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The Natural?

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[EDITOR'S NOTE] The following is an article written by Dale Tafoya about Jose Canseco's 1985 season. I thought it would be appropriate to run this article today since Canseco will appear on 60 Minutes tonight. What's amazing is that it seems like so many teammates knew about the roids back then, as many of these quotes are appearing exclusively in AN for the first time anywhere. Enjoy. Oh, and since the article was so long, I put a lot of it into the extended copy as to not take up the entire front page of AN. Enjoy. Dale Tafoya's bio is here: - Blez

As a teenager, Dale Tafoya remembers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire's flashy arrival in Oakland beginning in the mid 1980's. His fascination with the way the Bash Brothers ushered in a new era in baseball with massive muscles and herculean physiques, inspired Tafoya to chronicle their legacy throughout their years in Oakland. Over the last two years, Tafoya has interviewed over 30 former players, coaches, and scouts who felt compelled to relive their memorable stay in Oakland. Below is an article excerpt remembering Major League baseball in 1985, as well as a flashy slugging prospect named Jose Canseco, who was nicknamed, "The Natural."

The Natural

by Dale Tafoya

"I was built up to be some kind of monster robot. All you had to do was oil my joints, and I'd hit .390 and lead the league in every category."---José Canseco

Tales from Tacoma

1985. Cheney Stadium, Tacoma, Washington

Crack! The line drive leaves his bat screaming like a bullet. It roars past the third base bag less than 10 feet off the ground. It will never get up and over the fence, but it keeps going and going until seconds later it flies over the scoreboard.

When José Canseco takes batting practice at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium, everyone pauses as though Elvis has just entered the building. Silence fills the stadium; players halt their pre-game stretching; reporters stick note pads in their pockets; and fans decide that the concession stands can wait...as everyone watches.

Seconds later:

Crack! This ball ascends higher and soars further. Two pitchers near center field curiously gaze straight up toward the blast, like following the trajectory of a shooting star. The only obstacle in the ball's way is the left field light tower pole that it crashes into, producing a loud "Ting!" Fans leaving the parking lot and strolling toward the ticket gate, hear a thunderous sound echoing from the field below:

Crack! A wooden bat connects with a leather baseball. Immediately, a light goes on inside the fans. They've heard a player hit a baseball before, but this is a uniquely strange and different sound. Intrigued by the phenomenon, they rush to their seats as they try to get a glimpse inside.

A gang of early-arriving kids gather on "Tightwad Hill," just beyond the right field fence, where they stake out their favorite spot. They marvel with gasps of "oohh!" and "ahh!" as they witness the spectacle. Their facial impressions resemble someone watching a pyrotechnic extravaganza, rather than batting practice. The youth have never seen a baseball hit so hard and so far, especially by a Minor Leaguer.

A year has passed since José Canseco's mother, Barbara, died, and he is still learning to deal with his grief. He seems to add something extra to every mighty swing he takes in the batting cage.

The coach throws another pitch toward the plate:

Crack!...Another one. This time the ball thunders toward the left-center field fence, near the 370-feet sign. Everyone figures it's going to leave the stadium. The only question is how far is it going? Even the fans spin and backpedal to catch up with it. The ball finally lands on the concrete runway outside the stadium, where a crowd of boys scramble for it.

"There's no way a ball can be hit that far!" one stunned player says to himself, as he leans against the cage and awaits his turn at bat.

The Herculean slugger appears in the batting cage. His six-feet-three-inch ultra muscular build resembles that of a rugged linebacker designed to tackle quarterbacks in the NFL rather than the physique of a baseball player. His powerful swing demonstrates great confidence. His imposing presence suggests vanity. And, even his stroll oozes with poise. It was as if the character Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, had been transformed into a Major League slugger.

The Tacoma Tigers' Assistant General Manager Ron Zolo praises Canseco as the best athletic specimen he has ever seen and judges him the most talented player ever to arrive in Tacoma.

Moments later, Canseco leaves the cage, bat in hand, and strolls toward the dugout, where a local newspaper reporter pesters him with probing questions. Instantly, both fans and players realize their pre-game fireworks are over. The players return to their stretching and fans anticipate the beginning of the game. This home run magic happened daily at Cheney stadium whenever Canseco entered the cage.

Canseco's legend grew and even earned him the nickname, "The Natural," the title of the 1984 film in which Robert Redford played Roy Hobbs, the greatest baseball player of all time. In the film, Hobbs' bat, handmade from the wood of a tree struck by lightning following the death of his father, becomes a supernatural tool in his hands.

The big questions which intrigued scribes and scouts, however, were: "Who is this guy?" and "Where did he come from?"

Canseco had hit a combined 31 home runs during his first three years in the Minor Leagues, but now, in just one season, he's hit 36. The former 15th-round draft pick out of Coral Park High in Miami, who back in 1982 was a slender 6-feet-2-inches and only 170 pounds, had transformed himself. Only three years later, Canseco had grown an inch and now sported 230 pounds of rock-hard muscle. It seemed as though his bulging arms were going to burst out of his uniform.

"He [Canseco] didn't make much contact in the Minor Leagues before 1985," former A's pitcher Steve Ontiveros said. "He never had eye-opening numbers before that year."

Even so, toward the end of the 1985 season, the Oakland Athletics' organization awaited the arrival of their homegrown phenom, who had single-handedly demolished Southern and Pacific Coast League pitching, like a hurricane blowing through a city. The giddy reports of a Ruthian figure in the Minors who hit home runs and had a remarkable batting average with cannons for arms and astonishing speed reached the desk of A's General Manager Sandy Alderson, who was searching for players to turn their struggling franchise around.

"He's [Canseco] got Mantle and Killebrew power," former Tacoma General Manager Stan Naccarato told The Oakland Tribune, shortly before Canseco made his big league debut in 1985. "Give me [Jim] Rice and the guys who can go deep, and José can out-drive them."

Canseco's jaw-dropping power cost Tacoma a fortune, as he launched ball after ball out of the stadium. One night, he took seven pitches and hit seven out.

"He's busting us in batting practice," a budget-conscious Naccarato chuckled. "Those balls cost us $2.50 a rattle...There would be over 100 balls lost during batting practice each day." Concerned, Naccarato persuaded kids to stand outside the stadium to gather the balls and return them in exchange for free tickets to the game.

Bob Christofferson was Cheney Stadium's head groundskeeper during Canseco's brief, two-month stay in the Pacific Northwest. Christofferson spent most of his time cutting the outfield grass, smoothing out the infield dirt, and preparing the field for play. He had watched numerous players grace the field over the years, but none had ever matched the imprint Canseco created.

"He just hit the ball as hard as anyone I had ever seen hit a baseball," marveled Christofferson, who envisioned Canseco slugging his way to Cooperstown. "I told Canseco, 'You're going to be a Hall Of Famer one day.'I thought he was a `can't-miss.'"

The Pacific Coast League managers agreed and cited the 21-year-old star as having the best throwing arm among outfielders.

Cheney stadium boasted pitcher-friendly dimensions. Daunting heavy air encompassed the venue and paralyzed many long blasts. The deep power alleys and spacious grounds in center field gave pitchers the upper hand. Even more intimidating was the 36-foott fence which looming in center field. There was a proverb among scouts: "If a player could hit in Cheney Stadium, he could hit in the Big Leagues." But the vast confines of Cheney stadium couldn't contain Canseco's explosive home runs.

Before a game on July 2, 1985, Canseco was the only player ever to hit a ball over the center field fence, which was 425 feet from home plate and 36 feet high. At the time, the only player to hit one over the centerfield fence in the stadium's 26-year history. Former Tacoma Assistant General Manager Ron Zolo said that no one ever had come close to hitting one that far.

A few nights later when Canseco took his cuts in the cage, he not only drove the ball over a fence 370 feet away, but over a 120-foot light tower. Tales of Canseco's superhuman power began to spread.

"I feel I'm ready now," a confident Canseco assured The Oakland Tribune sports columnist Dave Newhouse, shortly before being called up to the big leagues in 1985. "I have the talent and confidence. It's really great that people think of me as a good ballplayer. I'm just going to keep doing the things that got me here. I've worked very hard."

A September to Remember

As the A's crawled into the month of September 1985, their pennant hopes had dwindled away. They were an older, veteran team that strategically stocked their talented young farm system and eyed the future. Having hired three different managers in as many years, the A's losses mounted, and promoted some of their top minor league prospects. In baseball terminology it was the annual "September call-ups," where the roster was expanded from 25 to 40 players. In this way their prospects would get a taste of the Big League life during the final month of the season and management had a chance to analyze their performance. As expected, the A's were licking their chops while watching Canseco.

On September 2, 1985, Canseco boarded a plane en route to the East Coast, where the A's played a series against the Baltimore Orioles in Maryland. A bit anxious, Canseco strolled into the A's clubhouse where the A's manager Jackie Moore welcomed him and delivered a standard, rookie-oriented pep talk. Mixed emotions filled the slugger. Even though Canseco was cherishing his new chapter in professional baseball, he remembered his mother, Barbara, who had been his inspiration since childhood. Before her unexpected death, Canseco had hoped she would see him donning a Major League uniform one day.

In the ninth inning, Moore told Canseco to grab a bat because he would be pinch-hitting for catcher Mickey Tettleton. Canseco emerged from the dugout, rubbed his bat with a pine tar-drenched cloth and stepped into the batter's box with his signature open stance, while the A's curious front office watched intently. Whif! Canseco struck out on three pitches thrown by Baltimore right-hander Ken Dixon.

Canseco was far from spectacular during his first week in the Big Leagues. He spent more time slouching on the bench than playing in the field. The A's hoped to ease the slugger into the lineup slowly. He observed. He sat. He watched. He waited.

"He [Canseco] was a good listener," the A's former batting coach Bob Watson said. "He was a good student."

A few days later, when the A's played a series with the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium, Canseco sparked the interest of Billy Martin. Martin was the feisty, fiery, no-nonsense Yankee manager. He was also the former A's manager and wondered why Canseco wasn't getting more at-bats.

"They [the A's] need to let that kid play the rest of the season," Martin said as he held court in the Yankee clubhouse after the game in 1985. Canseco started the next game.

A week later, on a cold, muggy Monday evening at the Oakland Coliseum, where the A's hosted the Texas Rangers, Canseco played in front of Oakland A's fans for the first time. They had been bombarded for months with tales of Canseco's exploits in the Minor Leagues, and so it was almost as if they knew him -- even though they had never seen him play. Now, Canseco at last appeared in the flesh.

He led off the third inning and, after seeing one pitch thrown by Rangers starter Jeff Russell, he erupted. Crack! Canseco captured the crowd's attention when he crushed a sizzling line drive toward center field. Like a rocket, it soared well beyond the center field fence and landed at the top of the green tarp, just left of the 397-feet sign some 450 feet from home plate, where home runs just weren't hit. Even Texas center fielder George Wright barely moved and turned around to admire the blast, like watching a tongue-hanging Michael Jordon slam dunk. Immediately, a buzz spread throughout the crowd. Some fans couldn't believe what they had just seen. A few removed their eyeglasses, breathed on the lenses, and wiped them clean with their shirtsleeves in disbelief. Even his teammates seated in the A's dugout along the third base line marveled at the home run.

"When I first saw Canseco, I knew he was a future Hall of Famer if he played long enough," former A's outfielder Mike Davis said. "He was on track to being one of the greatest players you would ever see."

A few weeks later, Canseco carried his wooden bat and electric swing to the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. Canseco had thrilled the fans with roof-clearing shots during batting practice hours before the game, and he even received a standing ovation afterward. In the fifth inning, Canseco hit a line drive off White Sox right-handed pitcher Joel Davis. It wasn't a high fly ball, but resembled more a bullet leaving a trail of smoke. The home run caromed off the base of the light tower on top of the 75-feet high roof. As Canseco trotted around the third base bag, he passed by the White Sox dugout, where he saw their manager, Tony La Russa, watching him.

"That thing was a blast," former A's infielder Mike Gallego told The Oakland Tribune after the game. "That guy [Canseco] has so much power he doesn't know what to do with it."

Dave Collins was the A's left-fielder in 1985. The well-traveled switch-hitter had played with 10 different teams during his 15-year career. Collins' stint with the A's only lasted a year, but he remembers sitting in the dugout and watching the 21-year-old prodigy electrify the stands and dazzle his peers. The veteran was amazed that such a large specimen could run so fast, and then stroll into the cage and hit one 500 feet.

"We were in awe of his incredible talent," Collins said. "Very seldom do other Major Leaguers stop and watch another player. He was one of a kind."

Canseco had the body of an Arnold Schwarzenegger with the looks of Elvis. He ran like Carl Lewis, had an arm like John Elway, and possessed the charm of Rock Hudson. It seemed that he had been designed, manufactured and packaged into a baseball player and dropped onto the field.

"He was this `Hulk Hogan'-looking kind of guy," remembers former A's third baseman Carney Lansford "He was like an oddity with the way he hit the ball as far as he could."

Canseco played in 29 games and belted five home runs during his brief call-up with the A's in September. He was eventually named the American League Player of the Week by virtue of a .491 batting average and four home runs. Canseco was also featured on the popular Saturday morning show, This Week in Baseball, hosted by the late Mel Allen. Baseball fans of all ages would wake up every Saturday morning, turn on their television sets, and watch the nationally syndicated show, which combined a variety of bloopers and highlights from the world of baseball.

For Canseco, 1985 was a season for the ages. He hit 41 homers and drove in 140 runs in 147 games in three levels of play at Huntsville, Tacoma, and Oakland. That's 140 RBIs in 147 games.

The A's finished the season 14 games behind the Kansas City Royals, which eventually captured the World Championship, led by Bret Saberhagen. The A's disappointing season had ended, but the José Canseco era had just begun.

Rookie of the Year

Canseco's boisterous arrival in Oakland marked a new era for the Athletics' franchise. His good looks, flair, and seemingly supernatural power were a marketing department's dream. To the A's, Canseco's presence created unlimited possibilities. He might not only guide the struggling franchise back to the World Series, he might also lead fans back to the seats by the thousands.

Canseco's splashy entrance into the big leagues in 1985 created, as expected, quite a stir when the slugger began spring training the following year. Many A's fans felt teased as they watched this man-child show up for a mere month, hit freakish home runs, then board his spaceship and disappear in Miami for another six months. The intrigued fans could hardly wait to see what he would do with his explosive bat during an entire season. Before the season began, many baseball publications had already predicted that Canseco would be named the American League Rookie of the Year, despite other standout rookies like Pete Incaviglia, Cory Snyder, Oddibe McDowell, and Wally Joyner. As former A's Manager Tony La Russa told the San Francisco Chronicle: "Canseco didn't exactly sneak into the league." The cover of the 1986 Oakland Athletics' media guide depicted a colorful replica of a movie poster, with a picture of an unidentified batter. Clearly recognizable in the poster were A's players Dwayne Murphy, Dave Kingman, and Joaquin Andujar. The caption beneath the picture said: "Featuring José Canseco as 'The Natural.'"

"I was built up to be some kind of monster robot," Canseco said. "All you had to do was oil my joints, and I'd hit .390 and lead the League in every category."

But Canseco took all the praise and worship in stride and felt gratitude that so many people considered him such a promising prospect. After all, he had strenuously labored to get there.

Former A's left-handed pitcher Tim Birtsas, was José's close friend and roommate. Birtsas became acquainted with the Canseco family when he met José's twin brother, Ozzie, while both were pitchers in the Yankees' organization. The two pitchers became friends, and eventually Ozzie asked Tim to be in his wedding party. Initially, Birtsas had been one of the Yankees' top pitching prospects, but he ended up in Oakland when he was one of five players traded to the A's in exchange for superstar Rickey Henderson in 1984. Birtsas marveled at Canseco's potent bat speed and was convinced he was a player the franchise could be built around. Birtsas recalled, "José was very confident in his ability and dedicated to the sport at the time. The A's organization didn't put anything on him that he didn't already expect from himself."

Veteran Carney Lansford was one of the many intrigued A's players interested in watching the rookie star swing his magical bat during the season, but Lansford also realized the enormous expectations placed on the 21-year-old.

"[Canseco] definitely has the best potential of anyone I have ever seen, especially at his age," Lansford told The Oakland Tribune in 1986. "The only concern at all about him is the pressure people are putting on him either consciously or subconsciously. You've got to remember he is only 21 years old. It's not like he's 26 or 27, coming out of college. He's a young kid. I think it's best just to let him do his thing."

1986. An aura of promise surrounded the Oakland Athletics as they entered spring training in Phoenix, Arizona. With the acquisition of controversial and volatile pitcher Joaquin Andujar in the winter, and the emergence of a 20-year-old fireballer named José Rijo among other standouts, some people felt the A's would be strong contenders. Andujar was a 20-game winner during the previous two seasons when he pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, and he took the raw-talented Rijo, a fellow Dominican, under his wing. The choleric Andujar was just coming off an outburst in the seventh game of the 1985 World Series that had earned him a five-game suspension by the Commissioner's office at the beginning of the 1986 season.

Canseco's flashy, muscle-popping arrival at spring training raised some quiet suspicions. During the winter in Miami, Canseco had continued his hefty weight-lifting workouts and arrived at the Phoenix Municipal complex displaying even more freaky muscle than the previous season. His shoulders had broadened, with cable-like veins bursting through the dark skin of his chiseled biceps and wiggling down to the dark brown birthmark on the back of his right hand. Canseco's body had bulked up from 170 pounds when he was drafted in 1982, to 230 pounds when he began his rookie season in 1986. During his time in the A's minor league system, Canseco had discovered what weight lifting could do. For him, training with weights provided a psychological edge as well as a physical one.

"I knew I had the talent, but I didn't know how to bring it out," the 21-year-old said. "It's basically a natural talent brought out by lifting weights. A lot of confidence has come from it."

Although baseball players like Brian Downing and Lance Parrish were among the first to discover that rigorous weight-lifting in the gym could translate into phenomenal success on the diamond, some coaches felt that acquiring too much muscle might damage a batter's swing and make him lose flexibility. Even so, players started tinkering with weight-training in the mid 1980's. Canseco was one of the pioneers of this movement.

But amazement over Canseco's superhuman metamorphosis was tainted by suspicion. Some of his teammates, who had grown up with him in the A's farm system, witnessed firsthand the extreme change in his body. They saw him gain all that muscle within an implausibly brief time span.

Steve Ontiveros pitched in the A's organization for eight years. The crafty right-hander led the American League in earned run average in 1994 and was an All-Star in 1995. In 1982, Ontiveros had anchored the University of Michigan's dominant pitching staff, prompting the A's to draft him in the second round during the same year that the A's selected Canseco. Both blossomed in the Minor Leagues, where they played in the same instructional leagues together. Ontiveros witnessed first-hand Canseco's transformation. Because of the way his body had drastically changed, Ontiveros remembers the whispers surrounding the connection between his "Mr. Universe" build and anabolic steroids. According to Ontiveros, Canseco never even bothered to keep his steroid use secret.

"José was never discreet about it," Ontiveros said. "There's no question. When a guy is 180 pounds and comes to spring training weighing 240...Come on...We weren't stupid."

Back on the field, meanwhile, Canseco picked up right where he had left off. The A's practiced at their spring training complex in Phoenix, where a street ran behind the left-field fence. When Canseco took his turbocharged swings in the cage, the street suddenly turned into a combat zone. There were tire-screeching sounds from a startled driver stomping on his breaks, hoping to avoid a line drive from denting his vehicle. Chaos enveloped the street. Other drivers weren't so lucky, as the booming sounds of a ball crashing onto the hood of a car made the street a "No Drive Zone"--at least when Canseco was in the cage. As former A's Manager Jackie Moore recalled, "It was almost a dangerous situation. Hell! No one could ever hit balls that far! That kind of power was never with us before."

Former A's team captain Dwayne Murphy said with a chuckle. "Canseco used to hit bombs, mammoth blasts. It was really an incredible sight to see."

Hall Of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley was a struggling starting pitcher with the Chicago Cubs in 1986 and had faced Canseco several times during spring training games. Eckersley remembered a sinking feeling while watching the slugger's imposing figure stroll toward the batter's box.

"It was intimidating! He had this great big strike zone, so I just went right after him. He was wearing me out and even took me deep a few times. He was just so far ahead of everybody that particular spring training. I knew this guy was gonna be the thing."

As the 1986 baseball season drew near, the A's, filled with optimism, broke camp and headed to Oakland for opening night.

"Coming into the 1986 season, it was very promising," Steve Ontiveros recalled. "We had a great nucleus of players."

With a lineup already boasting power hitters Dave Kingman, Mike Davis, and Dwayne Murphy, Canseco hoped to cause even more headaches for American League pitchers. Many fans wondered if the A's veteran slugger Dave Kingman would take the young Canseco under his wing. Kingman's moody and distant behavior in dealing with reporters made him something less than a media darling. Reaching the end of his 15-year career, Kingman spotted something in the rookie that reminded him of himself when he first arrived in the big leagues: Canseco was young, talented and receiving a lot of press coverage. Kingman hoped to help Canseco through the daunting process of his rookie year.

"Kingman had been through it," Jackie Moore said. "He was a guy that received a lot of publicity when he was coming up, and by being through it, he explained it to Canseco and tried to be as much of an influence as he could."

The A's opened the season against the Minnesota Twins at the Oakland Coliseum. The Twins were led by All-Star sluggers Kirby Puckett, Tom Brunansky, and Gary Gaetti and beat the A's the first two games of the series. During the third game, Canseco belted the first home run of his
rookie season.

"I'm looking forward to a good year," Canseco predicted. "I'm not going to say I'm going to hit so-and-so many home runs. With my talent and strength, I think they'll come naturally."

On May 2, Canseco's volcanic power raised more eyebrows when the A's were playing a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. In the fourth inning, while facing Red Sox right-hander Al Nipper, Canseco dug his cleats into the batter's box. Flashing his trademark open stance and holding his bat the way a lumberjack squeezes his axe right before he strikes the tree, Canseco exploded. Crack!

Canseco launched a deep blast toward right field. Right-fielder Dwight Evans gingerly trotted back like an NFL defensive back watching a wide receiver sprint for a touchdown in the in-zone. The ball soared over the bullpen and landed in the stands 420 feet from home plate. For Al Nipper, where the ball landed was not so surprising, but for a right-handed-hitter to hit one there was practically miraculous.

"I knew he was strong. I knew he could hit the ball hard the other way, but a right-handed hitter? You've got to be kidding me. The guy can't be human! I'd like to know what he eats in the morning," an amazed Nipper said in the Red Sox clubhouse after the game.