On Opening Day the Boston Red Sox treated their early-arriving
fans to something even more generous and thoughtful than a free
seat cushion or a half-price hot dog. It was nine o'clock in the
morning, four hours before game time, and there was the Sox's gift
to their backers on the sidewalk outside the main gate, signing
autographs, shaking hands, making everyone in Boston forget those
vows to never watch baseball again. Just what you always wanted:
Jose Canseco.

The Sox last week were like the philandering husband crawling in
after the sun comes up but bringing along the Hope diamond to
defuse the situation. If there were any bitter baseball fans in
Boston, they sure weren't among the crowds that followed Canseco
everywhere he went.

There has been a peculiar bond between Canseco and Sox fans
since they serenaded him with a flippant chant of ``STEH-roids!
STEH-roids!'' during the 1988 playoffs, back when Canseco was
starring for the Oakland A's. He responded by smiling and
flexing his right biceps. How could they hate him?

``To tell you the truth, I've always wanted to play here,'' says
Canseco. ``The fans are just so intense. They watch everything you
do, the way you run, the way you strike out, the way you walk back
to the dugout. It's like your every emotion is out there for the
world to see.''

Just the way Canseco likes it.

Boston acquired Canseco in December, but he didn't make his first
appearance in Boston until last week. You can be sure of this:
Waterworld will not open with as big a splash.

The Sox sent aging centerfielder Otis Nixon and third base
prospect Luis Ortiz to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Canseco,
who after blowing out his elbow in an ill-advised pitching stint
at Fenway Park two years ago, is now strictly a DH. The Boston
fans enjoyed Nixon's speed on the base paths for a few months, but
they know the Wall wasn't built to keep out the Communists from
Cambridge. Someone has to put some dents in it and launch some
home runs over it. They needed to get some good old-fashioned
power back in the lineup.

No Red Sox player has hit 30 home runs since Nick Esasky in 1989.
Canseco has hit more than 30 six times, including last season when
he had 31 in 111 games for the Rangers. When the Sox got Canseco,
agent Dennis Gilbert said to Boston general manager Dan Duquette,
``Congratulations on getting the guy who's going to break Roger
Maris's record.''

Canseco has always enjoyed hitting at Fenway Park, but he isn't
the first venerable righthanded slugger to arrive with a promise
to throw a scare into the Green Monster. Before Canseco it was
Andre Dawson, and before Dawson, it was Jack Clark. Both Dawson
and Clark went limping out of town after two seasons, beaten
down by the Wall.

``Here's the difference I see,'' says leftfielder Mike Greenwell.
``This guy is still young, still in his prime. When we got Andre,
he was 38. Jack Clark was the same way [Clark was 35]. You're
talking about a guy who is 30, with a lot of years left in his
bat. Probably a lot of home runs, too.''

In Boston's first three games Canseco hit third, ahead of Mo
Vaughn, Mark Whiten and Greenwell -- a macho, red-meat lineup. In
his first home stand at Fenway, Canseco had one home run, but he
drove in six runs as the Sox exploded for 38 runs and won three of
their first four games. Their pitching may not stack up against
the rest of the American League East, especially with Roger
Clemens on the disabled list, but after three straight losing
seasons Boston seems to be having fun again. And no one is having
more fun than Canseco. ``I had a great time in Texas, but now it's
like, Wow, can it actually get better than that?'' says Canseco.
``This is a great place for me because of the ballpark, the
atmosphere, the manager, the fans. I love it here.''

It is a love affair that lasted all the way through that first
home stand. Now all he has to do is break Maris's record, and
Boston fans will be with him for life.

COLOR PHOTO:DAMIAN STROHMEYERThe meat of Boston's order looks stronger now with the addition of the beefy Canseco. [Jose Canseco at bat]