Monday, October 11, 2004

Two Men, Two Battles, Two Attitudes

Many people opened their newspapers or websites this morning, and read about the tragic death of Christopher Reeve at age 52. Already, the more Left-leaning partisans have begun to work political outrage from the passing of the popular actor/advocate. It's not unexpected, given the words and arguments of the past year.

Coincidentally, another man passed away last night, also from a heart attack. Ken Caminiti, the one-time National League's Most Valuable Player, and beloved member of the Houston Astros and San Diego Padres organizations, died at age 41, alone and bankrupt. His death, equally tragic, brings no calls for accountability from anyone, and indeed, little enough attention. The differences between these two men, and the people who knew them, is worth comment.

Nine years ago, Christopher Reeve was a succesful Hollywood actor, who was already using his name and influence to support favored liberal causes. In May of 1995, while riding a show horse, the horse balked, and Reeve fell, landing on his head and crushing several vertebrae in his spine. Only prompt medical attention and expert surgery saved his life, but it left him paralyzed. Reeve was able to recover limited use of his body, and he went on to write books and speak publically, often tying his disability to the need to suport his chosen causes. Reeve never said so directly, but often suggested that he would recover faster, if his favored research into embryonic stem cell research had been fully suported, even though a primary source for embryonic stem cells is aborted fetuses. The fact that embryonic stem cell research has not been established as leading to the cure for even one disease, and shows no promise whatsoever for chronic conditions, Reeve conveniently ignored.

Nine years ago, Ken Caminiti was in a slump. The All-Star 3rd baseman for the Astros appeared to be slowing down and losing power. Before the season began, he was traded to the San Diego Padres, where he worked hard to improve his batting average from .283 to .302, but nine years in the Majors were wearing him down. Ken had a well-deserved reputation as a serious player, who never missed workouts or practices, not to mention exhibition games or appearances. By the end of 1995, Caminiti had played in 1,243 regular-season games.

In 1996, Reeve's therapy allowed him some minor successes, but none more important than regaining some of his speech. He was able to direct and write books, as well as give limited interviews. In 1996, Ken Caminiti was the National League's MVP, with a .326 batting average and a .621 slugging average. He hit 40 home runs that year, and enjoyed a .954 fielding percentage, and had been on base 260 times. Unfortunately, 1996 was pretty much the high-water mark for both men.

Reeve's recovery suffered a letdown, and he broke his arm in a fall from his exercise bike. As for Caminiti, he began a slide which took years to appear in its effects. Caminiti was the kind of player who went all-out, and he paid for it in pain and muscle damage. Caminiti began to regularly use steroids, unaware at the time that there would be long-term effects; he wanted to be game-ready, and considered steroids a price he had to pay to meet that commitment.

By 2001, the two men had clearly begun their descent. Both also began to speak out against apathy in their conditions. Reeve wanted more research done to help paralysis, while Caminiti spoke out against steroid abuse in MLB, to keep other athletes from becoming addicted, as he was. Unknown to the public, however, Reeve was suffering a long-term decline in his condition, and Caminiti had also become addicted to prescription pain relievers.

By 2003, the decline had steepened. Reeve began to lose muscle tone in his lower body again. Ken Caminiti, given a chance by the Padres, the Rangers, and a second chance with the Astros, saw his career end with an arrest for cocaine possession. The 3-time All-Star, who owned 3 Gold Gloves and an MVP award, had lost his baseball career, his wife left him, and most of his friends were nowhere to be found. Even those who wanted to help Ken, found him stubborn and reclusive.

In the end, there are both striking similarities and differences between these men. Both were famous and successful at their chosen profession, famous and wealthy. But one used his disability to advance his political causes, while the other tried to fight his battles alone, accepting responsibility but unable to defeat his demons. One enjoyed the support of his family and friends, and kept his wealth and reputation, while the other lost everything, from his wife to his fortune to his health to his name to his very last chance.

Both men should be remembered. But for very different reasons.

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