Unabashed as Ever
It’s a gloomy Sunday morning, overcast and gray, a day made for sleeping in. But this is game day for the guys who scoff at softball, the doctors and lawyers and salesmen and teachers of the Los Angeles Men’s Senior Baseball League.
They come to play on a junior college field, with clumps of green and patches of brown in the outfield, with a parking lot behind left field and trailers behind center field. The Valley Mets squeeze into the first base dugout, on three benches, with a chain-link fence for back support.
There are bleachers behind the Mets’ dugout, five rows of weathered wooden seats with faded blue paint. Four fans watch the game, quietly, passing time until their friends and relatives are done playing. A dirt track surrounds the field, and joggers pass by now and again.
No one is selling hot dogs, or anything else. The scoreboard is turned off. There is no public-address announcer, not that the public would recognize these players.
Except for one, that is. As the cleanup hitter for the Valley Mets rises from the bench and shuffles into the batter’s box, his manager grabs his video camera, and two players in the other dugout point their cellphone cameras toward home plate.
Yes, that is Jose Canseco, wearing his familiar No. 33. His days as a feared major league slugger are behind him, but not so far that he has any business swinging an aluminum bat. But this league plays with aluminum bats, so Canseco wags a 35-inch, 32-ounce model as he lets the first two pitches go by.
On the third pitch, he swings. The ball is gone in an instant, over the left-field fence and a second fence behind it, so far gone that one of the Mets runs out to measure how far the ball traveled by walking it off.
“About 480,” Roger Clark says.
His teammates greet him at home plate. Canseco offers each one a forearm bash, the salute he and Mark McGwire popularized with the Oakland Athletics, so many home runs ago, so many years ago.
In the dugout, surrounded by the rest of the Valley Mets, Manager Gary Zelman’s chuckle betrays the absurdity of it all.
“What a weapon,” Zelman says. “It’s like cheating.”
Barry Bonds makes history with every home run he hits, but the thrill is gone. On opening day, fans in San Diego heckled Bonds unmercifully and taunted him with a variety of banners, including “Barry is a Cheater” and “Cheaters Never Prosper.”
In the week preceding the opener, Commissioner Bud Selig authorized an investigation into steroid use in baseball, citing the “specificity of the charges” in the book “Game of Shadows.” The book details alleged use of performance-enhancing substances by Bonds and other athletes.
Bonds has denied knowingly using steroids. In grand-jury testimony obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, he said substances identified by federal agents as steroids were described to him as flaxseed oil and arthritic balm. In the three years baseball has tested for steroids, Bonds has not tested positive.
“Do I believe he has used steroids?” Canseco said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
As his career ended -- and not by his choice -- Canseco reinvented himself as a whistle-blower. In a 2002 interview with Sports Illustrated, eight months after his final major league at-bat, Canseco estimated that 85% of major leaguers used steroids, a figure widely dismissed as ludicrous.
Last year, in his book “Juiced,” he described his steroid use and fingered several ex-teammates, including his erstwhile “Bash Brother” McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. Denials followed, and with them accusations of Canseco skirting the truth to sell books.
As Congress pressured baseball to curb steroid use, the three men testified in Washington that spring. McGwire said, repeatedly, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Palmeiro declared, “I have never used steroids. Period.”
McGwire had retired by then. Palmeiro failed a steroid test later that year. Canseco says he is working on a “no holds barred” movie adaptation of “Juiced.”
So how much does Canseco believe his comments and his book account for Selig’s decision to launch the investigation?
“Probably everything,” Canseco said.
Canseco said he would be happy to speak with former Sen. George Mitchell, appointed by Selig to lead the investigation. However, Canseco said, he has not heard from Mitchell, or anyone else involved in the investigation.
“They can’t talk to me,” Canseco said. “I’m off limits. No one involved with Major League Baseball -- coaches, clubhouse kids, players, owners or managers -- can speak with me. It’s an unwritten law they have.”
Selig denied any such directive exists, unwritten or otherwise. He said Mitchell alone determines whom to speak to, and when.
“This will be a very comprehensive investigation,” Selig said. “The senator is free to contact anybody and everybody connected with this issue.”
Canseco predicted “nothing positive” would result from the investigation, noting that players have agreed to tighten baseball’s steroid policy twice in the last two years.
“I think Bud Selig has to be very careful what rocks he overturns,” Canseco said. “The players, right now, are trying to help Major League Baseball clean up the game. If Major League Baseball pushes too much, the players will talk against Major League Baseball. And that’s when Major League Baseball is going to go down.
“Bud Selig is treading on very thin ice.”
In announcing the investigation, Selig did not use the name of Bonds, or any other player. But as Bonds shoots for the all-time home run record, Canseco claims Selig is shooting for Bonds.
“Bud Selig is doing his own investigation against certain individual players,” Canseco said. “When Bud says the main topic of conversation is not Bonds, it really is. And, when you treat intelligent people like fools, they’re going to get [ticked] off.”
Canseco’s two-run home run, in the top of the first inning, gives the Valley Mets a 3-0 lead. In the bottom of the inning, the Mets give the lead back, and more. The second baseman drops a pop fly. The catcher throws a ball into center field. The shortstop overthrows first base. And Canseco, in left field, can’t stop a ball rolling at him. After one inning, the Mets trail, 5-3.
During the game, one of the players on the other team tells his godson to round up his two friends and get Canseco’s autograph. Zelman, the manager, tells the kids to wait until the game ends.
Fernando, 9, wants Canseco to sign his glove. Right here, Fernando says, pointing to a spot above the signature of Oscar Robles, the Dodgers utility infielder.
Andrew, 11, wants an autograph too, though he’s not sure exactly why.
“All we know is he played with the A’s,” Andrew says.
You should know more, boys. You know Bonds, of course.
Canseco and Bonds were born 20 days apart in July 1964, Canseco in Havana and Bonds in Riverside. They made their major league debuts eight months apart, Canseco in September 1985, Bonds the following May.
Canseco was the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season, Bonds the second. As a rookie in 1986, Canseco hit 33 homers. He hit 42 in 1988, the year he won his American League most-valuable-player award.
Bonds did not hit 30 homers until 1990, when he won the first of seven National League MVP awards. He did not hit 40 until 1993, and he did not pass Canseco on the all-time home run list until 1996, a decade into their careers. He did not start using steroids for two more years, according to “Game of Shadows.”
In 2001, as Bonds shattered the single-season record by hitting 73 home runs, Canseco played his final game, for the Chicago White Sox, his sixth team in six seasons.
Canseco said he was subsequently “blackballed from Major League Baseball,” a charge denied by Selig and by Dennis Gilbert, Canseco’s former agent.
Gilbert had joined the front office of the White Sox by the time Canseco got there. When the Sox did not bring back Canseco in 2002, Gilbert said, he recommended him to other clubs. None gave him a major league job, and Canseco gave up after 18 games in triple A.
Canseco hit 462 home runs. Bonds is at 713, and counting. The record is 755, by Hank Aaron. Canseco says he is rooting for Bonds to break the record, sympathetic to the scrutiny and suspicion that shadow him.
“It’s part of being the best player in the game,” Canseco said. “It’s part of approaching records. It’s not going to be all flowers. There are going to be people who don’t want you to break the records.
“When you’re on top, there are many people that want to bring you down.”
So, as Bonds chases history amid a media onslaught, Canseco leans against his truck, in the uniform of the Valley Mets and without a camera in sight. Even now, after time off measured in years, Canseco says he could hit major league pitching if a team would give him the chance.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Why not? I’m 41 years old. I’m in tremendous shape, even though I’m not in baseball shape. For baseball, it takes about six weeks to get back into that kind of conditioning. But no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
The Mets trail, 10-3, in the third inning. With the bases loaded and two out, Canseco strikes out looking, on a pitch that appears low. There are no replays here, but Canseco doesn’t need to see one.
“That ball was on the ground and you know it,” he tells the umpire. This is a scolding, to be sure, but with no yelling and no animated gestures. “That’s terrible.”
As he jogs back toward the outfield: “I’ll let you know when it’s a strike. I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
In the dugout the next inning, as teammates commiserate: “If it’s a strike, I’ll let him know. I’ll hit it out.”
Zelman, the manager, owns Revolution Eyewear in Simi Valley. He hires celebrities to promote his business, so that’s how he became friends with Canseco and invited him to play.
There are no rules against ringers. If you’re 28 or older and you haven’t played pro ball in the previous three years, Zelman says, you’re eligible. Bret Saberhagen and Eric Davis, among others, preceded Canseco in the league.
“He just happens to be the very best hitter we’ve ever had in the league,” Zelman said.
Zelman sponsors his team, so Canseco doesn’t pay to play, and neither do his teammates. But, Zelman says, Canseco throws $5 into the pot to pay umpires every week, same as everyone else.
“You play once a week and have fun with the guys,” Canseco said, “win, lose or draw.”
In the fifth inning, he drives in a run with a bloop single. In the seventh, he grounds out. The Mets lose, 11-6.
The players on both teams line up for handshakes, Canseco included. And then, if that 480-foot home run hadn’t convinced you this guy was someone special, the postgame reception would.
A guy from the opposing team asks Canseco to pose with him. Canseco puts his arm around the guy and smiles for the camera.
Six more guys make the same request, and Canseco graciously obliges, one by one. The three kids get their autographs, and he poses with them too.
And, since this drizzly morning has given way to a sunny afternoon, Canseco invites all the Valley Mets to his Encino home, for a Sunday barbecue.
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Blasts from the past
The major league statistics of Jose Canseco, a six-time All-Star as well as the American League’s rookie of the year in 1986 and most valuable player in 1988:
*--* Year Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB Avg 1985 Oakland 29 96 16 29 3 0 5 13 1 302 1986 Oakland 157 600 85 144 29 1 33 117 15 240 1987 Oakland 159 630 81 162 35 3 31 113 15 257 1988 Oakland 158 610 120 187 34 0 42 124 40 307 1989 Oakland 65 227 40 61 9 1 17 57 6 269 1990 Oakland 131 481 83 132 14 2 37 101 19 274 1991 Oakland 154 572 115 152 32 1 44 122 26 266 1992 Oakland/Texas 119 439 74 107 15 0 26 87 6 244 1993 Texas 60 231 30 59 14 1 10 46 6 255 1994 Texas 111 429 88 121 19 2 31 90 15 282 1995 Boston 102 396 64 121 25 1 24 81 4 306 1996 Boston 96 360 68 104 22 1 28 82 3 289 1997 Oakland 108 388 56 91 19 0 23 74 8 235 1998 Toronto 151 583 98 138 26 0 46 107 29 237 1999 Tampa Bay 113 430 75 120 18 1 34 95 3 279 2000 Tampa Bay/NY 98 329 47 83 18 0 15 49 2 252 (AL) 2001 Chicago (AL) 76 256 46 66 8 0 16 49 2 258 Totals 1887 7057 1186 1877 340 14 462 1407 200 266