Jose Canseco continues to take shots
Here sits the great baseball sage Jose Canseco, dressed in a black hat and a black motorcycle jacket, slumped in a folding chair in a small room just off the main stage at USC’s Bovard Auditorium.
It is Friday night and he is minutes from giving a talk about his life in baseball: the rise and fall, the steroids, his knowledge of who injected what and his speculation about current players -- even, it turns out, Manny Ramirez.
A giant video screen plays highlights of Canseco’s longest home runs and along with those images we hear an announcer’s voice. “There he is!” the voice booms, “baseball’s most imposing figure!”
“Jeez, I was quite a figure out there,” Canseco says, his still-chiseled frame melting into the chair. “What a feeling, crushing that baseball in front of thousands in the stands, millions on TV.”
He autographs some baseballs. We talk. He says he’s still using testosterone, says he needs it to keep his levels normal after so many years of using. He makes repeated reference to 1998, when he hit 46 home runs for Toronto. He swears that was the one year in 17 seasons that he played drug-free. He had been too depressed about a relationship to think about steroids.
“You did so well in Toronto, why didn’t you just quit right there?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I could have. I didn’t.”
In fact, 1998 has made him reconsider things. After long telling anyone who’d listen that he might not have made the big leagues without steroids, maybe the year in Canada shows he could have become a star without drugs. He holds tight to this new notion.
“I have regrets,” he says. “The way people look at my career was compromised by using. Then the whole thing fell apart. . . . I was cut off. Not being able to play at 36. That’s how old I was when baseball colluded to keep me out. They were sending a message to all the other players: ‘Stop using, or you will be like Jose.’ ”
Canseco keeps talking, unburdening. He seems tinged with a paranoia that makes him easy to dismiss, except he has so often been right.
“I have nightmares, almost every night. I’m on some team, but they will not let me actually play. The bus leaves without me. . . . “
An agent walks in, says there are only about 40 people in the audience. Maybe 50. Bovard holds 1,235.
Canseco, longhaired still, strong-jawed still, has a kind of puppyish charm and a forthrightness that make you want to root for him. And the assertions made in his 2005 book “Juiced” played a real role in forcing baseball to clean up its steroid mess. So when the low turnout confirms his fading star, I am sad.
No need. There he is, alone on the large stage, still in his motorcycle jacket, his big hands gripping a wooden lectern as he speaks to still so many empty seats.
No matter. He walks through the stormy arc: how a 5-foot-10 beanpole became a 6-foot-4, 255-pound home run monster once he fell in love with drug injections.
He adds up the homers he could have hit if he’d kept playing. Hundreds more, he claims, no sweat.
What about Alex Rodriguez, the audience wants to know? Canseco calls the Yankees third baseman a Canseco copycat, from the steroids to the dalliance with Madonna. He scoffs at the notion Rodriguez is telling the whole truth about his drug use.
What about Ken Griffey Jr.? Canseco says Griffey has always been clean, but offers a caveat: Nobody can be sure about anyone anymore.
What about Manny Ramirez? someone asks.
Canseco laughs and offers his theory. A-Rod was exposed only when his name was leaked from a list of 104 major leaguers who in a 2003 test showed up positive for steroids. Because the test was anonymous, those names were not supposed to be made public. But in Canseco’s mind, baseball’s power brokers know who is on it: players he is sure will be seen as toxic if the truth comes out.
He says this, despite the fact that A-Rod isn’t being treated as toxic, nor are other players who were caught up in the steroid scandal but publicly apologized, including Miguel Tejada, starting shortstop for the Houston Astros, and Andy Pettitte, a starting pitcher with the New York Yankees.
Why didn’t Ramirez get a long-term deal? Canseco asks. Why were owners gun-shy about signing arguably the game’s best hitter?
Never mind that Ramirez was asking for a mega-deal at age 36. Or that he was negotiating in a sickly economy, while weighed down by the heavy baggage of a surly reputation. Canseco will have none of it. To Canseco, the drawn-out negotiation, the lack of a long-term deal, the lack of interest all raise red flags, and so he tells the Bovard crowd that Ramirez’s “name is most likely, 90%,” on the list.
Canseco admits later that he has no way of knowing. But it makes sense to him, so he threw it out there -- kaboom! -- swinging for the fences, still.
Late Saturday, I tracked down Ramirez to tell him what Canseco had said. The immediate response is pure Ramirez: He laughs. Sitting at his locker, he says, “I got no comment, nothing to say about that. What can I say? I don’t even know the guy.”
We may never know for certain who did what in this drug-laden era. But Friday night at USC, leaving the auditorium, the old slugger doesn’t back down. He says what he says, doesn’t need proof anymore. Then he hops into a car with two handlers, leaving me to wonder:
Is Canseco full of hard-earned wisdom? Or is he a suffering soul, a faded star addicted to the stage, any stage?
On this opening day, he’s a little of both.