It started in the right-field corner, a taunting, sing-song chant that soon reverberated through the claustrophobic--as major league stadiums go, anyway--confines of Fenway Park:
“Ster-oids! Ster-oids! Ster-oids! Ster-oids!”
Oakland right fielder Jose Canseco heard it right away and managed a smile. He turned to the crowd and flexed his right biceps.
Then, in the fourth inning, he flexed his muscles again--as he did 42 times in the regular season--and hit a solo home run over the Green Monster in left-center, a shot that started Oakland on its way to a 2-1 victory over Boston in Game 1 of the American League playoffs.
Canseco’s towering homer off left-hander Bruce Hurst certainly didn’t stop the chant--it was louder than ever during his ensuing at-bats--but the A’s right fielder was hardly upset.
That is not to say that he is no longer angry at sportswriter Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, who said on the CBS-TV show, “Newswatch,” last week that Canseco was “the most conspicuous example of a (baseball) player who has made himself great with steroids.”
But Canseco doesn’t blame the Red Sox fans.
“The crowd wants to be involved in the game,” Canseco said. “I don’t think they really want to hurt anyone. The fans aren’t the ones who started this ridiculous rumor. So I had fun with it. I gave ‘em a couple of flexes and they got a big kick out of that.”
Oakland Manager Tony LaRussa was unable to find even a trace of humor in the situation, however.
“I talked to Jose about it before leaving the clubhouse,” LaRussa said. “I wanted to hit it hard, but he said he was having fun with it. But I still think it was brutal, a really cheap shot. I said yesterday that the fans here are great, but these weren’t the Fenway fans that I know.”
Boswell said on the show that LaRussa told him Canseco “made some mistakes early in his career,” and it was clear that the A’s manager was talking about steroid use. LaRussa said that wasn’t anywhere near what he meant.
When asked to comment, Boswell, who was at Wednesday’s game, said: “I’ve already told 10 guys that I spent 2 full days giving interviews on this thing last week and that’s enough. But, no, I never thought it would have this kind of impact.”
Canseco’s initial reaction to Boswell’s comments was not nearly as conciliatory as that he expressed Wednesday. Last week, he called the remarks “ignorant” and said Boswell “isn’t a very knowledgeable person.” He also said he was considering legal action.
Now, however, he seems more amused than angry.
“I’m trying to be like the song, you know, ‘Don’t worry. Be happy.’ ” Canseco said, smiling. “Actually, it hasn’t been that hard to handle. If I was guilty . . . but I’ve never done it. I’ve never been involved with steroids.”
Canseco said he had a long talk with former A’s slugger Reggie Jackson, who is a commentator with the ABC team that is broadcasting the playoffs. Jackson advised him to shrug it off and just try to be himself.
But, like LaRussa, Jackson doesn’t consider this a laughing matter.
“It was something I was saddened to read,” Jackson said. “I’m a baseball fan and I’m a baseball expert and I don’t want to see this happen to a guy. Tom did a disservice to Jose and a disservice to baseball.
“You can accuse anyone, but you have to have facts. If I were Jose, I would demand an apology after I’d taken a urine test.”
Jackson said that Canseco has the physical talents to be one of the best players ever and a “relentless yearning to be the greatest.”
Canseco insists he’s not powered by steroids.
“If you guys saw what I went through during the off-season, you’d know where this body came from,” Canseco said. “My brother and I work out about 3 hours a day, 6 days a week. We play volleyball in the sand to build up the legs, swim to build up the shoulders and back, and then lift weights.
“Rumors are rumors. If you know they’re not facts, then why worry about it. I’ve learned how to deal with distractions and pressure. So much has been expected of me for so long, I’ve learned I have to just be myself and do my best.”
The Red Sox are less concerned with where Canseco got his strength then what he can do with it. Canseco, who brought a .307 average into Wednesday’s game, has only 5 hits in 25 at-bats against Hurst. But 4 of them have been home runs.
No one is more aware of that than Hurst, who has proven that left-handers can win in Fenway Park. Hurst was 13-2 at home this year.
Canseco, leading off the fourth inning, took a mighty swing at a 3-and-0 pitch and missed. Then, with the count full, Hurst threw him an off-speed forkball. Canseco didn’t get all of it, but he got enough to clear the infamous 37-foot left-field wall, just left of the 379 sign in left-center.
“I got it up in the air and even though it was cold (52 degrees at game time) and there was a stiff wind blowing in, I knew it had a good chance,” Canseco said. “Nowhere else. But in this park, it had a great chance.”
And, for just a moment, there was silence. The man with the muscles jogged around the bases. And the Fenway fans weren’t cheering . . . or chanting.