The Summer of His DISCONTENT

In this painful season, A's slugger Jose Canseco has found that fame hits back
October 01, 1989

He could hear the first echoes of the shrieking as he made his way up the ramp beyond centerfield in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. By the time he reached the end of the ramp and stepped into the players' parking lot, there was a cyclone of shouts and screams and squeals. Teenyboppers, small children, women and men, many of them dressed in T-shirts that read LET'S BASH or JOSE 33, were pressed against the wire fence of the walkway leading to the parking lot; more fans called down from atop the back wall of the Coliseum. Athletics outfielder Jose Canseco looked around, waved a couple of times and climbed into his white Porsche.

As he edged the car out of the players' lot, Canseco saw two police motorcycles swing into the main stadium parking area and head toward him with lights flashing and sirens blaring. "Uh-oh," he said to his passenger, "they must know I'm in my car." He started laughing. "Don't worry," he said as he wheeled out to the street and the motorcycles sped past in the other direction, "I know a good bail bondsman."

The traffic on Highway 880 South was moving slowly, which gave the passengers in other cars a chance to notice who was driving the Porsche. Again and again, someone—often a teenage girl—would recognize Canseco, and soon everyone else in the car would be pointing at him. Two beered-up guys pulled their Mazda RX-7 next to the Porsche and gave a thumbs-up sign; when Canseco's lane moved ahead of theirs, one of the Mazda guys leaned out of the car and hollered, "Jose, you——."

Canseco shook his head. "Booze," he said without looking back. "It makes people do bad things. And drugs. Society's too soft on drugs. Baseball is too soft on drugs. Baseball lets these drug offenders come back as if nothing has happened. And sometimes I think the cops are more worried about my cars than they are about people who commit serious crimes involving drugs. It's crazy. You know? Crazy."

The Jose Watch continued after Canseco pulled onto Crow Canyon Road and wound his way toward San Ramon, the town where he lives, 30 minutes from the Coliseum. "I love playing baseball," he said as he waved politely to a foursome of elderly women in a Toyota, "but sometimes I feel like the gorilla in the zoo. People watch the gorilla, stare at it, point at it, trying to figure out why it's doing what it's doing. It seems as if eyes are always on me the same way. I turn around, someone's watching me. Away from the field, I feel as if I'm always being interviewed: 'Jose, how's the wrist?' 'Jose, what happened out there yesterday?' Sometimes, I just don't want to talk about myself. I'm not that interesting. I don't know how to deal with it. I enjoy signing autographs, but if I sign for an hour, there's an hour of people left who are mad at me. If I don't sign, I'm a bad guy. If I do sign, I'm a bad guy. It's confusing.

"I still don't get it. I never thought people would want to know what I do except play baseball. I go out to eat and people say, 'Jose, talk to me." I know those people mean well, but why is a baseball player a celebrity? The way I was brought up, I didn't have heroes. We didn't idolize baseball players or movie actors or rock stars. Society is a little strange."

(Indeed, two seasons ago, while watching an NBA playoff game on TV in the clubhouse, some of Canseco's teammates were stunned to learn that he didn't know who Magic Johnson was. "It would never have dawned on any of us that there could be anyone in pro sports in this country who hadn't heard of Magic Johnson," says Oakland coach Rene Lachemann.)

Canseco drove on toward his condominium where he lives with Esther, his wife of almost a year. He pointed out the speed trap where he was stopped last spring by a police officer. The posted limit goes from 50 to 35. "Watch this," he said. He continued driving at 50 for a few hundred yards and watched as three cars passed him in the left lane before he slowed down to 35. "See?" He frowned. Canseco remains bitter about that ticket, feeling he was targeted. Last month he was pulled over by the same officer, same location. "She [the officer] stopped me for having my windows tinted too dark," said Canseco. "The ticket was hardly written before the media had the news. Now, that is law and order."

Law and order is a subject close to Canseco's heart, and it was with disgust that he said, "Society's going downhill when you read about all the drugs and murders." When asked what he would do if he were the president, he replied, "I'd never be qualified to be president." Then what would he suggest for a candidate of his choice? "Stricter laws and more guns," he said firmly.

So how does he reconcile his speeding tickets and other legal skirmishes with his law and order stance? "It's a matter of priorities," he said. "My going 10 miles over the speed limit or having tinted windows isn't like drug dealing or murders or stock market fraud. I may have been wrong; I accept the punishment. But we're not tough enough about what is eating away at our society."

Canseco steered the Porsche into the driveway of his town-house, which sits in a canyon and overlooks a small lake. "I like privacy and I like driving, so the location here is perfect," he said. The search for privacy is a constant in his life now. Walt Weiss, the Oakland shortstop and Canseco's closest friend on the A's, says, "Going to a restaurant with Jose—going anywhere with Jose, for that matter—is like going somewhere with Elvis or Springsteen."

Reggie Jackson was probably the last baseball player with this sort of rock-star stature, but Canseco is much more the heartthrob than Reggie was. "People even show up at my door here," said Jose as he got out of the car. "But I haven't changed, no matter what people think or write. They think when you start making a million dollars that you change. But it's the people around you and their expectations that actually change. Sometimes I feel as if I'm from another planet, sent down here to observe. Dealing with it has been painful at times. But I'm learning."

At this time last year, Jose Canseco had just become the first player ever to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season. He was en route to being a unanimous selection as American League Most Valuable Player and was soon to be the hero of the AL playoffs. "Now I feel 10 years older," he says. "Sometimes more than that. Sometimes I feel as if I'm 45."

From the start, the Season-After has been a physical struggle for Canseco. During spring training, he felt something pop in his left hand, and on May 10, after the hand failed to heal with rest, he had surgery on the hamate bone. It wasn't until after the All-Star break that he rejoined the A's. At first, it was like Ted Williams returning from Korea. He homered in his fourth at bat, and in his first nine games he belted five home runs. "The hand was strong because it was rested," Canseco says. "But it gets weak when I play a lot. It's not going to be right until next season. I realize that. I just have to make adjustments."

Still, Canseco has hit some mammoth home runs since his return, and as of the end of last week, he had six home runs and 18 RBIs in the September stretch run. In 60 games this season, he has knocked in 52 runs and hit 16 homers. If those numbers were projected over a full season, Canseco would have 42 home runs and 135 RBIs, nearly identical to his MVP stats of last year.

"He has been a dominant figure the last month," says Oakland hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "But when he gets certain pitches—especially fastballs up and in—he can't handle them the way he did. A hand or wrist injury is the worst injury of all to a hitter. It used to be that he'd crush the inside ball. He can't quite do that. Yet."

Says Canseco, "There are ups and downs that there weren't last year. It's all part of this aging process."

At 25, Canseco has learned that being baseball's Bruce Springsteen and making $1.6 million a year doesn't insure happiness. Taped over his locker in the Oakland clubhouse is a picture of his infamous candy-apple-red customized Jaguar, the car that attracted traffic tickets and more. Written over the picture in bold letters is $80,000 OR BEST OFFER. "It's a good thing I like to laugh more than anyone on this planet," Canseco says. It would take a five-page supplement to the A's media guide for a complete rundown of all of Canseco's off-the-field difficulties. In brief: He was sued for $350,000 by the promoters of a card show for breach of contract, arrested in Miami for driving 120 miles an hour, cited for four different violations after running a stop sign in Arizona, arrested in San Francisco for illegal possession of a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol found in his car and accused of building himself up with steroids.

"Jose has had to learn to deal with the responsibilities of fame," says the Athletics' general manager, Sandy Alderson. "While he was complaining about privacy, he was driving that Jaguar, which was a red flag. But I think Jose has learned."

At the very least he has learned to laugh at his woes. Last week, Canseco opened a 900 number and aired a TV commercial on which he says, "Hi, I'm Jose Canseco. I want to speak to you, so call 1-900-234-JOSE. I'll give you the latest scoop on baseball and what's happening in my personal life. If you want to know if I used steroids, how fast I drive or why I was carrying that gun, call 1-900-234-JOSE." His new hot line, which charges the caller $2 for the first minute and $1 for each minute thereafter, is a source of both revenue and amusement to him. "I wish I'd thought of it sooner," he says, laughing. "I could have made a few more bucks."

Despite the humor of that public stunt, the travails of this season have, in fact, only heightened some of Canseco's concerns about pleasing people. "I always hear that I'm a 'physical specimen' and a 'superman,' " he says. "I weigh 225 or 230; so does [A's first baseman] Mark McGwire. I don't have Bo Jackson's ability. I did what I did last year, and what did I hear? 'He's just scratching the surface. He can do a lot more.' Can I? I don't know. I want to do more, but I'm afraid that no matter what I do, it won't be enough and people will say, "Jose Canseco could do more if he used his full ability.' When I retire, some people will say, 'He should have done more.' I have to learn not to worry about pleasing everyone. I say, 'Please yourself and the rest will take care of itself.' But when you're in the public eye, it's tough to not care what others think."

There has been no shortage of what others think. "Everyone's psychoanalyzed me," says Canseco. "Vida Blue recommended I buy a Volvo. Denny McLain predicted I was headed for trouble. Denny McLain?"

"Jose has changed since all the stuff happened to him," says Oakland pitcher Dennis Eckersley, who, like many of the A's, considered Canseco very aloof last season. "He's a lot more open now. He takes kidding from teammates now. Hey, maybe he's just growing up. I can relate to that."

"We can point to some immaturity and some irresponsibility when we start talking about Jose's so-called problems," says A's manager Tony La Russa. "But we're not talking about serious problems, not like so many in sports or society. When we talk about Jose Canseco, we're talking about a person who is completely clean. He doesn't drink. He doesn't smoke. He doesn't do drugs. You never have to worry about his being out of shape. And he's intelligent, which is why he will learn from all of this."

And what has Canseco learned so far? "I've got to be careful with people who want to latch on to me because I'm worth something to them," he says. "No more card shows. The public doesn't need to see me getting $15 to sign for a kid. And the Jag's in the garage."

Jose's parents, Jose Sr. and Barbara, like many Cubans who fled Fidel Castro for the United States, were a part of Cuba's educated upper middle class. Jose and his twin brother, Ozzie, were nine months old when their parents immigrated in 1965 and made their home in Miami. Manny Crespo is a former Triple A infielder who moved from Cuba to Miami in 1961 and has known the Cansecos for years. "What most people in this country don't realize is that Cuba, unlike most Latin American countries, had middle, upper middle and lower middle classes," he says. "Jose comes from an extremely well-to-do family, highly respected in Cuba."

"I've always been typecast as the dumb Latino," says Canseco. "I hit two homers in a game in Medford. Ore., in 1983 and a couple of writers asked the manager, 'Does he speak English?' Writers last year were surprised I could talk."

Jose Sr. worked for an American oil company and later taught English in Havana. Jose's grandfather was a judge. When Jose Sr. arrived in Miami, he took a job with Sears and is now a regional manager for Amoco. "My parents were strict, disciplined and oriented toward education," says Jose Jr. "My father worked very hard to build a good life for us. My mother [who died in 1984] loved to cook and work and laugh. My parents never drank or smoked, and to this day, no one is allowed to do either in my father's house. It was always that way in the Cuban community in Miami. People don't understand this. They think of Miami and think of the television violence and all the trouble the Latin people supposedly cause. It's not fair. There are a lot of people in the United States who think the Cubans in this country are the guys that Jimmy Carter let in. They came 15 or 20 years after us. Fidel Castro was smart. He unloaded a lot of criminals and other people he wanted out of the country. But they're not us, and we're not them."

If such misunderstandings have been aggravating to Canseco, his distress has only been exacerbated by his troubled year in the public spotlight. Says his father, "There has been a lot of pain and embarrassment."

The Cuban community of Miami, where the Canseco family still lives, has always been a religious, conservative domain unto itself. Jose Sr. and Barbara had little interest in sports of any kind, and it wasn't until Jose and Ozzie were 12 that they first played organized athletics. "What I did in school was what mattered to my parents," says Jose. "And I did O.K., too. I was basically an honor student until the 10th grade. That's when I got my driver's license."

It has been reported that Jose Sr. spoiled his boys as they began driving and dating. "He cared for us a lot, but what's wrong with that?" says Jose. "Don't a lot of kids get spending money from fathers who can afford it? That's normal. Parents reward their children." To this day, Jose Sr. rewards Jose Jr. and Ozzie, who plays in the A's minor league system, with $5 for every home run they hit.

Jose was a good high school baseball player, but not good enough to be named to the 1982 Florida high school all-star game, which included nine future major leaguers, among them Dwight Gooden, Mike Greenwell and Rafael Palmeiro. "Canseco had a great swing, but he was small, and often Latin kids don't get any bigger after high school," says Red Sox scout George Digby.

"I was five-eleven, maybe six feet, and I weighed 165 pounds," says Canseco. "Most Latin kids do mature early. All the kids on my high school team had mustaches and beards. I still can't grow a mustache. I'm a late bloomer."

Rumors last fall that Canseco had used steroids stemmed from the fact that this 165-pound weakling became a 230-pound hunk. There was a report that Ozzie was 30 pounds lighter than his twin; in fact, Ozzie is only five pounds lighter than his younger (by four minutes) and one-inch-taller brother. "The steroid thing is a bunch of bull," says Karl Kuehl, Oakland director of player development. "Right after Jose signed, he sprouted up to 6'3". Then, in the Instructional League in 1983, he was introduced to rigorous weight training." Canseco's medical records show that he never gained more than 15 pounds in an off-season. "Anyone who knows Jose knows that he won't put anything into his body he doesn't think is right," says Kuehl. "He's very opinionated on the subject of any kind of abuse."

Canseco sticks to a diet of fish, chicken and pasta, interrupted only by his uncontrollable love of cookies. In this past off-season in Miami, after signing his $1.6 million contract—a raise of $1,245,000—Canseco kept his life-style simple: sleep, lift weights, play basketball. "He invited me to join his friends to play basketball," says Crespo. "I couldn't believe it, but they started at 11 p.m. When they stopped, at 1 a.m., they all sat around on the playground, talked and drank Gatorade."

"I look at Jose Canseco and say he's the best all-around offensive player I've ever seen," says Rettenmund. "I've never seen anyone generate such bat speed. He also will get better, because he understands what he has to do. Jose has the perfect hitter's makeup—he's selfish, like Rose, Boggs, all the great hitters. He doesn't worry about a lot of things. I wish McGwire would worry less, for instance. Jose knows exactly what he is doing and what he has to do. He changes at two strikes. He understands situations. He pretends he doesn't know what's happening, but he really knows the game."

When the game is over, though, Canseco goes his own way. "I like my teammates as teammates, but I'm the type who goes by himself or with a small group of friends," he says. "I'm told I'm aloof, unfriendly. I'm shy.

"I go some places with Walt [Weiss], and what we do is laugh. I love to laugh, and be around people who like to laugh. Ozzie, Walt, my cousin Dave [Valdez], they're the people I hang with. I love comedians. I'll watch Carson, Letterman, Pat Sajak, Arsenio Hall, all of them, anytime. I love those old comedy shows. Best of all are those old Japanese horror movies. The mouths are moving in Japanese, then you hear them speaking perfect English. They crack me up."

Kit Stier, a reporter for The Tribune in Oakland, says, "Jose has one of the most ingenious senses of humor of anyone I've ever met. When it comes out, his personality is magical." The humor came out last October in Boston's Fenway Park. It was just after a rash of the steroids stories, and when Canseco took his position in rightfield, the fans began chanting, "Just say no!" Canseco turned toward the crowd and then, with a big grin, flexed his muscles.

In the relative privacy of the town house in San Ramon, the older and wiser Canseco reflected on the year that has seemed like 10. "As a kid I always loved speed—cars, boats, whatever," he said. "When I was driving my car [at 120 mph] back in January, I was still a kid driving my toy. Those 10 years I've aged since then have taken the kid out of me. I can't be a kid anymore. But I've also gone from being a kid to being bitter, to accepting it."

And what of the toy? Canseco agreed to pull the Jag out of the garage for a photo session. The Cansecos' five Maltese puppies had left dozens of deposits on the garage floor where the car had been, so he dutifully began sweeping.

Esther, meanwhile, was gazing at the red Jaguar. "I'd love a Ferrari," she said.

Jose stopped sweeping and looked up. "Forget the celebrity cars," he said. "All I want now is a clean garage."

THREE PHOTOSV.J. LOVERODespite injury and aggravation, Canseco still has launched some big shots that bore watching. TWO PHOTOSV.J. LOVEROCanseco's red Jag was big trouble—not to mention the gun found in it. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROCanseco is one happy pup when he's enjoying privacy at home with Esther and friends. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROCanseco feels "like the gorilla in the zoo" because he can rarely escape the public eye.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)