Life Is Beautiful Coming off his best season in years, the once larger-than-life Jose Canseco has downsized his world but still hopes to make a big impact with the Devil Rays

March 22, 1999

Buffy the cougar is gone, along with the Lamborghini, the threat
of a second divorce, the thoughts of suicide, those frantic
camera crews that trailed him down the beach. A FOR SALE sign
dangles in front of the South Florida mansion, with its vaulted
ceilings and mosaic-covered pillar the diameter of an oak tree,
its two-tiered master bedroom and its workout wing complete with
weight room, sauna, steam room, and racquetball and basketball
courts. "You got $5 million?" Jose Canseco asks. "It's yours."
He grins and then rearranges his face with the usual array of
twitches, blinks, shrugs and sniffs. His wife, Jessica, is in
the kitchen. She wants a place on the beach. It will, he
promises, be smaller.

All the buzz is gone, deadened by too many injuries and too many
off-field incidents and one baseball too many bouncing off his
head. With the Toronto Blue Jays last year, Canseco put together
his finest season since 1991--46 home runs, 107 RBIs and 29
stolen bases (despite batting .237 and leading the American
League with 159 strikeouts)--yet passed through baseball's
long-ball summer like a wraith. Frequent stints on the disabled
list and his no-contest plea in January '98 to striking Jessica
had made Canseco doubly suspect. Overshadowed by former Bash
Brother Mark McGwire, and perhaps too stained an icon for the
game's current feel-good era, he found himself largely ignored
by the media and loudly condemned by fans.

"Wife beater, wife beater," Canseco says. "Every ballpark I go
to, they say that."

Gone, too, is his spot atop the game's financial pecking order,
which he reached in 1990 when he signed a $23.5 million,
five-year contract with the Oakland A's. In '98 Canseco signed
for one year with the Toronto Blue Jays at a base salary of
$750,000. Despite his renaissance season and raves about his
clubhouse presence and sterling behavior from teammates and
management last year, the Blue Jays had no interest in
re-signing Canseco to a long-term deal. In December the Tampa
Bay Devil Rays gave him one, sort of: one year guaranteed at a
below-market base of $2 million, with incentive-laden options
for two more years that could earn Canseco $16.4 million. No
other teams bid for him, leaving Devil Rays general manager
Chuck LaMar to wonder, "Am I missing something?" Says LaMar, "He
has this shadow, if you will, that follows him wherever he goes."

Canseco doesn't care. For the first time in years, he says while
sitting in that mansion in Weston, Fla., he is "finding peace"
and is happier than he has ever been as a player. A tumultuous
separation from Jessica and their daughter, Josie, who's now
two, ended midway through last season after the couple
reconciled, and Canseco admits that the estrangement left him
shattered. "I was a zombie," he says. "I couldn't see my
daughter. I lost weight. I was talking to my wife on the phone
until five o'clock in the morning. I went through 10 months of
it--off-season, spring training and half the season. I don't
know how I hit so many home runs. I couldn't concentrate because
I was trying to get my family back."

He also came close to walking away from the game. After five
years during which elbow, hip and back injuries had limited him
to an average of 95 games a season, Canseco, 34, had little
confidence in his body. He celebrated each day he awoke without
pain and decided that, if he suffered one more serious injury,
he'd quit. But after appearing in 151 games last season, running
the bases better than he had in a decade and splitting time
between playing the outfield and serving as designated hitter,
he now feels sprightly enough to take the long view. With 397
career homers, he stands just three good seasons away from 500
and a likely pass into the Hall of Fame.

"Actually I'm shooting for 600," says Canseco, who arrived in
spring training in shape and, more important, healthy. The Devil
Rays, with an eye to keeping him that way, have said that Canseco
will be their designated hitter. "The important thing is to keep
my bat in the lineup," he says. "I definitely think if I stay
healthy, I could hit 50 home runs this year. Hopefully McGwire
hits 70 again and Sosa hits 66, and there goes Jose with his
quiet 50."

Coming from him, quiet sounds strange. Quiet was never Canseco's
strong suit. During his salad days with the Oakland A's in the
late 1980s, Canseco was a larger-than-life figure who crashed
titanic home runs, ran absurdly fast for a man his size (6'4",
240) and escaped a late-night tryst with Madonna unscathed. The
A's won three straight pennants and a World Series with him. He
was the American League's Rookie of the Year in '86 and its Most
Valuable Player two years later, when he invented the 40-40
season (42 home runs and 40 stolen bases). "He said he could do
40-40, and then he went out and did it," says Blue Jays
assistant general manager Dave Stewart, a Canseco teammate in
Oakland. "Most athletes set a goal, but because of fear of
failure they won't say they can do it. He's not afraid."

Canseco dented a centerfield camera with a line drive in one
World Series and dismissed Babe Ruth. He had a well-publicized
clash with the law over gun possession and several over
speeding; he had his own 900 number. When fans at Fenway Park
chanted about his rumored--and never substantiated--use of
steroids, Canseco responded by grinning and flexing a biceps.
"He's very charismatic--that Ferrari, South Beach type of guy,"
says new teammate Wade Boggs. "McGwire was the quiet one, and
Jose was the character."

"I don't miss it at all," Canseco says. "If you ask people,
'What do you want in life?' a high percentage will say fame and
money. But of those who experience it, the wiser ones will tell
you financial security and anonymity. I was a 20-year-old kid. I
never thought about the money or the fame. It just happened to
me. I wasn't ready."

Even in a sport that, from owners on down, is seemingly bent on
self-destruction, his was a startling crash. The end of his
first marriage--remembered mostly for the time he drove his
Porsche into the BMW driven by his wife, Esther, during a
spat--sent him spiraling into 18 months of depression and
therapy. He contemplated killing himself. Traded to the Texas
Rangers on Aug. 31, 1992, he sagged at the plate and became a
national joke the following year when that infamous fly ball
ricocheted off his head. His season ended in equally dopey
fashion when he blew out his elbow in an ill-conceived relief
appearance during a 15-1 rout of the Rangers. The ensuing years
followed a pattern: When he played, Canseco could still produce
big numbers, but injuries kept killing his momentum. He played
in the field less and less, got traded to the Boston Red Sox
before the '95 season and two years later was unloaded on
Oakland, where he failed to recapture the glory days.

Worse, his relationship with Jessica had begun to crack. The two
had met cute during the 1993 season when she was 19 and working
at a Hooters in Cleveland. He invited her to the next night's
game--her first baseball game--and she watched the ball carom
off his head. "I said, 'Is that supposed to happen?'" she says.
It was a stormy courtship, and in September '94, Jose called the
police in Miami claiming Jessica had slapped him on the mouth.
They married in August '96, and the ceremony had all the romance
of a sitcom: She was pregnant and he'd thrown out his back, so
she put on a nice white dress and they both laid down and
recited their vows in bed.

Two months later Josie was born. A year later, on Nov. 6, 1997,
Canseco was arrested after Jessica called Miami police and said
Jose had struck her in the face while they were riding in a car.
"We went out that night, and we were arguing and arguing,"
Jessica says. She's sitting on a couch in their family room.
Jose is flopped on a chair, listening with a half-grin on his
face. "I guess we both had too many drinks, and it got out of
hand. I said, 'That's it, I'm calling the police.' I more or
less wanted to scare him a little bit, but they were so serious
about it."

According to the police report Jessica sustained a bruise under
her left eye, but at the time of the incident and ever since,
even after he pleaded no contest to simple battery, Jose has
denied striking her. He says he only grabbed her hair "to get
her attention." Prosecutors at the bond hearing portrayed
Jessica as terrified of Jose and a restraining order was handed
down forbidding him to see Jessica. A week later Jessica
returned to court to say she wasn't afraid anymore and asked a
Dade County judge to allow Canseco contact with her and Josie.

Jose's reputation for violence, Jessica says, "is absolutely
wrong. If anything, I have more of a temper than Jose. He just
walks away from the situation if we're arguing. I think his
first wife knows that and I know that, but everybody else
believes what they want to believe."

Jose takes most of the blame--"I should never have pulled her
hair. I should've known better"--but trots out the standard
defense: event blown out of proportion by the media. "They
portrayed me as a savage, beating her up, scratch marks all over
her face," he says. "The next day she was out at a nightclub and
her friends were looking at her saying, 'I thought you got beat
up?' The media wanted to sell papers, and with my background the
D.A. took it over and made a big hoopla. I was just caught up in
the same situation as always."

At the peak of his fame Canseco spoke often of feeling like a
circus act, a monkey in a cage. Stewart tells of times the two
of them would go out at night, when women would instantly swarm
Canseco and men would want to fight him. Jose's twin brother,
Ozzie, who spent parts of three seasons in the majors, says he
couldn't leave his house without having to explain to 500 people
that he wasn't Jose. "That was my life: saying I'm sorry for not
being him," Ozzie says. Even after Jose was arrested following
the set-to with Jessica, Dade County corrections officers
grabbed a camera and insisted he pose with them for a picture.
"It's happened to me every time I've been arrested," Jose says.

But every picture has a negative, and the flip side of Canseco's
celebrity has always been a dark reputation. Before last season
teams were wary of him, not only because of his injuries and
legal snafus, but also because Canseco had been tagged as a
player who didn't play hard anymore. But Toronto manager Tim
Johnson and pitcher Roger Clemens, who'd both been with Canseco
in Boston, urged the Blue Jays to give him a shot. "He's still
an extremely dangerous hitter," Clemens says. "He's a much
smarter hitter than I thought he was before I knew him."

Canseco arrived in Toronto transformed. He hired a personal
trainer, came to spring training with a 32-inch waist and
weighing 235, five pounds lighter than during his peak years in
Oakland. By the All-Star break he had hit 24 home runs and
stolen 22 bases--all while feeling miserable over the separation
from his family. Enthusiasm, Canseco insists, had nothing to do
with his success. "It's strictly about health," he says. "If I
get 600 to 650 at bats, I can guarantee you 40 to 50 home runs.
It's automatic."

The second-year Tampa Bay franchise is counting on that. The
Devil Rays put up disappointing numbers at the gate as well--2.2
million in attendance, 800,000 fewer than the downstate rival
Florida Marlins drew in their inaugural season six years ago.
LaMar and owner Vince Naimoli, who decided against signing
Canseco a year ago because of his off-field travails, changed
their minds after seeing him bomb six home runs against them and
stay off the police blotter in 1998. LaMar then subjected
Canseco to the most extensive background check he'd ever done on
a player, found no new skeletons, interviewed him for a few
hours and was surprised to find himself facing a far more
intelligent, forthright and mature man than he expected.

"I asked a lot of personal, pointed questions, and he didn't
blink," LaMar says. "And his presence: When he walks into a room,
he has that air of confidence about him--our ball club needs
that."

That confidence is still a work in progress. Last July, just
weeks after he and Jessica reconciled, Canseco sat in the dugout
at Baltimore's Camden Yards before a game, staring out at the
field. It was as if he'd just stepped away from a precipice.
Having his daughter back made him feel whole again. "When we were
separated, I would've given anything--I would've lived under a
bridge--to be with her, and now that I have her, all this is
nothing," he said, waving a hand at the grass. "I could strike
out four times or hit home runs and I'd be the same."

With a new season about to begin, Canseco's mood has lightened
considerably. Pen marks have been scrawled all over the tan
leather couch in the big house in Weston, and every room offers
something on the order of Teletubbies, Fisher-Price or
Playskool. When Canseco goes into his office to turn on his
computer, the screen saver is a photo of Josie with the words I
LOVE YOU PAPPA! Canseco spends hours at the keyboard, entering
chat rooms and checking his stocks. He invested a tidy portion
of his portfolio in Yahoo! and Amazon.com last year before the
Internet boomed. He says he has done quite well. A Morgan
Stanley leather binder sits nearby. "What are you trying to do,
make me look smart?" he says when asked about his portfolio.
"Let's stick to the dumb-jock stereotype. It's easier."

Canseco begins a tour through the first floor, pointing out the
intricately carved ivory tusks and ivory urns and little ivory
samurai swords. "I've handpicked every piece," he says. "At
first I was just collecting pieces for my house, but I purchased
a lot before the ivory embargo began in 1989, and there's no new
ivory coming in, so that just doubled the price. It turned out
to be an investment. In here you've probably got close to $2
million just in ivory."

Canseco heads out to the pool, flicks a switch to turn on the
waterfall. He designed this aquatic playground himself, and it
looks like something out of The Flintstones. There's the
walled-off kiddie pool and the jacuzzi grotto with man-made
stalactites and fake cave paintings. Canseco walks through it
now like a kid bored with his box of toys. All that's left of a
menagerie that once included a lynx, 15 tortoises, wild
birds--and Buffy--are four blinking iguanas behind a plexiglass
wall.

He goes back into the house to find Jessica. She comes out of
the office, enters the family room and sits on the couch. He
flops in a chair beside her. "I feel like he loves me more now,"
she says. "Maybe not loves me more, just realizes now what he
has and what he could possibly lose."

Canseco stares straight ahead, his face wearing the same blank,
dreamy look it assumes when he hits a home run. Asked how he
differed from his image, Jessica says, "When I met him, there
were girls telling me, He's a bad this-and-that; people were
like, 'He's a coke addict...'"

Canseco jerks forward and unleashes a howling laugh. "Yeah,
right," he says.

"... but as I got to know him, and it only took a few days,
maybe two days--maybe two hours, actually--and I started seeing
him, he wasn't that type of guy at all. He liked animals. When I
first came to his house, I saw he had all these turtles and
birds. I thought, My gosh. I didn't think I'd ever meet a man
like this."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES Family plan Canseco, at home on the wedding bed with Josie and Jessica, says he's found peace at last. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Devil may care Canseco won't be out in leftfield for the Rays.

Back to the 40s

Jose Canseco hit a career-high 46 home runs for the Blue Jays
(left) last year, the first time he topped 40 since 1991. In
major league history, only two players have had longer stretches
between 40-home-run seasons than Canseco.

40+ HR SEASON 40+ HR SEASON YEARS
PLAYER BEFORE DROUGHT (HRS) AFTER DROUGHT (HRS) BETWEEN 40+

Darrell Evans 1973 Braves (41) 1985 Tigers (40) 11
Reggie Jackson 1969 A's (47) 1980 Yankees (41) 10
Jose Canseco 1991 A's (44) 1998 Blue Jays (46) 6
Johnny Mize 1940 Cardinals (41) 1947 Giants (51) 6
Hank Greenberg 1940 Tigers (41) 1946 Tigers (44) 5
Willie Mays 1955 Giants (51) 1961 Giants (40) 5
Willie McCovey 1963 Giants (44) 1969 Giants (45) 5

With the Blue Jays, Canseco put together his finest season since
1991 yet passed through baseball's long-ball summer like a
wraith.

"When Canseco walks into a room," says LaMar, "he has that air of
confidence about him--our ball club needs that."

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)