Few have acted the fool like these two. It was as if, their skills shot, there was nothing left for them to parade but buffoonery. They would do anything, say anything. It has been two years now since either of them swung a bat with menace. Yet even as their stature has diminished prematurely—one is 32, the other 29—they have demanded attention.
Theirs has been the kind of behavior that makes true fans avert their gaze. The two of them have had physical problems, yes. The two of them have had problems at home, certainly. But these guys, in their puzzlement and their frustration, seemed to have been flat going nuts.
In Los Angeles, Darryl Strawberry put together two certifiably lame seasons in 1992 and '93, during which he hit all of .199 and 10 home runs for the Dodgers—after having averaged 31 homers over the preceding nine years. A back injury suffered in early '92, surgery later that season and a year of aborted comebacks served to excuse those totals. Still, the Dodgers began to lose patience. There were missed rehabilitation workouts, a shouting match with the general manager, an assault allegation by a girlfriend and an IRS investigation into possible tax evasion. In an interview in September, Strawberry even discussed suicide. And then, in November, while on tour with the Dodgers in Japan during L.A.'s destructive wildfires, he offhandedly said of his hometown, "Let it burn down."
And what of Jose Canseco? Like Strawberry, he was precocious. At 27, he had already hit 209 home runs and become the first player to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season. The off-field incidents, an arrest for gun possession and a ticket for traveling at a horrifying speed in a sports car, were considered part of the slugger's arrogance, the debris of his lifestyle—as natural and acceptable as the great drafts of air his swing produced.
March 14, 1994
And then, as in Strawberry's case, the gift seemed to desert him as he struggled through the 1992 season with back pain and a sore right shoulder. On Aug. 31 of that year, the Oakland A's, sensing a downward trajectory in his career, offloaded Canseco to the Texas Rangers. It was with Texas last May that Canseco let a fly ball bounce off his noggin and over the fence for a home run, a Keystone Kop routine that was edited onto that eternal loop of videotape—knuckleheads making the same stupid play, over and over, in every TV market in the country.
It was also with Texas that Canseco asked Ranger manager Kevin Kennedy to let him pitch an inning during a game in Boston last May 29. In a stunt that will not likely be repeated by this generation of power hitters, Canseco proceeded to blow out his elbow and miss most of the remainder of the 1993 season. If that was to finish his career, the ending could hardly have been more ridiculous.
We pause in our story for reflection. The crime of Strawberry and Canseco, in the modern morality play that big-money sports has become, is that they were not properly sensitive to their talents, not sufficiently appreciative of their good luck or wealth. That was their fundamental failure: They never thanked their lucky stars.
They had to swing huge, drive fast, sneer at every scrape. Their bravado was awesome, so long as they averaged 30 home runs. To average less—to average much, much less—was to invite humiliation from a smirking nation. Gentlemen, it's the American way.
Our story resumes, and we remind you that aside from the appetite with which we devour fallen heroes, there is nothing more American than a comeback. And so we return to Strawberry as he prepares to leave L.A. for spring training; we find him at Dodger Stadium, sitting in the stands next to leftfield, examining the sunshine where he expects to play this season.
To him, everything—his actions as well as the Dodgers'—can be explained by his back injury. "Really, it was the first time in my career I had to face something like that," he says. "It seems everything went downhill because of it. It was frustrating. It was devastating. Fingers pointing, people saying I was washed up. I understand it all. They want me out there playing. I want to be out there playing."
The Dodgers are a patient organization, and even with the meter running at $4 million a year, they did not damn Strawberry for being out of the lineup. But they brook few publicity blunders. Strawberry's revelations that he had contemplated suicide—"I thought, What would it be like if I wasn't around anymore?" he told the Los Angeles Times—were not made in the promotional spirit the Dodgers favor. And when Strawberry was arrested last September for investigation of spousal abuse after he allegedly struck his live-in girlfriend, Charisse Simon, the club began to consider ways of nullifying the remaining two seasons of his five-year contract.
Ultimately, Los Angeles chose instead to pack him off in September to the Arizona instructional league. Strawberry says his monthlong stay among the league's youthful players fired his enthusiasm again. This much we know for sure: His back healed to the extent that he could get his foot back into his mouth. About his "Let it burn" comment, he says, "I regret it, of course. I was just joking around on the telephone, not knowing how serious it was. I mean, I live here in L.A., grew up here, my children were born here. But it should never have been said anyway. I was wrong. I admit it."
The best thing about life is you get lots of at bats; you can make up for anything. Strawberry married Simon in December, and they are expecting a child in March. "I don't care about what happened before," he says, "because we weren't married then. All I know is I love my wife. I know we're going to have a great time."
With his back finally strong, he expects to play out the remaining two years of his contract and play two to three seasons beyond that. That's how he feels. "I may have had my doubts," he says, "but I'm excited now. I'm going to give Los Angeles a treat. Darryl owes the fans one. I just want to love everybody, be happy and bring the Dodgers a championship."
L.A. general manager Fred Claire is one who's waiting to collect. "If he can hit 25 to 30 home runs or drive in 90 to 100 runs, we can use that," he says. "If Darryl physically is not able to do that, we'll look in another direction. I'm not anticipating any bad news, but I'll be ready to react to bad news." Perhaps Claire was bracing for further developments in the federal investigation that reportedly has accumulated evidence that Strawberry failed to disclose more than $300,000 of income derived from signing autographs at baseball card and memorabilia shows. Strawberry seems unperturbed. "It'll all work out some kind of way," he said last week.
Otherwise, the Strawberry news has been good. In January, when Los Angeles was rocked by earthquakes, Strawberry made no glib comments but instead visited the shelters. In Vero Beach, Fla., where the Dodgers train, management is much encouraged this spring. Strawberry reported early and looked very strong. New hitting instructor Reggie Smith has taken the loop out of Strawberry's swing, and manager Tommy Lasorda says he has never seen such bat speed.
Canseco, exercising the superstar's privilege, failed to arrive early at spring training in Port Charlotte, Fla., and then blinked in surprise at all the fuss he caused, just as he had done a year earlier. The difference is, last year Canseco was still a superstar.
Yet no one knows better than Canseco that his status in the game is no longer so elevated. Even before he wrecked his arm, he was aware that he was in decline. Early last season in Texas he watched videotapes of himself, "trying to figure out who I was, who I am." He says that 1991—44 home runs and 122 RBIs—seems like a long time ago.
Canseco now believes his right elbow had been breaking down over the past couple of years and that the pitching fiasco was merely the last straw. Looking back, he says, "it seems like my technical ability was getting extremely poor." He thinks the imperceptible adjustments he made to accommodate his elbow had negatively affected his hitting and his throwing.
During the recently concluded off-season, at home in Miami, he worked with a pitching "technician" (the pitching coach from the University of Miami), a running "technician" (the sprint coach from the same school) and, of course, a physical "technician" (a physical therapist from a Miami sports medicine clinic). His hitting and legs, Canseco believes, are 100%; his arm is perhaps 70%. But more significantly, his heart and head are also healing ahead of schedule. "I never believed I could be even this happy again," Canseco says. "I guess it's like they say, time heals everything. Things do get better."
By his account he has been in a two-year depression, his towering ego scorched to the ground by his troubled marriage to, and divorce from, the former Esther Haddad. It has been only in recent months spent in therapy that he has been able to consider life without Esther. Though Jose first filed for divorce three years ago and had it granted a year and a half ago, the couple's stormy relationship continued until last year's spring training, when yet another tortured reconciliation was attempted—and ended in failure.
"I don't think it's ever over," he says. "We still care about each other. I still think, What could have been done? Why did it happen? I've never figured it out, how it happened so fast. But it took its course, and there's no turning back, which is where I am right now."
The depression was real enough that when his mentor, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, opined last summer that Canseco was through, Canseco agreed. "Once you get in that area where you're so depressed, where sometimes life means nothing to you, that's pretty bad," he says. "Reggie Jackson knew me, knew what I was going through. He was absolutely right."
Canseco fully expects to regain his previous form, to get 500 at bats, to be a 40-40 player again. But he'll settle for some peace. "I'm encouraged," he says. "Maybe I've learned how to handle failure, God knows, I've had my failures. But it's getting better every day. I never thought it could."
Anyway, the news from Port Charlotte is good. "I really think he wants to get back to being the player he was," says Kennedy. "He's been passed by a lot of players, and that hurts his pride." Canseco is on a three-days-a-week throwing program, but there are no plans to use him in the outfield again. However, there are strong expectations that he can be the regular DH. And his bat speed is said to be shockingly fast.