Ken Caminiti steps in, his game face ready for New York. His blue eyes are as piercing as daggers, even from the shadow of his bony brow. His mouth is tightly shut, the corners turned down as if from the weight of his thick black goatee and mustache. His eyebrows are scrunched together in a knot. This is the visage that earned the San Diego Padres' third baseman the nickname Scary Man from the hometown fans. He is a dangerous hitter who is causing people to squirm. How, they must be wondering, can we possibly get this guy out?
Then the doors to the number 7 subway train close behind him, and the metal cars go clacking and clanging off to Shea Stadium. The first pitch of the Padres' game with the Mets is seven hours away.
"He's got that look," says Padres utility-man Scott Livingstone, Caminiti's roommate and commuting partner from Manhattan to Queens last week. "You could tell people were thinking, He'll be robbing the train. I always feel safe riding the train with Cami. He gets on, and people just start handing over their wallets."
Intimidating? Just imagine this Merchant of Menace with a bat in his hands. The damage looked like this at week's end, with 24 games still remaining for first-place San Diego: .316 batting average, 31 home runs, 108 runs batted in, the most home runs in one month (14, in August) by a National League switch-hitter and the most career games with dingers from both sides of the plate (seven) in league history. Now that's scary, man.
That seventh switch-hit homer game came after the 7 train let him off at Shea, on Aug. 28. With his team trailing the Mets 2-0, Caminiti led off the seventh inning with an opposite-field home run batting lefthanded against Mark Clark. Caminiti then tied the game leading off the ninth with a 409-foot bomb batting righthanded against John Franco. San Diego won 3-2 in 12 innings.
The world of sports hasn't seen a game face with this kind of intensity since Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary retired in 1992. And Caminiti hits harder. He's not only a tough out but also a tough hombre. This season Caminiti, 33, played a stretch with such a badly strained left shoulder that he could not lift his elbow out from the side of his body. (Even now he can raise the elbow no higher than his shoulder.) Earlier this season he played with such a badly strained groin muscle that one doctor thought he had a hernia. And recently he played most of a game just minutes after plucking an IV needle out of his left arm. No wonder Caminiti, who is as spectacular as ever afield and has the best infield arm in baseball, looks like this, too: the front-runner for the National League's Most Valuable Player award.
"He has single-handedly kept us in this thing," San Diego pitcher Bob Tewksbury says of the Padres' one-game lead through Sunday in the National League West. "He has the best combination of mental toughness and baseball ability of anyone I've ever played with."
Caminiti is a throwback, the kind of ballplayer who would look good in heavy flannel. He runs hard on routine fly balls and doesn't tiptoe around catchers. "If it's close," he says of a play at the plate, "I'm going to clean the guy."
He is fiercely loyal. He married his high school sweetheart, still drives his first set of wheels (a '73 pickup, which he has rebuilt) and forsook the greater riches of free agency after having had the best year of his career (.302, 26 homers) in 1995 to remain with San Diego for $6.1 million over two years. "I have a very addictive personality," he says.
"Whatever Ken does, he does all out," says his wife, Nancy. That would apply not only to baseball but also to riding his customized motorcycle; obsessing about his '55 Chevy, which he built into one of the country's top show cars; and, more sadly, to his years of drinking that once made a season like this impossible for him.