Jose Canseco hits the ball so far, he lights up the scoreboard and your imagination at the same time.
The Chicago White Sox still talk about the homer Canseco hit against them last year at Comiskey Park. It hit the base of the light tower on the left field roof. Still rising.
In spring training, Oakland’s 21-year-old left fielder became a vendor’s nightmare. Just about everyone stopped buying hot dogs long enough to watch him routinely deliver those 450-foot moonbeams in batting practice.
Now Canseco’s reputation has reached the ears of the man who made the phrase “tape measure” a part of baseball lexicon--Mickey Mantle.
“I hear he hits them further than anybody,” said Mantle. “He’s liable to hit 50, but it would surprise me--his first year.”
Mantle, 54, is currently plugging an instructional video he’s made with former teammates Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. In his time--1951-68--Mantle hit with the same power Canseco is showing today.
He once drove a pitch from Chuck Stobbs more than 560 feet. He came closer than anyone to hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, twice reaching the facing of the upper deck.
Mantle hit so many homers so far that Red Patterson, then the Yankee publicist, hit on the idea of measuring them. As far as anyone can determine, that’s where the term “tape measure” originated.
Mantle finished with 536 homers and added another 18 in the World Series.
He also struck out a few times--1,710 to be exact. That sort of thing can happen to a power hitter. Mantle, after all, used a definite approach at the plate. He was always going “downtown.” He was an all-or-nothing-type swinger.
“You want to hit it over the roof,” is the way he put it.
Now, Canseco has emerged as someone who can hit it over the roof. Maybe through it, if the playing site happens to be Minnesota or Seattle.
Mantle doesn’t know a whole lot about Canseco, but he understands some of what the youngster is experiencing.
For instance, Canseco was not the first player to produce power displays in the Arizona desert. Thirty-five years ago, Mantle himself did it.
“That’s how I made the Yankees--in Phoenix,” he said. “I was hitting them out lefty and righty.”
During his boyhood, Mantle kept his radio tuned to St. Louis Cardinals games and his idol was Stan Musial. Joe DiMaggio, he says now, is the best player he ever saw and Ted Williams the best hitter. His best friends remain ex-Yankees Whitey Ford and Billy Martin.
Mantle came up as a shortstop, but Yankee manager Casey Stengel made him a center fielder. Suddenly, the prospect from Oklahoma was supposed to replace Joe DiMaggio.
Some people wanted him to be even more than that.
“I was supposed to be the next Babe Ruth,” said Mantle. “Canseco is gonna’ have a lot of pressure. It’s not like spring training. They’ll find a weakness.”
They did with Mantle. For awhile, anyway.
“They threw me high inside fastballs when I was batting lefty.”
How about any weakness of his right-handed?
“I didn’t have one. I hit .350 right-handed.”
Mantle didn’t stick with the Yankees right away. He wasn’t hitting and he needed a trip to the minors in May of his first season. It was only after returning that Mantle became a regular.
Right now, it appears Canseco won’t require a demotion. He faces some adjustments, both at the plate and in the field, but he looks as promising as he did last year, when he totalled 41 homers at three pro stops.
He hit two homers in the first week of the season and, not only were they the only ones Oakland hit, they both won games.
Already, Canseco is hitting the ball farther than some of the greatest sluggers of all time. Even Hank Aaron, who homered more often than any other major leaguer, didn’t hit them particularly far.
“Roger Maris hit 61 homers in one season but he didn’t hit long homers,” Mantle recalled of his late teammate.
You can’t deny that homers count the same on the scoreboard, whether they’re hit long or not so long. Some of them count more in the imagination, though.