I received the word of Ken's death of heart failure Monday morning, and was stunned, but not surprised. Ken walked into my motorcycle shop in 1996 while in town for spring training in Phoenix. I had no idea who he was, and had no interest in baseball at the time.
During that '96 season, I learned about the game. Ken absorbed himself into baseball and custom bikes on his journey to become the National League MVP.
Literally every evening on the TV there were highlights of his amazing athletic ability. Ken called me most every day to see how his bike was progressing that summer. During the all-star break, he made a special flight to Arizona to go riding and see the progress on his bike in person. He brought a crew from FOX TV Sports and a Sports Illustrated photographer in tow. He was red hot, but wanted an escape from the baseball spotlight and throw his legs over a motorcycle and start riding.
That was the weekend that I really got to know Ken. I found him to be one of the most intense, focused, kindhearted generous persons that I've ever met. I had no preconceived notions about who he was, or the struggles that he had previously with his addictions. This was just Ken. I think he appreciated the fact that I didn't have any interest in baseball. He lived baseball everyday; that was his job. He didn't ask to be in the spotlight, it just found him. His quiet soft-spoken presence contrasted dramatically with his physical being and his intense stare. Journalists who needed a super-hero to write about created his 'Scary-Man' image. I think he turned to his additions to find some way to live up to his bigger than life persona. I think his public image became such a burden, that the only way he thought he could cope with it was to escape into his addictions.
I never saw the drinker, drug abuser or womanizer. Not once. I never saw the dark side of him. He kept that from us.
When my wife and I delivered the first bike we built for him in '96, we took it right to the ballpark in San Diego. Ken treated us like royalty. We arrived, just before the game and he gave us a tour of the inner workings of the stadium. After the day game, we all three went riding around San Diego, and that's the first time I discovered what a major celebrity he was. Literally, Ken was the King of San Diego. At every stoplight, people were waving and giving him props. It seemed to embarrass him, so much attention. At dinner autograph seekers constantly interrupted him. He always maintained a politeness no matter how intrusive people became. He couldn't go anywhere without being hounded. In hindsight, this was a burden that I feel he just didn't really know how to handle. He loved the attention, but somehow acted like he really wasn't worthy of it.
He invited me to meet him in San Francisco, as his guest, when they were playing the Giants. We went on bike shop tours, to see Arlen Ness and Ron Simms shops. After the game, Ken rounded up a few other players and two stretch limos and we went out on the town. That's when I discovered that ball players live the Rock Star lifestyle, but he made it look like he had it under control.
Occasionally our paths would cross, and we'd pick up right where we left off talking about bikes or hot-rod cars. Ken was a constant shameless promoter of my bikes. Everyone he met with a Harley, he'd try to get them riding on a Steed, some by sheer intimidation.
His final MLB season, he convinced Ivan 'Pudge' Rodriguez to have a Steed built, and I convinced Ken it was time for a new one too. It's not very often you get the no holds barred creative license and freedom and trust from a customer to design and build whatever you want. Ken let me go, full artistic license. He only asked me to do my best. It doesn't get any better than that.
That was a tough year for Ken. He got traded to Atlanta towards the end of the season. I was in my truck driving back from LA with his custom hand built aluminum tank for his new bike, and I called him as I left Los Angles and headed home. The braves made the playoffs, and he was all excited about flying to Arizona to see the progress on his bike. He was just stoked about the possibility of him going to the World Series with Atlanta. I was looking forward to seeing him when their plane arrived in Phoenix that evening, the day before the playoffs with the Arizona Diamondbacks. I called his cell phone when I was just getting into town, and he sounded bummed, and totally crushed. Atlanta released him, and he didn't get on the plane to come to Arizona. He was still in Georgia looking for a flight home to Houston. In the span of four hours, bang, that was the end of his career in baseball. No big hurrah, no retirement ceremony, just no ticket to the playoffs.
I tried calling him for weeks to check in on him to see how he was handling his surprise retirement, but only got his voice mail. I only discovered where he was when he got arrested in Houston, and saw him on the evening news.
In the space of 5 or 6 years of knowing Ken, he hit the highest of highs and then the lowest of lows.
Because of his celebrity status, and the ability to hire the best legal teams, he got breaks in the criminal justice system that in hindsight might not have been in his best interest.
He did some detox time in Arizona the winter of 2001, and was released around Christmas to spend time with his family. He was working the program heavily and his first trip out away from home was to Steeds to see his new 'Cammy Orange' 250 bike that we had finished for him. We rode it all over town and spent two days at the NHRA Winter Nationals hanging in the pits with all the drag race teams.
He decided that he wanted to do the '02 Laughlin River Run with us in April, and that was the last time I spent with him. He rode with us from Phoenix to the event. What a weird trip that was. Ken was fresh out of more therapy, and coming clean with everyone. I never heard him talk so much. There was this new Ken, and I really thought he had it together. He knew he had a lot of work ahead of him to keep sober, but he was committed. He wanted to work out his issues with his wife Nancy, and really opened up to me about his double life he had been leading.
His manager arranged for an interview in Laughlin with CNN. He was all excited about his new life and new bike. His intentions were to talk about his fresh outlook and new motorcycle. He got ambushed at the end of an hour and a half taped TV interview. He broke down in tears with me after that interview. After an hour or so into it, in a secluded hotel room at Harrah's, the female reporter asked him about his MVP season and steroid use. He came clean but had no idea what the future implications were going to be with his honest answers.
This was the moment, a pinnacle point where he was at in his life. He broke through all his barriers, and wanted a fresh start with no more skeletons in the closet. He was the new Ken, fresh out of re-hab, ready to come clean. Maybe it wasn't the best move to be honest about Steroid use in baseball on CNN at the tail end of an interview, but that's where his head was at the time. I don't think he ever recovered from that one. To complicate matters, that was the day of the biker shoot-out in Harrah's casino. So we were all locked up in our rooms watching TV to see what happened in our hotel, and CNN was breaking the Caminiti Steroid story...not a good day for anyone.
Ken was a big-hearted guy, a gifted athlete, and a friend. I don't think he ever realized how many people were in his corner. It's a devastating loss. Self-destruction is never easy to understand, especially with someone with such a big heart. Ken didn't die last week of a heart attack; it took him over 2 agonizing years to slowly die of a broken heart. Rest in Peace Ken, I hope to cross paths and ride again with you one day.
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