Canseco: unique blend of power and ego for the '90s

October 07, 1990|By Tim Layden | Tim Layden,Newsday

BOSTON -- It is 6:14 on a pure New England evening -- too late for summer's heat, too soon for autumn's chill -- when Jose Canseco clomps up the steps of the third-base dugout at Fenway Park, the last of 38 Oakland Athletics players and coaches to reach the playing field. He is hit with a bomb of juvenile caterwauling, such as might precede New Kids on the Block launching into a concert or, to hear it another way, Ravashing Rick Rude climbing through the ropes. His teammates glance furtively, and return to their work.

Canseco stops first and shakes hands with Dave Boutin, a wheelchair-bound 21-year-old. "Hi, Dave, Jose Canseco," he says before signing a small crate of items for Boutin, including three caps, an authentic jersey, dozens of baseball cards and a poster. Meanwhile, at the rail between the dugout and home plate, the throng is 10-deep, pressed against the wall, waving paraphernalia at Canseco. He turns toward them to oblige. "This," a security guard said, "presents a unique problem."

All the while they wave pens and markers and Canseco makes his way from one end to the other. The big kids -- the bald ones -- try to stick a hand through beneath a child's arm, as if to mix embarrassment with worship. It all ends in time for Canseco to hit, which, lord knows, he needs to do at this point, with his one home run in 24 games and his batting average having free fallen from .320 to the mid-.280s in less than two months.

Dave Stewart, the reliable pitcher whose four consecutive 20-win seasons and unfailing professionalism form much of the substance of the world champion A's, has seen this movie, too. He has seen Canseco hit home runs of indescribable dimensions, seen him work crowds in every American League city, seen him spout bombast to a writer, only to sulk at seeing it in print the next day.

"He's the one player who's always got something, from day to day, that causes him not to be into the game," Stewart said. "When he's into the game, it's great to have him on your ballclub. But so many things interfere with him performing at his best. He never goes into a game undistracted."

Carney Lansford, the A's veteran third baseman, said: "Jose has to go out and do his job, baseball-wise, be a little less obliging. You're getting paid to play baseball, you're not getting paid to sign autographs or do interviews. When you play 162 games a year, the thing you have to do most is stay mentally and physically fresh. You can get burned out very easily."

Ah, if only they understood. Jose Canseco is different from them. Not different only in the Gatsby sense -- richer, by millions, even than his wealthy teammates -- but different in the sense that he plays a different game and lives in a world that is different from everybody else's in his sport. Perhaps Michael Jordan would understand. Or Magic Johnson. Sure, Michael and Magic. They would understand. Joe Montana, too. They would know what it will be like this week when the postseason begins and the spotlight shines brightest.

It is not just the $23.5 million contract that pays him $5.5 million this season alone and makes him richer than any player in the game (and richer, too, than several midwestern states). It is not just the numbers -- past, present and future -- such as 40-40, 50-50 and whatever-whatever. It is not just the hair, the eyes, the chest, the arms. It is not just 1-900-ASK-JOSE or a secluded house in the hills or the beautiful wife or the past problems with fast cars and loaded guns. It is all of these.

'What will people remember me for?" Canseco said, repeating a question. "The most memorable thing is that I was a trend-setter. I was someone who set the standards for the future. I was someone who wasn't afraid to voice his opinion, who lived through all the criticism. I was exciting to watch. Someone who, if he had to be replaced, would be very difficult to replace.

"To me," he said, "this whole game is going Hollywood. Fans want to have a good time; they won't want to go to the ballpark if none of the players are known. So what if a guy hits a home run? We don't know him. They want to see Canseco. He keeps them entertained. Whether they want to boo him or cheer him, they get into the game."

Tough work, you understand, to take the game of baseball and carry it into the 21st century all by yourself.

Talent started all of this. Canseco is 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, meaty and sculpted at the same time. "Best bat speed I've ever seen," said A's hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, repeating an assessment he has offered many times. Willie Randolph, the venerable former New York Yankee and current Athletic, said: "He misses balls and has them go out. Reggie could do that, but Reggie was just force, as strong as an ox. He didn't have nearly the bat speed that Jose does."

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