Gold Gloves—Part V: Ken Caminiti, 3x NL Gold Glove Winner at 3B

Ken Caminiti

This is Part V in a series on Gold Gloves (GG) earned by MLB players who played winter ball in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League. Six MLB 3B who played or managed in Puerto Rico have 21 Rawlings Gold Gloves (GG) between them: five American League (AL) and 16 National League (NL). This covers 1957-to-2018. In 1957, GG were awarded to nine total MLB players by position. From 1958-on, separate AL-NL recipients received this award. Frank Malzone—1957 Boston Red Sox—won the first GG at 3B.

The most GG won by a 3B is 16 by Brooks Robinson (1960-to-1975), followed by Mike Schmidt (10), Scott Rolen (eight) and four players with six apiece—Nolan Arenado, Buddy Bell, Eric Chavez and Robin Ventura. Ken Boyer, with five NL GG at 3B, managed the 1975-76 Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico. Other GG 3B with a Puerto Rico League connection were: Frank Malzone (1957-59 Boston Red Sox), Mike Schmidt (1976-1984 and 1986 Philadelphia Phillies), Terry Pendleton (1987 and 1989 Cardinals, plus 1992 Atlanta Braves), Wade Boggs (1994-95 New York Yankees) and Ken Caminiti (1995-97 San Diego Padres). Mike Lowell—with a 2005 GG for the Florida Marlins—was born in Puerto Rico, but never played winter ball there.  

This blog focuses on Ken Caminiti, who played for the Mayagüez Indians—western part of the Island—in Puerto Rico’s Winter League, in 1988-89. Caminiti was born in Hanford, California, April 21, 1963. He was a talented high school football and baseball player in San Jose, California; and played collegiate baseball at San Jose State. Houston selected the 21-year old Caminiti in the third round of the 1984 amateur draft. His minor league career took him to the 1985 Osceola Astros, class A Florida State League, where he batted .284 with four HR and 73 RBIs, and being chosen that league’s All-Star 3B. With the class AA Columbus (Georgia) Astros in 1986, he batted .300 with 12 HR and 81 RBIs; a .300/.364/.439 slash line; and .802 OPS for the 1986 Southern League champions. Caminiti followed this up with improved hitting at Columbus in 1987–.325/.361/.523 slash line, with a .884 OPS. His 15 HR and 69 RBIs in 407 AB impressed the Houston Astros management, who promoted him to the parent team after the 1987 All-Star break. Caminiti then hit .246 for Houston in 63 games with three HR and 23 RBIs.

Most of 1988 was spent with the Tucson Toros, the Astros AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League (PCL). Caminiti benefited from tough competition—Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Las Vegas Stars was league MVP; and Calgary’s Edgar Martínez—a few months older than Caminiti—led the PCL with a .363 BA, and was selected as the league’s All-Star 3B. Caminiti’s slash line was .272/.318/.399; a .717 OPS; five HR and 66 RBIs. With Houston, he batted .181 in 30 games, one HR and seven RBIs. The 1988 Astros finished 82-80, fifth of six teams in the NL West. They hired Art Howe to replace Hal Lanier for 1989. Howe was a big proponent of winter ball, with four seasons for the Bayamón Vaqueros (Cowboys) in Puerto Rico, 1974-78, and their starting 3B on the 1974-75 league/Caribbean Series title team. Howe managed Bayamón to a 1979-80 league title after besting the Santurce Crabbers in the finals, managed Bayamón several other seasons, and also was the 1985-86 Ponce Lions skipper. “If you can manage in Puerto Rico, you can manage in the big leagues,” said Howe in 1992. “It’s important to keep the imports and native players in the right frame of mind.”

The 1988-89 Mayagüez Indios hoped to repeat as Puerto Rico Winter League champions. (Jim  Riggleman managed them to the 1987-88 league title.) They repeated in 1988-89 under Tom Gamboa, who took a special liking to Caminiti, a blue collar player who hustled, dove for balls and had a good attitude. Caminiti played in all 59 games for the 33-26 Indios, who finished second to 35-25 San Juan by 1.5 games. Caminiti was second in the league with nine HR, to teammate Ricky Jordan’s 14. The Astros prospect was fifth in runs scored (31), behind Lonnie Smith (42) and Doug Dascenzo (40) of San Juan; teammates Al Newman (35) of Mayagüez and Jordan (32). Caminiti’s 27 RBIs put him fifth after Jordan and Lonnie Smith, each tied with 42; Germán Rivera (36) of Arecibo; and Ron Gant (29) of Caguas. Caminiti’s complete 1988-89 regular season stats were: 59 games, 199 AB, 31 runs, 49 hits, nine doubles, nine HR, 27 RBIs, four game-winning hits, one SH, two SF, 42 walks, 24 strikeouts, six SB and one CS. He had three GIDP and committed 10 errors; showed a .246/.374/.427 slash line; with a .801 OPS. Caminiti played the entire post-season, including 12 round-robin games for the 8-4 Indios; five final series games versus San Juan; and six Caribbean Series games in Mazatlán, Mexico.

Mayagüez counted on a strong bullpen with three “Jeffs”—Jeff Brantley (6-1, 2.06 ERA, eight saves), Jeff Fassero (2-0, 3.10 ERA, one save) and Jeff Gray (3-1, 2.21 ERA, one save). Don Heinkel (6-3, 2.11 ERA)), future MLB closer Roberto Hernández (4-2. 2.66 ERA), Tom McCarthy (4-4, 2.54 ERA), Alex Madrid (3-5, 3.99 ERA) and Luis Aquino (1-2, 2.04 ERA) were solid starters. Steve Finley was an excellent CF, but with little power then. Tom Pagnozzi—a future NL GG catcher with St. Louis—was a superb defensive catcher for the Indios, who shared time in the regular season with Kirt Manwaring and Chris Hoiles. Brantley, Heinkel and Madrid each had 2-0 W-L records in the round robin event. Super-sub Luis Quiñones was the round-robin hitting star with a .378 BA, two HR and nine RBIs. Caminiti hit .250 with two RBIs, one game-winning hit, and committed three miscues.  

Tom Gamboa said this about Caminiti in Gamboa’s 2018 book titled My Life in Baseball (McFarland, 2018, page 18): “I was fortunate enough to manage Ken Caminiti in Puerto Rico after his Triple-A season. Without question he had one of the best makeups I was ever fortunate enough to manage. Because of the way he was raised and the way he played the game, if you came to the ballpark late and watched him ground out, you would have no way of knowing whether he was four-for-five or oh-for-five. Ken only knew one way to play the game: all-out, all the time. If he didn’t do it with the bat, he’d make a diving play or break up a double play to extend an inning. He did so many things to win games in so many different ways.”

Mayagüez represented Puerto Rico in the February 4-9, 1989 Caribbean Series hosted by Mazatlán, after defeating San Juan, four games-to-one, in their league finals. Gamboa recalled taking a 2-0 lead over Venezuela’s Zulia Eagles in the sixth and final series game behind Luis Aquino. Caminiti grabbed a two-out grounder in the ninth and threw it over the first baseman’s head. Phil Stephenson then tied the game, 2-2, with a two-run homer. Stephenson later hit the game-winning three-run homer in the 13th frame, to win the series crown. Zulia finished 5-1; Mayagüez was 4-2; Mexico’s Mexicali Eagles were 2-4; with the Escogido Lions of the Dominican Republic, managed by Phil Regan, at 1-5. Caminiti’s seven RBIs tied him with Stephenson and Ron Washington of Mexicali for most RBIs. And Caminiti went 11-for-25, for a .440 BA, yet was not voted to the Series All-Star team. Instead, Carlos Martínez—who reinforced Zulia—was named the All-Star 3B. He is best remembered as the player who hit the long fly which bounced off José Canseco’s head for a May 26, 1993 homer. Joe Girardi, Zulia’s catcher, made this Series All-Star team. Caminiti earned much respect with his .440/.517/.480 slash line, for an excellent .997 OPS. Two of his 11 hits were game-winners; he had one SB.

Caminiti’s 1989-to-1994 seasons with Houston were solid, but not spectacular, with 18 HR in the shortened 1994 MLB strike season, his high with the Astros. I conversed with Caminiti in spring training 1992, and he was most appreciative of Mayagüez and its fans, noting “they were baseball smart and fair.” Caminiti loved the seafood he ate in western Puerto Rico and other local food, including rice and chicken (arroz con pollo). That same day in Kissimmee, Florida, I met Yogi Berra—a special spring training instructor for the 1992 Astros—and interviewed Art Howe in his manager’s office after the game. Berra was puzzled when he had to wait for my interview with Art Howe to end. Berra’s only game-playing experience in Puerto Rico came 45 years earlier when the 1947 New York Yankees did some of their spring training at Sixto Escobar Stadium in San Juan, and played five games against local teams, winning three of them.

Houston, after the 1994 MLB strike season, traded Caminiti (a 1994 NL All-Star), Steve Finley, Andújar Cedeño, Roberto Petagine, Brian Williams and a player to be named later to San Diego for Derek Bell, Doug Brocail, Ricky Gutiérrez, Pedro Martínez, Phil Plantier and Craig Shipley. Caminiti played for San Diego 1995-to-1998, prior to signing with Houston as a free agent on November 17, 1998 for 1999-2000. With San Diego, he won three straight GG from 1995-97; earned 1996 NL MVP laurels; 1996-97 All-Star designation; and the 1997 Silver Slugger.  His 1996 MVP season with a .326 BA, 40 HR and 130 RBIs was tainted by a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2002, in which Caminiti admitted steroid use during 1996 and several seasons post-1996. His .540 SLG and .924 OPS remain Padres all-time franchise records. Caminiti retired from baseball after the 2001 season, after splitting time with the 2001 Texas Rangers and 2001 Atlanta Braves. Caminiti hit eight post-season HR in 23 games (79 AB) between San Diego (1996 and 1998), Houston (1999) and Atlanta (2001). Six of these came in the National League Division Series (NLDS)—three for San Diego (1996) and three for Houston (1999), and two were hit for San Diego in the 1998 National League Championship Series (NLCS) versus Atlanta. Caminiti’s 15-year MLB slash line was .272/.347/.447, with a .794 OPS. He connected 239 HR; drove in 983 runs and scored 894 runs.

The second time I saw Caminiti was in June 1998, at the Ballpark in Arlington, when San Diego was playing an Interleague game at Texas, and I was in Ft. Worth for a conference. I recall my outstanding interview with the personable Tony Gwynn, in the visitor’s dugout that afternoon, on Gwynn’s two seasons in Puerto Rico with 1982-83 Bayamón and 1983-84 San Juan. Caminiti got some treatment in the training room and was bigger/heavier in 1998, than when I conversed with him in March 1992. In the interest of fairness and objectivity, Caminiti was probably one of many MLB players who used performance enhancing drugs between the early-and-late 1990s.

Fielding-wise, Caminiti played 1,676 MLB games at 3B, starting 1,627 of them. His 4,627 chances included 1,251 putouts, 3,127 assists and 249 errors. He turned 280 double plays in posting a .946 fielding PCT. His best 3B fielding PCT (.969) was with Houston in 1994. His standard fielding and batting stats are at https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/caminke01.shtml.

Caminiti passed away in the Bronx, New York City, October 10, 2004. Autopsy results indicated “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of cocaine and opiates” caused his passing. Contributing factors included coronary artery disease and an enlarged heart, per published data. Christopher Reeve, one of my favorite actors, also died in New York City, on October 10, 2004.

With thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado for furnishing Ken Caminiti’s regular and post-season stats in Puerto Rico. Special appreciation to Ken Caminiti for taking the time to speak with me in spring training 1992. Art Howe (in-person) and Tom Gamboa (2018 book) had valuable insights for this blog. Yogi Berra did recall spring training with the Yankees in San Juan, February 1947.

Photo by Luis Cuyar Jr. and courtesy of Héctor Marrero Matías.

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