Coach's Corner

The abuse heaped on Ken Caminiti for his Sports Illustrated expose on steroid abuse is disgraceful. Actually, he's done the game a favor by shining a light on the situation.

The business of sports commentary can be like "side-dish" portions at upscale steak houses -- too much to eat -- or like the diet which purports to make overweight people content on three drinks a day, not enough. One of the great doldrums of the sports calendar begins the day after the NBA Finals end ... a bleak stretch of 90-degree days wafting into the distant haze of September and football. Today, however, we're sharing a platter of potatoes au gratin.

Last week's column was devoted to the crisis facing Major League Baseball ... a column written before this week's Sports Illustrated hit the stands. You'd have to be on an interplanetary journey to be unaware of SI's story. Its cover: a baseball crossed with two hypodermic needles. The subject: steroids. Talk of steroid use and baseball isn't new. What is new is confirmation by people inside the game ... or did ya' think today's smallpox outbreak of record-crushing hitting was clean living? No better example exists than the overnight transformation of the perfect doubles-hitting machine, Barry Bonds, into the game's all-time premier power hitter.

SI made Ken Caminiti the centerpiece of their story. Caminiti, a retired National League MVP, honestly answered tough questions. For his honesty he's suffering a brutal crucifixion of peer scorn and a self-serving media savaging at the hands of national writers. I was stunned to hear Mike Lupica and Bob Ryan, respected syndicated columnists, mock Caminiti with smug character assassination, as if Caminiti had anything to gain by his stark admissions of steroid use.

But here's the weird part: Did anyone, anyone at all, actually read the nine-page (with four sidebars) story? The author interviews two other players, Curt Schilling and Kenny Rogers, extensively. Both are credible vets, but more importantly, guys in the clubhouse today. Both confirm -- as do a host of unnamed sources from players to GMs -- Caminiti's contention that steroid use is rampant. Schilling is quoted as much as Caminiti, but it's the troubled ex-Astro who's taking all the heat. Why? Because he's an easy target: an admitted substance-abuse guy with a life in shambles. It's disgraceful. Piling on a crippled messenger who can't fight back. I heard Jim Rome interview Caminiti, and that was about as disturbing as they come. Caminiti came across as a dangerously depressed, maybe suicidal man left out all alone by his old buddies until his carcass is picked clean by spin-control buzzards. It was scary. Many people should be ashamed.

If you want to quibble with Caminiti's estimate that 50% of the guys are on the juice, fine. God bless you. But it's a small, small hat to hang on. Schilling and Rodgers corroborate everything Caminiti said. Yet I've seen nary a smear directed at these guys, which is really strange. Like I said, did anyone read this piece? Caminiti said he wished he'd never given the interview, that his life was ruined, that nothing good would come of this. I hope he's wrong.

When a light is shined into a rat-infested den, only good things can happen. Hey, look at Times Square! The courage of these men will force baseball to test rigorously for drugs. The public will now question -- fairly or not -- every tape job homer, every skinny, 170-lb. second baseman who shows up next season looking like Rambo, until they're convinced the game is being played fair and square by all concerned. Caminiti should get a medal.

And then there's the NBA Conference Finals, the most riveting in memory. I thought the Kings would be lucky to win a game, let alone three. For not the first time, I was wrong. However, let's take a little side trip into a parallel universe: the possibility of corrupt games. The officiating in Game 6 was horrendous. Particularly the fourth quarter, a Lakers free-throw exhibition: 27 in all, 18 in the last six minutes alone. The home team getting an embarrassing preponderance of helpful officiating isn't unusual, but this game was off the chart. I'm not suggesting that anything dishonest took place this time, but fixing a game wouldn't be hard, and it wouldn't need to include players.

The NBA and NFL are both hyper-sensitive about the public's perception of an honest effort. But the ability of any single player -- even a quarterback -- to reliably fix a football game is questionable. The ball takes too many funny bounces, and besides, those guys make a lot of money. In basketball the effect of a single player is significant ... but he'd have to be a star player. And why would a millionaire forward need to fix a game? Officials, though, are just working stiffs, more susceptible to the lure of cash. They'd be a vulnerable target. The subjective nature of their jobs -- every pass route is pass interference, every bump on the perimeter is technically a foul -- would give effective cover. Just putting a star player on the bench for 10 minutes is enough to change a basketball game. Who would ever notice? Who keeps an eye on the personal lives of the officials?

Parting Shots: The Kings got what they deserved. There'll be a lot of talk from KingLand about Sacramento having the better team ... but they're wrong. A team graduating from Chris Dudley's free-throw school doesn't deserve to play for the NBA title. Free throws; one of the cliché-ridden "little things" that champions do well.

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