The uniform looked so strange on him, the word TEXAS spelled across the gray shirt in blue letters. Jose Canseco was a Texas Ranger? This could not be. Up was down, down was up and the tidy baseball universe had been altered. McDonald's sells hamburgers near Lenin's Tomb, fine. A member of the British royal family rubs suntan lotion on the bald head of an American businessman, O.K. But Jose a Ranger?
"I haven't even looked at myself in the mirror," Canseco said last Friday in a Yankee Stadium press conference before his first game in a Texas outfit. "I feel like I'm playing in an All-Star Game, where you wear the uniform for a day and go home. Only this time you don't go home."
His number still was 33, but now his locker was a few stalls away from a number 34 named Nolan Ryan. Nolan Ryan? "I don't know what really happened," Canseco said in his third news conference in four days. "Maybe I'll never know the reason why I was traded."
There are trades in sports, and there are TRADES in sports, and this was definitely the latter. Out of the blue, the biggest celebrity in baseball had been sent flying from the Oakland A's in exchange for Texas slugger Ruben Sierra and pitchers Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell. Two hours before the trading deadline of midnight, eastern time, Aug. 31, Canseco was called back from the on-deck circle at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, Witt and Russell were pulled from the bench on the road in Kansas City, and Sierra was informed at home, where he was recovering from a case of the chicken pox. This was the kind of deal—the bolt-of-lightning trade—that just wasn't supposed to happen anymore.
The A's, ahead of the pack by 7½ games in the American League West when they made the deal, were disrupting the workings of a potential champion. The Rangers, in fourth place, heading nowhere, low on pitching and defense, were surrendering...well, pitching and maybe defense to bring another large bat into a bloated lineup of big bats. Nothing made sense in terms of conventional logic. That was the beauty. Conventional logic did not seem to apply.
"I still can't believe all of this happened," Canseco said. "I can't believe it happened this way."
Canseco had spent 10 years, all of his professional baseball life, in the Oakland organization. He had put together statistics—as recently as a year ago, when he hit 44 home runs and drove in 122 runs—that ranked near the top of anyone's charts. More than that, he was a bona fide attraction, a pop icon, with his matinee-idol good looks and his assorted adventures involving fast cars, a loaded gun and pretty women. Forget the statistics. How can a team replace a man who crashed his Porsche into his wife's BMW in a domestic dispute, a man who is captured on film leaving Madonna's Manhattan apartment house? He was only 28 years old, with three years left on a five-year, $23.5 million contract. Would the producers of the Terminator movies trade Schwarzenegger? What was happening?
"To me, it's a shift in power," Canseco said. "Texas is a team of the future. In my opinion Oakland is definitely going to cut back. They're just going to field a team next year, not be a serious contender."
The deal evolved over a two-week span. With Oakland manager Tony La Russa worried about his shaky pitching, A's general manager Sandy Alderson began talking to Ranger general manager Tom Grieve. Slowly, as no agreement was reached, the deal began to expand. When Canseco's name was brought up, Grieve became very interested. The Rangers, after all, will move into a new ballpark in the spring of '94, and a name like Canseco's can do a lot to help season-ticket sales and fill the bleacher seats.
But, says Grieve, "for us, this was totally a baseball deal. A by-product is Jose's appeal and charisma, but the trade was made to make us a contender. You don't get a chance to get a player like him very often. All I know is that whenever he's played at our place, the fans in leftfield stand up in expectation [of a home run]."
The A's position was more complicated. They face a laborious off-season, with 14 players—including Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach and Dave Stewart—eligible to become free agents. Sierra and Russell also will be in the free-agent group. Was this a first move toward fiscal stability, dumping Canseco's future contract with no intention of re-signing either Sierra or Russell?
Canseco had clearly fallen into disfavor in Oakland. He has been hurt this season, troubled by both a bad back and a sore shoulder. He was hitting .246 with 22 home runs and 72 runs batted in. He said he has lost 15 pounds and 40% of his power. Did the A's think he was on an irrevocable slide? Or had they simply tired of his superstar act?
"I'm hurt," Canseco said. "I'm not a robot. I was playing in Oakland every day because the thinking was that 75 percent of Jose Canseco is better than 100 percent of some rookie. Now I will have a chance to get my health back. I'll work hard in the off-season. I'll come back 100 percent."
Canseco has enough major league service to demand a trade from Texas after this season, but playing for the Rangers will most likely be his best option. "I'm not thinking about any of that right now," he said. "I'm selling a house in California, buying a house in Texas, and my house in Miami was flooded by the hurricane. I'm learning a lot about real estate."
On Friday evening at Yankee Stadium, early-arriving fans stirred as Canseco stepped in for batting practice. He knocked only two balls into the seats—both pulled down the leftfield line—but the fans reacted enthusiastically. When a later group took the cage, Texas outfielder Juan Gonzalez, the American League home run leader, banged ball after ball over the fence. No reaction. None.
"Jose brings a lot of attention, a lot of media," said Ranker first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, a boyhood friend of Canseco's from Miami. "You guys wouldn't be here if he weren't here. Our job is to make him feel comfortable. To make him happy. We want to show him that he doesn't have to carry the whole team."
Palmeiro batted third in the lineup, Canseco fourth. Canseco instructed Palmeiro in the intricacies of the forearm bash, the celebratory greeting he and McGwire had used in Oakland to much notice. Palmeiro agreed to use it. Jose went 0 for 4 in his debut, striking out twice. The only Ranger highlight in a 6-3 loss was a solo home run by Palmeiro, who came around the bases, touched home plate and....
"Jose almost took my head off," Palmeiro said. "I'd forgotten."
Oakland fans, meanwhile, had not forgotten their departed slugger. The A's continued a stumble on the West Coast that had begun with the trade. They lost their fifth straight Canseco-less game, to the Red Sox, on Saturday, and their lead in the AL West had shrunk to 4½ games. Canseco professed not to feel any satisfaction in their fall. He was moving ahead.
"Maybe I wore out my welcome in Oakland," he said. "I fell into a trap. The shoes people put out there for me are very difficult to fill. And if I fill them, the shoes just get bigger. It's sad, but I don't think I'll ever be able to fulfill the expectations that people have for me."
It was noted that the shoes he was now wearing were blue. Jose in blue shoes? Next thing you know, the Vice-President of the United States will be involved in a public debate with a fictional woman newscaster.
Canseco, with Gonzalez (center), watched his old pal Palmeiro.
Canseco's debut in blue was an 0-for-4 dud, but he sees a bright future in Texas.