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Now This Is a Slugger the Fans Love to Hate

There are a couple of ways you can tell Jose Canseco is the best or, at least, most important player in the game today.

First, you go to any ballpark where he is playing. They’re booing him. Now, you don’t boo banjo hitters. You go out for coffee when they come up. No one leaves when Jose Canseco comes up. They might miss a moonshot.

The next way you tell is, you look down at the heading of World Series played. You will recall Babe Ruth played in 10. So did Joe DiMaggio. Great players pull the team along with them.

Jose Canseco has played five seasons for the Oakland Athletics. They have been in a World Series for three of them.

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The booing is easily explained. Booing is the ultimate form of respect. You only hate a thing because you fear it. They booed Pete Rose. Ty Cobb. Shoot, they were even booing Babe Ruth the day he called his shot in the 1932 World Series. Jose Canseco is a happening. Even if he strikes out. Booing is even a form of love.

It’s easy to resent Jose Canseco. The good looks, the raven hair, the Greek-god body, the powerful, fluid swing. He can hit, run, field. He’s rich, famous--and probably the best player in the game in terms of the damage he can do over a whole season.

The public never cottons to the guys with the small, steady skills--the watchmakers of sport, the guys who bat .350 but seldom lift a ball out of the infield, never mind the outfield. They like the Dempseys, the Louises, the knockout punchers, the three-point basketball shooters, guys named Magic; the guy who runs or throws for 80 yards in football, not the guy who gets 80 yards four yards at a time; the booming driver, not the chipper and putter; John Daly, not Tom Kite; the ace-server in tennis. John Wayne, not Alan Alda.

In any man’s field of dreams, he sees himself hitting the ball out of the lot in the bottom of the ninth, a Rocky getting up off the floor to flatten the champ with one wild right, the guy driving the par-four green, the guy lofting it through the hoop from midcourt at the buzzer.

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Jose Canseco is what they’d all like to be. He’s mighty Casey, the Babe, Jolting Joe, Bad Henry, Stan the Man rolled into one. Even his failures are epic. He has 199 major league home runs and he’s barely 27 (Babe Ruth had 197 at that age).

Usually, Jose Canseco takes it in stride. He doffs his cap good-naturedly to the booing, shrugs off media criticism, takes pride in being the new man-you-love-to-hate.

But one day recently at Anaheim Stadium, Joltin’ Jose went ballistic. In the eighth inning of a close game with a man on second base and two out, plate umpire Greg Kosc struck out Jose on two pitches the best thing you could say about them was, they were in the same county.

After the game, Jose studied the at-bat on the team replay cassette. He took off like a Scud missile. Chairs were slammed, a table kicked over--Mt. Canseco was in fine, furious eruption.

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A reporter who had been promised a postgame interview stood there with poised pen and notebook. Jose turned his wrath on him. “Do you mind if I eat first?!” he roared. “Is it all right if I sit down and have a bite?! Is that too much to ask?”

He sat down in a towering rage, resisted the mediation even of future Hall of Famer (563 home runs) Reggie Jackson. Jose’s brow was black and his mood was blacker. He sat deliberately at the table till he was the only one left and then insolently refused to leave even after his teammates began to drift out to the team bus.

The reporter waited. Jose glared. “I have to shower,” he snapped, tearing off his uniform. “Is it all right if I shower?” Told there were only five minutes till the bus departure, Jose raged. “I know what this story is going to be about anyway!” he roared. “Another negative! Another Bad Jose story! I know the system! I’ve seen this act before! I’m the bad guy again! Bet me!”

He stormed off to the shower. Not till he was toweling himself off did his black mood finally evaporate. “What do you want?” he grunted.

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What, the reporter wanted to know, were Jose Canseco’s ultimate goals--500 home runs, 600 home runs, 60 home runs in a season?

“It’s too early to set goals,” Canseco said. “I might do that down the road a few years. I’m only 27, and you would have to say I had 10 years, at least. Sixty homers a year is out of the question. Ruth and Maris’ record will never be broken. For (Cecil) Fielder to hit 51 last year is an achievement.”

Why did an umpiring call upset him to the extent it did--did he feel put upon by the umpires? “It’s hard to figure out their strike zones,” he said. “You want to try to swing at strikes. It’s hard to figure what they think a strike is.”

Didn’t he think the umpires tended to be more lenient as players got to be veterans--after all, pitchers said the umpires used to let Ted Williams umpire his own pitches? “Maybe they do it for a Wade Boggs, a Cal Ripken. I don’t feel they make a pitcher earn a strike against me.”

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What about batting average? In his MVP year, 1988, he led in home runs and runs batted in while hitting .307. Was .300 a priority of his?

Canseco shook his head and said: “I’m a power hitter. My function is to drive in runs, not to go 3 for 4 with a walk.”

And Jose Canseco, looking like something that had been sculpted out of Italian marble, buttoned his shirt and stepped out of the stadium where people who were booing him an hour earlier were holding out autograph books adoringly.


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