Jose Canseco had the look about him of a man on the brink of a momentous decision. He had been sitting apart from his teammates in the cramped Oakland Coliseum clubhouse pondering the implications of a slump that had left him with but two hits in his last 22 times at bat, and without a home run in two weeks. It had been an appalling drought for a hitter of such uncommon resources, and Canseco was not happy. At the same time, the young leftfielder was not especially downcast. He is only a rookie and would not turn 22 until July 2, but he has a philosophical turn of mind. "My mechanics are bad right now," he said coolly. "You have to expect that the pitchers will make their pitches now and then and get you out. I'm trying to stay levelheaded about it, trying not to let myself get down. I'm only 21 and I've got a lot to learn, not just about baseball but about a lot of things. I could be in the minors right now, after all. And I know I'll get back in the groove pretty soon."
It was an admirable speech for one of such tender years—thoughtful and balanced. Then came the shocker: "I may be developing some bad habits in batting practice. A lot of times I'll catch myself in the cage trying to impress the crowd. I don't think that's doing me much good. I was up late last night thinking about a lot of things. And I think what I may do is not take BP for a week or so, or at least until I get back in a groove."
Now, just a minute here. Not take batting practice? No way, Jose. Jose Canseco without batting practice is...well...like Baryshnikov without dancing shoes, Wynton Marsalis without a horn, Liz without a man. Canseco has taken one of his game's more pedestrian activities and transformed it into an art form. Indeed, the way the A's have been playing lately, there may well be fans who show up at the ballpark only to see Canseco take BP. After watching him hit those majestic shots into the ionosphere, the actual game itself seems tame and uneventful in comparison. Why even bother to stick around for it? Canseco is the Al Jolson of BP: Just when you think you've seen it all, he quickly proves that "you ain't seen nothin' yet." And it's not just fans he impresses; he leaves teammates and opposing players gasping in admiration right along with the folks in the seats. When Jose steps into the cage, everything stops.
It's hardly fair to say that all he's done for the A's is provide pregame entertainment. At week's end he led the majors in RBIs with 66, and his 19 homers tied him for the major league lead with Angel rookie Wally Joyner and Toronto's Jesse Barfield. Canseco was batting only .263, but his slugging percentage was .519. Still, it's his BP that has players talking.
Listen to Mike Pagliarulo of the Yankees: "Everybody watches Canseco. It's a show. He hits one after another over the fence, most of them to the opposite field. 'Line drives, not fly balls. The man is strong. He's something to watch." One Canseco BP performance was almost too much for Pagliarulo to bear, however. After seeing the mighty A hit one out on a half swing at Yankee Stadium, Pagliarulo took a hike. "I'm not watching this anymore," he muttered. "He checked his swing and hit one of the longest shots I've seen. That's enough."
"He puts on as good an exhibition as anybody in the game," says Yankee manager Lou Piniella. "He hits them out at every part of the ballpark. I think the next time we play them, I might tell my, pitchers they shouldn't watch him in BP. It can be a little intimidating."
Canseco began building his BP legend during spring training in Phoenix. The centerfield fence at Phoenix Stadium is some 430 feet from home plate, and it is topped by a 45-foot-high wooden backstop, "the green monster" of Arizona. Hitters have cleared that barrier before, but not very often and never, in anyone's memory, more than once. Canseco routinely cleared it in his BP exhibitions this spring, so many times, in fact, that not even he can recall the exact number. "Lots," he simply says.
Phoenix crowds would arrive early for the show and rise to applaud Canseco after every BP performance. The tradition continued into the season. Newspapers in American League cities would advise spectators to show up early and catch the youngster's act. Canseco rarely disappointed them. Jackie Moore, who was fired as the Oakland manager last week, says, "He'll hit a ball and you'll say there's no way anybody can hit anything that far. Then he'll hit one farther. He does put on a show."
But not everyone has been amused—specifically, Bob Watson, the A's roving batting instructor. "I don't like his work habits," Watson said in early June after watching a Canseco BP show in Chicago. "He's taking batting practice for the media. He wants to put on a good show for the people, so he's trying to hit the ball on the roof or over the roof. I told him we'd rather have him putting on a crummy show for the media and a good show for us. He's hurting himself and he's hurting the club. I have a saying with him: 'I'd rather you hit it through the fence than over the fence.' "
Canseco almost did exactly that during a game in Baltimore in mid-May when his line drive hit the wall in left with such force that it rebounded nearly to the infield. Canseco said later it may have been the ball he'd hit hardest all year—and that's saying something—but it got to the wall so quickly, he was held to a mere single. "If we had been playing in Fenway," said Oriole pitcher Scott McGregor, the victim of that laser beam, "the ball would have stuck in the wall."
Watson's criticism aside, Canseco does not leave his game in the batting cage. Against the Angels on April 21, he hit a ball 430 feet against a stiff wind into the upper deck in rightfield at Anaheim Stadium. That would have been a truly awe-inspiring drive for a lefthanded hitter; for a righthander, it bordered on the incredible. "He hits them where I hit them," said Reggie Jackson, "and he's righthanded!" Of his 19 homers so far this year, 9 have been to left, 7 to right and 3 to dead center. He is on a pace that could break both the rookie record for runs batted in (145 by Ted Williams in 1939) and home runs (38 by Frank Robinson in 1956 and Wally Berger in 1930). Yet, as his own teammates acknowledge, he hasn't even had a hot streak this year.
Canseco himself would be the first to agree that he's far from being a finished player. He has made his share of miscues. Earlier in the season, he seemed to be affecting an air of studied nonchalance on defense, trotting casually after fly balls, stabbing at them one-handed. Canseco has nine errors already, but he says he's working harder on his defense—he has at least started catching two-handed.
Canseco got the publicity wheels oiled when he was called up last September and hit several tape-measure home runs. When word of his Bunyanesque feats this spring in Phoenix reached the outside world, anticipation was high. Canseco seemed confused at first by all the fuss. "I'm just a rookie," he protested feebly before the advancing tide of newsmen. But what a rookie—darkly handsome, 6'3", 220-plus pounds, arms like Rambo's. And he was born in Havana.
Nothing in Canseco's background prepared him for the media onslaught. He suspected it was coming, though. "After I hit a couple of tape-measure shots, they told me I could expect my share of the media," he said. But his natural reserve and his understandable, though completely unwarranted, nervousness about his own future ("My knees were shaking my first time up," he said) made him appear to be aloof, even discourteous. He was starting to get an unfavorable press outside Oakland, so the A's management took him aside to protect his reputation and his well-being. It was decided that before the first game in each city on the road, he should hold a 15-minute press conference. The system seems to have worked, although Canseco on the rostrum will never rival Reggie. And he is still annoyed by the tone of some questions. "Because I was born in Cuba," he says, "some people expect me to speak broken English. That's a laugh. I wasn't even a year old when I left."
In fact, he was nine months old, "so young he could barely walk, let alone speak Spanish," says his father, Jose Sr., now the territorial manager for an oil company in Miami. "Of course, he speaks Spanish today, but he is not as fluent as I am. I wanted all my children to be bilingual. It is our heritage, after all. But when I speak Spanish to Jose, he changes to English." The senior Canseco took his wife, Barbara, daughter Teresa, now 31, and twin sons, Jose and Osvaldo (Ozzie), out of Havana in 1965 "because communism is a rotten thing." They settled at first in the Opa-Locka section of Miami and then moved, in 1975, to southwest Miami, where both the boys attended Coral Park High School.
The brothers are, even to their father, virtually identical. "I think Jose is maybe an inch taller," says Jose Sr., "and he has a birthmark behind a knuckle on his right hand. When the boys were little, I identified them that way. Now they both have the same long necks and broad shoulders. Sometimes I still have to look at them twice. And they have the same personality; they're both very nice guys. They take after me."
Both were skinny as kids, says Jose. "I was about six foot one, 155 pounds, when I started high school, about 170 when I graduated. I didn't even play on the varsity until my senior year." But he hit .400 then and attracted the notice of the A's scout for the Miami area, Camilo Pascual, a Cuban-born big league pitcher for 18 years. The Canseco boys had grown up playing ball with Pascual's son, Burt, in their neighborhood. Another Cuban neighbor was former big leaguer Jose Tartabull, whose son Danny is now a rookie flash with Seattle.
Canseco was drafted in the 15th round by Oakland in 1982. His brother was signed by the Yankees as a pitcher but has since been shifted to the outfield and is playing for Sarasota in the Rookie League. Just before she died in April 1984 of a brain hemorrhage, their mother visited a psychic in Miami. "She didn't go to a fortune-teller or anyone like that," says Jose Sr. "No, the woman she saw was more serious than that, a real psychic. And she told my wife that both of our boys would become popular in sports, but that one of them would get there first and would become very famous. It has all happened."
Rick Langford, once the workhorse of the A's pitching staff, now at 34 a sometime starter trying to hang on, watched the strapping Canseco in the Oakland clubhouse recently with just a touch of wistfulness. "Look at him," Langford said, shaking his head. "It must really be something to be 21 and able to do the things that kid can do."
The A's feel right now there are few limits on what that kid can do and that what he's doing in the batting cage before games is just a preview of things to come. If that's true, then, by heaven, "you ain't seen nothin' yet."