Tuesday, February 15, 2005

It Was Probably the Steroids Talking, While the Human Growth Hormone Nodded in Assent

Jose Canseco pumped up his talent with steroids -- and he did have a talent to pump up. Then he pissed it away with riotous living -- and he did have a pumped-up talent to piss away.

One does not have to be a baseball fan to be aware Canseco has just produced a book -- we assume he was somewhere in the vicinity during some fraction of its creation -- in which he celebrates his use of steroids and invites a number of former teammates to the celebration by outing them as juicers.

I have nothing in particular to say about steroids in baseball. But I do have a little bit of history with Canseco, so why not add my footnote? I wrote about him several times back during my days at the Chronicle and now it can be told....

Actually, it was told then. But I'm sure everyone has forgot, so I will tell it again.

Wrote about Canseco three times. Only interviewed him once with a kind of clubhouse collision at the end. Back in 1988 when the A's were entering their last period of true baseball glory, I was assigned a soft feature on the A's taste in music. Movies. Michael J. Fox man crushes. Whatever.

I showed up at the park the day that Tom Boswell of the Washington Post announced that Canseco was a notorious user of steroids. Oh, the boys were buzzing. Canseco and I had a pleasant conversation about god knows what trivia. I mentioned the steroid accusation. He laughed it off. I thought it was the indifference that can come only from an abiding sense of innocence, but apparently it was the indifference that comes from deep contempt for you, me, all you punkahsuckahs out there.

A year later Canseco was arrested for speeding and carrying a gun. Maybe some other stuff. For reasons still not clear to me, my superiors pulled me out of features and told me to do a What's Up with Jose? story. I followed him to court and talked to his dad and his high-school coach and so on and so on. I think I called Roger Angell to get some judgment if not apt at least elegant. It all came out a bit of a cliche: He hasn't grown up yet but probably he will unless he doesn't or possibly won't but then again.

I have no doubt that somewhere near the end of that story is a sentence or two that turned out to be prophetic given his later failures, but if so I claim no credit. Write enough long enough and you will accidentally say something.

I didn't actually interview Canseco for that story. I lurked a bit and got turned down in the clubhouse, and one morning I sat in the stands while he took some special batting practice in an otherwise empty ballpark, one of the A's pr people having promised to intercede, but he blew me off again. My editors didn't care. He was on the record all over the place. He was a great player that year, never quite that good again and pretty soon not even close to that.

None of this is in the least bit interesting now, even to me. But then in July 1990 the A's called up Jose's twin brother Ozzie. Though they were identical, in their teen years and early 20s Ozzie concentrated on pitching while Jose concentrated on playing the outfield.

And hitting. And hitting. And hitting.

Ozzie was not a very good pitcher and finally gave that up and decided to follow in his brother's footsteps, one by belated one. He was built like Jose and looked like Jose but certainly didn't hit like Jose, which suggests it wasn't all steroids that made Jose Canseco, for a brief few years, quite marvelous.

So Ozzie bounced around the minors, never doing much. The A's signed him, probably as a nod to Jose, and in midsummer 1990 they called him up to the big club. It wasn't to help them win games. He had spent too much time specializing in one aspect of baseball to turn to another aspect and excel, even though there his doppelganger was, mashing the ball.

So why bring him up? To sell tickets? To nudge Jose toward becoming a role model -- in fact, to make him a role model (mind the baby while I'm out) whether he wanted to be or not?

I was given the job of interviewing Ozzie. I was superb, I must say, at bringing some magic to stories about people on the fringes, people whose lives were just a little sad if held up the light and turned at just the right angle. And then you turned them again just a very little and the sadness was gone. I was beautiful, man.

I made my calls. Dad Canseco wasn't available, but some people in Huntsville, Alabama, where Ozzie had been playing for Oakland's Double-A team were. Thus prepared, I went into the clubhouse for a little in situ interaction. Ozzie was just too much very busy.

Tomorrow at one, he said.

Game tomorrow starts at 12:30 I said.

Oh, he said.

Look, who cared. My wife and I had promised to go to a pool party in Sacramento at the home of young Tony Bizjak, who was a fine young feature writer who had left the Chronicle to go where he and his wife could afford a house. My wife and I were about twice their age and we didn't have a house. I wanted to check this out. If the Ozzie story went away, who cared.

I did make an appointment to call him at the airport Hyatt at six Saturday after the game. I would have bet you green money he would not be there when I called.

It was hot in Sacramento. I fortified myself against the heat. With a buzz as sweet as angels humming, at six I stepped into the pool house -- this is true; a pool house -- and dialed. And there he was.

Terrific interview. I got some quotes, plenty of color, some moxie, some humility. All that was left to do was drop by the A's clubhouse before the Sunday game next day, ask Jose how he felt about his "kid" brother -- for Ozzie was younger by a minute or two -- and go to the office and write for Monday.

Went to the Coliseum. Ozzie's locker had been moved from way down at the end to right next to Jose's. Ozzie is sitting there. Jose and a couple other guys are sitting there going through a big box of baseballs signing them. I say hello to Ozzie. Jose doesn't look up.

He's gonna fuck you, Jose says to Ozzie.

I don't say anything.

He's gonna fuck you, Jose says to Ozzie and to the clubhouse.

An idiot smile blossoms on my face.

He's gonna fuck you, Jose says to Ozzie, the clubhouse and the world in general.

It's early. There aren't that many baseball players in the room, but those present have shut up and gathered round.

You know, I talk sometimes about how I was a pro, an old pro. I like to say that at the end of my time at the paper I was pretty damn good, and maybe I was and maybe I wasn't. But I tell you this:

I had my moments.

So in that locker room with the attention of all fastened upon me I turned to Ozzie and said in a loud clear voice:

"Do you think Elvis is still alive?"

And Jose and his cohorts jumped to their feet and fled to the other end of the room because I was clearly one crazy Mary Frances.

I talked to Ozzie some more, tying up loose ends. At the other end of the locker room Jose walked back and forth stroking in a masturbatory manner a long blue cylinder propped against his groin saying again and again he will fuck you he will fuck you.

Maybe it wasn't a long blue plastic cylinder. Maybe it was his steroidally inflamed penis.

Anyway, I went back to the newsroom and wrote my piece beginning it more or less like this:

"Like a mother lion protecting her cubs, like a Medal of Honor winner throwing himself on a hand grenade, A's slugger Jose Canseco did his best yesterday to protect his baby brother from the festering overtures of the malignant press..."

That's close enough. The story is from back in the day and is not available online, though autographed reproductions suitable for framing are available.

I put it all in, all the f**ks. I didn't think the editors would let it through, but it was Sunday and I guess everyone was at the beach (the cold Northern California beach walking bent into the wind not swimming) because it ran as I wrote it.

I did bring the piece around to Ozzie pretty quickly. I had asked him earlier what the sweetest possible moment he could imagine in the big leagues would be. He said it would be Ozzie and Jose Canseco hitting back to back home runs.

And then I asked him would he want to hit the first of the two home runs or the second, for it would be the second that would ignite the crowd and make its way onto Sports Center highlights and into baseball's long and heavy book of memories.

He said it did not matter. Either one.

I liked him. I liked Ozzie. He was Jose Lite, I guess. (And I don't mean he wasn't juicing. Think metaphorically.) He stayed up for nine games that year before the A's sent him down. He batted 19 times and got 2 hits.

I'll have to read Jose's book and see what it says about Ozzie.

1 comment:

B. Wieder said...

Getting blown off by the players the few times you were actually required by some assignment to talk to them about something was one of the most annoying elements of writing about baseball, other than having to sit through some largely unwatchable games. Invoking Playboy often overcame player indifference and/or snottiness, but I felt inexplicably ethics-bound not to play the card unless it was actually part of the hand. Speaking of which, pitchers who ordinarily would stiff you until they began drawing down their pensions, if you approach them with a broken finger and a full cast on your arm, suddenly are swept by such waves of horrified empathy that they are constitutionally unable to turn you down. They don't even mention the cast, but you can see the raw dread in their eyes. Pitchers, I mean; I can't say it works that effectively with position players.