SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It was always said about Ken Caminiti that the man had a big heart. But just two days after Caminiti was released from a Houston jail Oct. 5, the 1996 National League MVP's brother, Glenn, and good friend Aaron Crumpton shared their mutual fear that Ken's heart was going to fail.
"We talked about how it can't take the massive amounts of cocaine he was doing, losing weight and then gaining it back in the gym," said Crumpton, a Caminiti friend since their San Jose childhood. "We thought his heart was going to give out."
Three days later, he was dead of an apparent heart attack at 41.
The harsh reality is this: Many who knew Caminiti best had expected to some day hear this sad news. And they felt powerless to do anything to prevent it.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he even got tired of life," said one San Jose friend, who requested anonymity. "It could have been accidental, but how can you tell when he was using double and triple the dose of what normal people would do? I don't know if he was trying to kill himself in front of us at times, but it sure looked like it because he was using so much."
Glenn Caminiti vehemently disagrees that his brother would intentionally overdose. In fact, a New York coroner told him the cause of death was still unknown, and suggested a family history of heart disease probably was a partial factor.
It has been an extraordinarily difficult 11 days for the family. They haven't been able to grieve in private. They're angry that the media's shorthand of Caminiti's story has been reduced to great-player-doomed-by-drugs, ignoring how he was beloved and how those nearest him did everything possible to help him.
"If anyone had a bad thing to say about Ken Caminiti, then they didn't know him," said Glenn Caminiti, who is fiercely protective of his younger brother. "And it hurts so much that I watched him self-destruct. My brother had everything going for him, but he also was an addict."
Friends described Caminiti as a man of frustrating contradictions who see-sawed between sobriety and drug-induced depression. He pushed away those who cared for him and, according to his lawyer Kent Schaffer, surrounded himself with "leeches."
Crumpton believes even the circumstances of his death are telling of Caminiti's conflicted personality. Crumpton said Caminiti was in the Bronx helping his girlfriend's son, who was in trouble with the law and drugs.
"He was trying to save somebody else because that meant he didn't have to take a hard look at himself," Crumpton said.
At a memorial in Houston last Friday, Astros teammate Craig Biggio choked back tears as he called Caminiti a generous soul. That's how people in his old Cambrian neighborhood remember him.
Sharon Rossell recalls how an 11-year-old Caminiti would play with her toddler son, promising to teach him to play baseball, and then following through years later by taking him to a nearby park.
"He wanted to teach all the neighborhood kids to play ball," Rossell said. "He was such a caring individual at such a young age."
Among the people who have called Glenn Caminiti in recent days was one man who, as a boy, had a tough family situation. Caminiti brought him home -- and he stayed seven months.
"He told me, `If it wasn't for Ken, I don't know what gutter I'd be in right now,"' Glenn Caminiti said.
But rather than accept help himself, Caminiti had withdrawn from those who knew him best in recent months.
"He fell off the map," Glenn Caminiti said. "He wouldn't call our parents or me. He wouldn't take Aaron's calls. He kept changing his cellphone number. He just was slipping further away."
Caminiti, who had an extreme toughness on the field during his 15-year career, kept getting sucked back into substance abuse. Just after he retired in November 2001, he was arrested for cocaine possession.
It was then that Crumpton came back into contact with Caminiti, who lived in Houston but would often visit San Jose. They had known one another since junior high but now had more in common besides a love of motorcycles -- Crumpton had beaten an addiction to methamphetamine.
The Caminiti family thought Crumpton had the best chance of reaching Ken.
"He was the greatest guy you will ever meet," Crumpton said. "He was full of energy, positive, happy. But as soon as he did the smallest amount of coke, he was miserable."
The change could happen quickly. At the end of 2002, Caminiti was in a motorcycle accident on Highway 17. At the hospital, Caminiti was given a narcotic pain reliever.
"From that moment, he started using again," Crumpton said. He later saw Caminiti's vehicle outside "this total drug house" in the Cambrian area. Crumpton confronted him inside. "He was sitting with all these people. I asked him, `What are you doing here, dude?' He said, `Nobody bothers me here.' "
The friend who wished to remain anonymous also would see Caminiti at the house. He didn't want to give his name to protect his brother, whom he said also has a drug problem.
"Even my brother -- who was using drugs with him -- would say, `Kenny, you don't need to be here. You don't need to be using this stuff.' "
After Caminiti served 4 1/2 months in a Texas jail for drug treatment in 2003 for failing a drug test, he emerged with a new attitude. Friends say he was surprised by the thunderous applause he received at the Padres' farewell ceremony to
Caminiti thought people viewed him not only as a drug addict, but also a cheater after a 2002 Sports Illustrated article in which he admitted using steroids during his career and estimated that half of all major leaguers use them.
"He was scared to death going down to San Diego, but he said it turned out to be the best day of his life," Crumpton said.
Crumpton and Caminiti went to Florida soon after "and all of a sudden it was different. He brought this shady character from Houston who was supposed to be his personal trainer. Looking back, I'm sure he was getting loaded with the guy."
Caminiti was surrounded by dubious people in Houston.
"They were living in his house, driving his cars, taking his jewelry, stealing his money," Schaffer said. "When he would finally get sick of it, I would send over private investigators, clear out his house and change the locks. But two months later, the house would be filled up with a whole new crew of deadbeats." Dave Moretti, another lifelong friend, said that for someone who seemed to have everything -- talent, good looks, a family -- Caminiti lacked one thing: confidence.
"Ken was very uncomfortable in his own skin," Moretti said. "He never trusted people to love him for who he was, not just because he was a baseball player. He always had doubts about himself."
Even though he adored his three daughters, who lived in the Houston area with his childhood sweetheart and ex-wife Nancy, he wouldn't see them much. Glenn Caminiti said he didn't want to bring his problem into their lives.
Caminiti had been in jail since Sept. 10 after testing positive for cocaine for a fourth time since his probation. A few days before his court date, his brother traveled from San Jose to visit him. Glenn Caminiti didn't want him to plead guilty for probation violation because it would mean getting released for time served with no restrictions. Glenn urged him to choose the other option -- a structured treatment program. "I thought that if he didn't stay in jail, I was so afraid that I would get that call and that he would be on a cold slab in a morgue," Glenn Caminiti said.
In that last conversation, Caminiti said he thought he had been a failure. When Glenn Caminiti assured him he wasn't, he wouldn't listen.
"Even though I wanted to pick him up and hold him, he pushed me away," he said. "Ken said, `No one can save me. I can't save me.' "
Friends say Caminiti flew to Florida to see his girlfriend -- whom he had met during an earlier rehab stint -- and then on together to New York City, where her son lived and faced drug charges. They believe Caminiti's plan was to return to Texas with the boy and enroll him in a military school or boot camp.
Newsday reported last week that Rob Silva, an ex-con and the boy's father, said Caminiti had spoken with his teenage son, asking him: "Do you want to live, or do you want to die?"
Several newspapers reported that Caminiti spent the last day of his life with Silva, meeting him at 4 a.m., and ending up at the Bronx apartment of a Silva acquaintance. That's where Caminiti collapsed before being pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Glenn Caminiti said the apartment where his brother died was in such a rough part of the South Bronx that he needed to be escorted by two police officers.
"The coroner said that it's hard to say what happened with his heart condition," Glenn Caminiti said. "He was a ticking time bomb. His heart was enlarged. His arteries were hardened. When you add up the cocaine use, the steroid use and the family history, that cocktail means you aren't living long."
Moretti wonders if Caminiti, who was tormented by the belief that he had betrayed baseball with his steroids statements, tired of his addiction battle. "If Ken really had known how many people loved him, and how many people he had hurt, I think he would have tried harder," Moretti said.
An exact cause of death could be released this week when toxicology tests are completed. Whatever is revealed, it doesn't change the fact that Caminiti died too young, three girls are left without a father, and friends and family are trying to reconcile his loss. Several of those interviewed spoke because they believe others might benefit from Caminiti's story.
"I really think Ken would want people to learn from his situation," Moretti said. "I just don't think this should go away. We don't need any other children without their parents."
Crumpton said one of the last times he talked to Caminiti, the ex-ballplayer mentioned that Fox Sports Net asked to feature him in "Beyond The Glory." Caminiti preferred to wait.
"He wanted to make sure he was on solid ground in recovery and that it could be a happy ending."