Originally Published: Sonoma Index-Tribune, Press Democrat
Phil Barber, Columnist, The Press Democrat
They gave out 250 souvenir foam hands at Arnold Field on Friday night, except the hands didn’t look quite right. The tips of the foam middle fingers were missing, a little good-natured poke at the man who had accidentally shot off part of his left middle finger at his home in Las Vegas last October, then claimed (as a prank, he said) that the finger had been reattached, had fallen off during a poker game and would soon be auctioned on eBay.
Welcome to Jose Canseco Weekend.
More than 1,000 fans came to watch Canseco and the Sonoma Stompers play the San Rafael Pacifics on Friday night, a far cry from the packed Major League Baseball stadiums Canseco used to grace, but a pretty good gate for an independent minor league team. Attendance was expected at least to match that tonight when Canseco, one of the most renowned sluggers of his generation and a tabloid stalwart ever since, is scheduled to take on all comers in a home run derby.
“The type of visibility that he gives us, even if it’s for a weekend, you can’t really put a dollar amount on it,” Stompers general manager Theo Fightmaster said of the promotion.
By this weekend, abetted by Canseco’s 500,000-plus Twitter followers, the Stompers’ foam-finger idea had popped up in Bloomberg News and the Toronto Sun. Comcast Bay Area came up to shoot a video on Canseco, and Stompers PR man Tim Livingston had a heavy log of radio interviews.
Fourteen years after his last major league game, Canseco remains an attraction. Fans haven’t forgotten the guy who was named American League rookie of the year in 1986 and AL most valuable player in 1988, who played in three consecutive World Series with the A’s, who hit 462 career home runs and was a five-time All-Star.
Canseco says he’s 51, but he’s actually 50 until July 2. Anyway, he doesn’t really look it. He has a deep tan and perfect white teeth, and he seems to be nearly as ripped as he was in the Bash Brothers era, a physique honed these days through softball, golf, swimming and the gym.
In the Stompers dugout Friday night, Canseco was one of the guys — older, bigger, but definitely one of the guys. He stood at the rail alongside players half his age and joined in the typical dugout banter. He complained about the umpiring, commented on the difficult sightlines created by the shadows creeping in from the third-base line and noted how slow the outfield grass was at Arnold Field.
When the opposing pitcher attempted a pickoff move to first base, Canseco yelled “baaaack” along with the other Stompers. In fact, a couple times he was the first to say it, picking up the pitcher’s move just a little earlier than the 23-year-olds.
At one point, one of the regular Stompers asked Canseco what he does to stay loose when he’s the designated hitter, as he was that night, and doesn’t spend any time in the field.
“Nothing,” Canseco said, shaking his head. “There’s nothing you can do. Just don’t sit down. You’re dead if you sit down.”
Canseco seems to have entered yet another career phase. During his early years with the A’s he was the playboy superstar, reckless and incandescent. Later, he bounced around the league and lost his air of intimidation. Then Canseco became the symbol of baseball’s dirty Steroid Era. And then he became something even darker, the guy who blew the whistle on other abusers, including former teammates.
Canseco dropped most of his performance-enhancement bombshells in two books, “Juiced” and “Vindicated.” He named names, and his disclosures made him a pariah in MLB circles, but he’s convinced they were for the best.
“I think the books cleaned up the game, period,” he said. “The game wouldn’t be the greatest game today if it wasn’t for the books. I think the game’s completely clean. If you look at the financial structure of it, it’s completely healthy. … I think it made even baseball say, wow, we’d better clean this game up now.”
The tell-all books have ushered in the most recent iteration of Jose Canseco: the human publicity stunt. He fought MMA bouts and boxed against Danny Bonaduce, aka Danny Partridge, for charity. He has used his Twitter platform to (a) promote “comet transport” as a key to human survival, (b) propose to Country-Western singer Shania Twain, who happens to be married and (c) express his willingness to succeed Sepp Blatter as president of FIFA. He recorded a video with the guys behind the website Slow Clap in which he wrote a poem of apology to Mark McGwire, one of the teammates he exposed, and tried to deliver it to McGwire, now a batting instructor, at Dodger Stadium.
Canseco clearly has developed the ability to not take himself too seriously. Take the Stompers promotion.
“That was the scariest part for me, was over the phone with him and his agent and telling them the idea about the foam finger,” Fightmaster said. “There was a pause long enough that I got worried, and then they both cracked up.”
Canseco not only assented to the idea, when he met with the Stompers brass on Friday afternoon he regaled them with a detailed recounting of that fateful October.
“He told us, like, step by step and pace by pace what happened,” Fightmaster said. “You know, ‘I was cleaning four guns at once, and I had all the magazines over to the right, and I’m on the fourth gun, and my girlfriend comes in and she distracts me, and I grab the wrong gun, I put the wrong clip in.’ ”
Minor league baseball games have been another means of attention. Canseco says he played in 21 cities last summer, and Sonoma won’t be his only stop this time around. He really isn’t sure of the itinerary? “You have to ask my agent,” he said.
It’s a little confusing to see an athlete who once dated Madonna and had a candy bar named after him — the Canseco! 40/40 bar, to honor his 42 home runs and 40 stolen bases in 1988 — subjecting himself to a 95-degree afternoon in sleepy Sonoma.
“People have addictions. This is mine,” Canseco explained. “My addiction’s baseball.”
In person, Canseco doesn’t seem to be starved for attention. When a Stompers teammate hit a home run Friday night, Canseco joined the receiving line for a high five, but hung back in the shadows of the dugout rather than taking center stage. His eagerness to sign up for minor-league paydays, and his devotion to paid autograph sessions, leads to an obvious question then: Does this guy need the money?
“I won’t answer that question,” Canseco said. “I’ve already answered why I’m here. I just love the game.”
Fightmaster acknowledged that Canseco was paid for his appearances, and in fact made more than anyone else on the Stompers this weekend (and possibly for the entire year), but declined to disclose the fee.
“This is a big part of our marketing budget for this year,” Fightmaster offered.
Though from Canseco’s perspective, considering he made more than $45 million in salary and bonuses during his MLB career and that “Juiced” was on the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks, it’s hard to imagine the Stompers’ paycheck as a princely sum. “I would be certain that’s not the case,” Fightmaster said. “In a vacuum, he’s well compensated for these events. But I don’t know how many of these he could do to really make a living off of it.”
Canseco’s show played to mixed reviews Friday night. He went 0 for 4, a fact that was not lost on Ryan DeJesus, the starting pitcher for the Pacifics.
“When you can have a former MVP go oh-fer against you, it’s a little confidence booster,” De Jesus said, though he was generally unhappy with his performance in a 6-2 loss.
But Canseco still has some pop in his bat, even at 50. Nobody threw a pitch past him Friday night, and he put on an impressive display of power during batting practice that afternoon.
“I’m gonna need to go buy baseballs on Monday,” Fightmaster said. “There’s literally 20 baseballs outside the stadium now. All the good ones, too, because the mushy ones wouldn’t carry as far.”
Canseco knows that after all these years, after all the revelations and the outrage over steroids, baseball fans still dig the long ball. He has doffed his cap in Lexington, Ky., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a couple-dozen other minor-league cities, and the expectations are always the same.
“If I hit a home run my first at-bat, crowd goes crazy,” Canseco said. “I think the fans see me and say, wow, he’s 51 but he looks great physically. I don’t think they want to see an old guy out there striking out or swinging weakly. They want to see a Jose Canseco of the actual past.”
Or at least that reasonable facsimile, the Jose Canseco of the actual present.