him to the lowest depths of life.

This mentality in sports is the result of one thing: money. Athletes are competing for athletic scholarships and multi-million dollar contracts in professional leagues. The pressures caused by such lucrative incentives have created a volatile culture.

Baseball is just one sport that has been consumed by an all-out desire to win. Many parents now force their children to play all summer for traveling teams instead of letting them play at the neighborhood sandlot.

As baseball players reach higher levels, the stakes become progressively higher. With each successive level, players become better and the spots available for advancement are fewer. With so much competition, it is no wonder some baseball players turn to steroids to gain an advantage.

They make that choice because there is no denying that steroid use can bring athletic success. Ken Caminiti’s MVP season is undeniable proof of the power of performance enhancement.

What these athletes ignore is the irreparable damage steroids can cause. Some of the side effects include heart disease, liver damage and kidney problems. And, as Ken Caminiti showed us, steroids can be deadly.

With the side effects so well documented, it is testament to the allure of money that athletes still choose to use steroids. The problem is not isolated to one or two players. More than 5 percent of major-league baseball players tested positive for steroids in 2003.

Former pitcher Jim Bouton once summed up baseball players’ mentalities: “If there was a pill that would guarantee you win 20 games but would take five years off your life, guys would gulp it down without thinking twice.”

This win-at-all-costs mentality is a force that cannot be ignored. Perhaps it has reached the point where athletes are merely victims of the temptations and pressures of winning big. Despite the heroic status society gives to its ballplayers, we must remember that they still are human beings. With so much on the line, it’s understandable that many young athletes would jeopardize their futures for a shot at fame and money.

No one doubts Ken Caminiti would give back his MVP award to be alive today. He traded a trophy and some accolades for the opportunity to see his three children grow up. However wrong his choices might have been, no man deserves such a cruel fate.

Ken Caminiti will be remembered as a great baseball player and a man who fell victim to the intense pressures of professional athletics. It would be nice to say that others will learn from his tragic death, but with so much money on the line in sports, his story will undoubtedly be repeated again.

Adam Zmick will appear Monday. Zachary Schuster is a senior in engineering. His column will run next Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]