Jose Canseco is not boring; never was, never has been, never will be. With so much fuss being made of "playing the game the right way" and "respecting the unwritten rules" of baseball, it's easy to forget why we love watching sports: it's the only truly unpredictable form of entertainment. Mr. Canseco embodies that particular brand of entertainment, both on and off the field.
During his pro career, he was famous for mammoth shots well into the upper decks of major league ballparks, authoring Major League Baseball's first 40/40 season, and also authoring "Juiced," the book in which he outed himself as the so-called "godfather" of baseball's now infamous Steroid Era.
He's received equal attention for his off-the-field exploits, which range from run-ins with the law, insisting Madonna wanted "his genes" in the form of a love child, shooting off his own finger with a semi-automatic shotgun, firing rounds at sharks while deep sea fishing (with a different semi-automatic weapon), hosting pool parties debated in the halls of congress, auctioning off a fire-breathing, horned Bud Selig portrait on twitter, and painting his pet turtle -- aptly named "Juiced" -- to resemble Iron Man. The list could go on and on... and on.
Since leaving Major League Baseball, Canseco has made a second career out of playing for non-affiliated minor league baseball teams -- or, more colloquially, independent league teams. This past weekend -- as AN readers will know -- Canseco played for the Sonoma Stompers and has signed a three-day contract to play for the Pittsburg Diamonds next week (June 23-25). (Vivek wrote a nice piece about the Diamonds and Canseco, which you can read here.) The fans will be treated to the customary Jose Canseco experience: a handful of at-bats, batting practice, and, on Thursday, a home run derby.
I went to last Friday's game in Sonoma and had a chance to catch up with Canseco to find out what he's been up to, and how, despite being long in the tooth (in baseball years) and down a finger (it's still there, but he'll never have full use of it), he manages to compete with players half his age, as he puts it.
(A fan arrives early to get a prime spot in the left field bleachers)
Jose Canseco is still massive. Even at 50 -- he'll tell you he's 51 -- some 250 pounds hang from his 6-foot-4-inch frame. Veins twist around his forearms like vines on a stone column, his biceps the size of watermelons, and his teeth are so white they look like they must glow in the dark. He's just finished a round of batting practice on this hot Friday afternoon, and he sits on the dugout bench to answer a few questions. He's in great shape, but, catching his breath, mentions "I haven't taken that kind of BP in awhile."
Up first: Jose, why are you here?
People have drinking addictions, smoking addictions, drug addictions. My addiction is baseball. It's real simple. I enjoy being here, and, for me, it's an excuse to get in shape, to stay in shape and compete with guys half my age... I mean, I wouldn't care if I strike out four times, or if I hit a home run. It's going to be the same for me -- it's gonna be a great time.
Canseco didn't strike out four times Friday. In fact, he didn't even strike out once. Before the game he joked about his eye sight and how he needed to 'get out in front' on fastballs. But, the truth is, his bat speed is still elite. I shot the footage below at 400 frames per second (FPS) and, despite his age, his swing was still quicker than many of the others I shot at a much slower 120 FPS.
This swing yielded a deep fly out to centerfield. The Stompers' home, Arnold Field, is some 425 ft. to dead center, and this ball fell just 15 feet shy of the ivy-covered wall -- the wind was blowing in, too. Despite the Oh-fer, a palpable excitement filled the grandstand every time he stepped into the box. Asked how fans normally react to him these days, he said:
You know, it's funny, cause it just depends. If I hit a home run my first at bat, the crowd goes crazy. So I think the fans see me physically and think, "wow, he's 51, but 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, they want to see an aggressive swing. Sure, the fans would love to see me crush one over those lights, and kinda relive the old Oakland A's days. I would love to do that for them.
The next evening at Arnold Field, he treated fans to the throwback he aspired to. In his third at-bat, he scorched a first-pitch fastball up in the zone from former Padres farmhand Max Beatty -- a pitch clocked at 90 mph, no less -- an estimated 410 feet over the bleachers in left center field.
He's right. No one wants to see an aging slugger, even one as great as Canseco, embarrass himself against competition he's clearly incapable of playing against. Upon review, however, it appears he still has more talent in his quinquagenarian body than most of us could ever dream of. Sure, he doesn't run well, the reason he's DH-ing in most of these events, but something special happens when he wraps his hands around that bat. It's as if the rasped piece of wood breathes new life into his aging body. The blurred image of a middle-aged man in a baseball uniform suddenly sharpens into the likeness of a former MVP. It's magical.
What's more, is... he's having fun. For someone with a choleric reputation (and an impressive rap sheet), he doesn't mind a laugh at his own expense. In fact, he welcomed the Stompers' four-fingered foam-hand promotion, a nod to the mishap that led to him shooting off his own finger last year, cleaning a shotgun. He wants to set his brash image aside and contends that his exploits have been overblown by the media for some 30 years, that the real Jose Canseco is a... nerd?
People who really know me, that spend day to day with me, know who I really am, and I'm really... a... a nerd. I mean, I may not look it, but people who know me, know I'm extremely quiet and conservative. Um, I'm a very pensive individual and sure, I make mistakes like anyone else -- I mean I shot my damn finger off -- but I'm not what the media has portrayed me to be for the last 30 years. Not even remotely close. Anyone who really knows me will tell you that.
He's equal parts self deprecating and confident, a coexistence hilariously found in this audio clip.
When you talk to Canseco about hitting, it's immediately clear you've broached a comfortable subject. He speaks much about the "Art of Power Hitting." And, if power hitting is an art form, Canseco is one of its masters, a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio. Despite what one may think, he doesn't preach the word of fence-swinging, but rather, compression:
People think I try to hit home runs, but I don't. I try to compress the baseball as hard as I possibly can, and when you do that: it goes. I try to hit the ball extremely hard. I don't try to hit balls out of the ballpark.
He says he's patenting an "invention" of his right now, a device he calls the PX4040 (or the "Power Extended 40/40"). It's the size of an elbow guard, and he claims that it adds "11 mph" of bat speed to a swing with its use. It's hard to know what to take at face value with Canseco, a man endearingly prone to hyperbole (in Juiced, for instance, he claimed to have run a 3.9 40-yard dash, which would be the fastest time on record).
After his "playing days" are over, he hopes to enter the coaching ranks. There's still a long row to hoe before he regains the trust of Major League Baseball, but it's hard not to believe Canseco is a relatively untapped resource for hitting instruction. Asked if he'd be interested in rejoining the MLB as a coach, he said:
I would love to. I think it's definitely been closed off. I think eventually I might be able to, if someone gives me a chance to be a, you know, a third base coach or hitting instructor at the major league level. I can definitely help out the power hitters to approach the ball with the proper angle and technique and compress it more and get some backspin behind it, to make the ball go further. I definitely know how to do that. Even at my age of 51.
The conflation of the past, present and future is blurry with Canseco. On one hand, he travels around the country doing events, largely on the back of a celebrity gained, at least in part, from stoking controversy and losing friends -- though he's quite proud of blowing the lid off baseball's steroid epidemic, even taking some credit for "cleaning up" the game. On the other hand, Canseco wants to be accepted back into major league parks. Last year's 1989 World Series reunion was a big event for Canseco, and in the broadcast booth, he found himself choked up describing the love and appreciation he felt from A's fans and the organization.
I was kind of in shock that they contacted me and asked me to do it. I saw a lot of my former teammates, and they accepted me quite well. We relived the 1989 world series, and the fact that we won. I didn't know what kind of reply I would get from the fans, but I got a positive reply from them, and it was great.
If Jose Canseco comes through your town this summer -- and he probably will -- pay a visit to your local ballpark. He's still worth the price of admission.