He's been a feared slugger, a disgraced whistle-blower and a Twitter oddity. Now the six-time All-Star travels to minor league towns and indy ball fields, putting on a show—and it's the closest he'll ever again get to the major league game he changed forever
IT'S ONE of sports media's most recognizable set pieces: A superstar arrives in town and takes questions from a horde of thirsty scribes. Will you bring this city a championship? What would you like to say to these long-suffering fans? The version playing out at an Iowa ballpark one Wednesday in mid-June had all the superficial indicators of importance: The man in front of the microphones had hit 462 career home runs, been selected to six All-Star Games, written a best-selling book and twice appeared on the cover of this magazine. His signature traits—gobsmacking biceps and slick charm—pop just as they did the day he broke in. He is one of the few living players who can say, without prompting a giggle, that he changed the game of baseball.
And then 88-year-old Bob Brooks, the dean of the press pool covering the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels, punched record on an ancient cassette player and asked 50-year-old Jose Canseco a question about his lasting career memories. Moments later Canseco, who turned 51 on July 2, would head down to the field to compete in a pregame home run derby against amateur softball players from eastern Iowa—a contest he would lose to Fayette's Ryan Pennebaker, a 32-year-old project manager for John Deere. Welcome to the City of Five Seasons, buddy.
The Cedar Rapids Parks and Rec Home Run Derby was just one part of this Canseco-centric evening (which was also KCRG Weather Academy Night). The aging slugger would also sign autographs for fans, visit suites and appear on the local radio broadcast. Under his deal with the Kernels, he would be in a car back to the Hampton Inn by 8:45, with a check in hand for his appearance fee (payable only upon completion of said appearance). When asked about the check's size, Canseco told a writer to say he was paid $10 million.
A brief detour into Canseconomics: The former player for the A's, Rangers, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Yankees and White Sox filed for bankruptcy in 2012, citing $1.7 million in debt against less than $21,000 in assets. He says, "You know, people ask, 'Jose, you filed bankruptcy, where'd all the money go to?' It's real simple, guys. Taxes take away 40% right away. If you're playing in Canada, like I did, it's 50%. A divorce here or there, it's $7 million. Last time the stock market bottomed out, it's $11 million. Start calculating: cost of living, taking care of your family, taking care of your friends. Bad investments, which would be the stock market. Bad investments, which would be marriage. It all adds up to twentysomething million dollars."
At the autograph table, Canseco drew a long line, although the one-item-per-person policy meant that the faces of some middle-aged men recurred and recurred. He signed balls and caps and cards, gloves and bats and old magazines. One fan brought a pamphlet titled The Jose Canseco Story; another brought a still from the episode of The Simpsons in which Canseco appeared in animated form. Lots of children too young to remember Canseco's career or his postretirement infamy also made their way to the table, if only because he had a shiny silver Sharpie. Though Canseco did not personalize anything he signed (again, policy), the fans still wanted to tell him their stories. "Thanks for writing the book, Mr. Canseco," one of them said. "It's a great book."
"I don't read, but I read Juiced—it's the best book I've ever read," said another fan.
A man in an A's shirt begged Canseco to do the Bash Brothers pose. He gave in.
"Do you ever talk to Mark McGwire?" one man asked.
"No-o," Canseco replied, drawing the word out. Later, in the suite, when a fan asked if he wanted a beer, he offered the same "No-o." A woman asked him to come closer for a picture, and he joked, "What are you, with the IRS?"
PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES often struggle with the transition to their second careers. Their earning power may plummet in concert with the rare physical gifts that made them stars, and that predicament—which a majority of Americans might gladly trade their own humdrum lives to face—can be genuinely unmooring.
Oh, if only those problems were all that Canseco had to overcome. Surely by now he would have conquered them, perhaps building a successful chain of Mazda dealerships along the California coast. But Canseco faced an additional set of challenges, most of his own making.
Is there anything Canseco won't do now? "I didn't do porn when I was asked to, a long time ago," he says. "A bad B movie I won't do. I mean, I was in Sharknado 2 or 3, whichever that was." (The film was actually Piranha Sharks, starring Kevin Sorbo, which owes a great deal of its DNA to Sharknado but is not in the Sharknado canon.)
Who does Canseco endorse for 2016? "I do something with the company ExtenZe," he says. "Have you seen that commercial online?" No, who does he endorse in the presidential election? "You know what, I hate politics. This world would be so much better without politics. Seriously, we've got, what's the idiot now, Trump, running for president?" (Canseco once was a contestant on Donald Trump's reality show.)
Canseco's inimitable cocktail of confidence, impulsiveness and shamelessness has landed him far from that quiet postcareer small-business life and further still from the game he once conquered and loved. It has landed him on The Surreal Life; in a mixed martial arts ring against 7'2" Choi Hong-man (Canseco tapped out); and, on Oct. 28, 2014, in the emergency room at University Medical Center in Las Vegas. That night Canseco, a self-defense enthusiast, was cleaning one of his pistols, a custom Remington .45 with a gold-plated grip, and, well, he can take the story from here:
"You know, it's funny. I didn't realize I had shot my own finger off. I just put my gun back on the table and looked to see where the bullet went, because I was behind this huge desk. And all of a sudden I see my hand, blood spurting out. I said, 'What the f---? Oh my god, I shot my finger off.'"
He held his left hand above his head and clamped it at the wrist, slowing the blood flow. Then he told his on-and-off fiancée, 28-year-old model and stuntwoman Leila Knight, those words we all dread having to tell our partners: "Listen, I'm sorry, but I just shot my finger off." Knight was calm and understanding, Canseco says, given the circumstances.
He then went about the difficult work of trying to find the finger he'd blown off. He didn't realize—thanks to a mixture of shock and numbness, he says—that the appendage was hanging against the back of his hand from an unsevered blood vessel. The doctors initially told him they'd have to amputate, but when he woke up from surgery the finger was still attached; its blood supply had been stronger than the doctors thought. They reattached the finger without a bone, then inserted bone from Canseco's hip six months later.
As with many things involving Canseco, truth is stranger than fiction, except for the fiction Canseco himself crafts about the truth. He tweeted that after its reattachment, the finger fell off during a poker game; it didn't. He also wrote that he was thinking of selling the finger (and the gun) on eBay; he didn't. He said someone had filmed video of the finger falling off and sold it to his agent; no one had.
In any event the finger has since regained most of its normal functions. Canseco says he has some feeling in it, and no pain. The only problem arises whenever Canseco grips a bat (which is fairly often for a player his age). He can't bend the finger, so he swings with a middle finger extended from the bat, involuntarily flipping the bird to anyone who might care to watch him hit.
CANSECO'S EXTRAORDINARY relationship with baseball may be more unusual than anyone's this side of Pete Rose. Like Canseco, Rose lives in Las Vegas, where he signs autographs for a living. Canseco, when asked what he does for a living, says, "Wow. I guess I'm different, because I love to stay in shape." Canseco still plays baseball, suiting up on odd weekends for independent clubs—this year, the Sonoma Stompers and the Pittsburg Diamonds—to fill seats and swell the box score. He says he cannot, however, sit through a whole game on television (that "No-o" again).
The A's drafted Canseco in the 15th round in 1982, and by the time he played his first full major league season, in '86 (when he hit 33 home runs and won Rookie of the Year), the team had begun its transformation into the juggernaut that would reach three straight World Series, from '88 to '90. Tony La Russa took over as manager in midseason of '86, and a young third baseman named Mark McGwire made his debut in August.
Along with McGwire, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley and the Hendersons (Rickey and Dave), Canseco helped refashion the A's into a dominant, sweet-swinging band of outlaws. In 1988, when Canseco hit .307 and unanimously won the American League MVP Award, he registered the first 40-homer, 40-steal season in baseball history. Aside from his occasionally apathetic defense in the outfield, Canseco almost seemed to be a modern-day answer to Willie Mays. He and McGwire were christened the Bash Brothers for their uncommon power, and the muscles that abetted that power.
What Canseco and McGwire knew then, even if the rest of the world did not, was that those muscles, and by extension at least some of those home runs, were the product of an assiduous anabolic steroid regimen. What neither could have known then was that Canseco's MVP season, which ended when he was just 24, would be the high point of his career. After that he bounced around baseball, battling injuries and ignominy. In 1993 a fly ball bounced off his head and over the outfield fence for a home run. Three days later he made a one-inning pitching appearance that would cause him to need Tommy John surgery. His off-the-field life included arrests for reckless driving, illegal possession of a handgun, aggravated battery, and simple battery (three times), as well as two divorces. By 2002 his career was over, 38 home runs away from the 500 figure that was, at that point, good for automatic induction to the Hall of Fame.
That home run shortfall was one by-product of what he saw as his deliberate blackballing from the game. So after one failed comeback and then another, Canseco set about altering the game for good, by way of a book.
Juiced, which was released in February 2005, was a firecracker. It landed Canseco on Today and 60 Minutes. It preceded most of the steroid hoopla: the Congressional hearing, the Mitchell Report, the raid on Jason Grimsley's house, Rafael Palmeiro's positive test. Before the book, all baseball fans had to go on was Ken Caminiti's confession in SI, leaked BALCO grand jury testimony and the vials and syringes in Manny Alexander's wayward glove compartment.
What Canseco gave readers, and a grateful publisher, was the kind of book baseball had inadvertently ensured by turning a blind eye to performance-enhancers. Canseco testified to the great power of these drugs, detailing how they had made him superhuman (Better at baseball! Better in bed!) and envisioning a future in which all athletes would gobble them up with glee. (Canseco has gone back on that now, saying steroids ravaged his endocrine system and may have had little to do with his baseball success.)
With the grace and restraint of a juicehead in a china shop, the disgruntled Canseco named names: McGwire, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro, among others. Each had plausible deniability at the time, but by the end of the decade all would be exposed as users. And the league would lurch toward cleaning itself up.
But the author now says he wishes he hadn't named a soul, and he wishes he hadn't published the book. "Being completely severed from Major League Baseball, probably for life—meaning affiliate ball, I can't coach, I can't teach, I can't be hitting coach or manager or anything—in that way it cost me a lot," he says. "But I told the truth, and the game is better for it now."
Canseco's exile is real enough. McGwire is the Dodgers' hitting coach; Giambi was in the running for a manager's job; the Giants have welcomed Barry Bonds back as a spring training instructor. A one-off appearance at a Class A stadium may be the closest Canseco will ever again get to reaching the show.
So before the home run derby in Cedar Rapids, in the batting cage under the stands, Canseco showed a gaggle of Twins prospects what baseball was missing. Thirty-four-year-old Tommy Watkins, the team's batting coach, volunteered to throw to Canseco. Swinging one-handed, with an open stance, tapping his toe, wielding a Dudley senior bat he brought himself, Canseco rocketed ball after ball into the netting, each shot crisp and loud, like a bolt of lightning splitting a tree.
One player started filming on his iPhone. "How old is he? Fifty?" another player asked.
"Holy s---," yet another muttered, hushed into reverence by the mighty swing of the strangest baseball player alive.
Canseco can't bend the surgically reattached finger, so he now swings with a middle finger extended from the bat, involuntarily flipping the bird to anyone who might care to watch him hit.
Photograph by Matthew Putney For Sports Illustrated
JACKED UP At 51 years old, and three decades after his major league debut, Canseco is a long way from the bright lights of the big leagues. But after everything, he can still put a charge in the ball.
JOHN IACONO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WILD RIDE Canseco's career has veered from A's star (far left) to beefcake, and from court (below) to the MMA ring (bottom) to minor league parks (right).
MICHAEL ZAGARIS/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
AL DIAZ/AP (COURT)
[See caption above]
MATTHEW PUTNEY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SIGNING)
[See caption above]
HIROKI WATANABE/GETTY IMAGES (MMA)
[See caption above]
MATTHEW PUTNEY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GATHER ROUND Canseco, holding court at the Kernels' home field, once claimed steroids were great for his health and career; he now says they weakened his endocrine system.