Baseball is the only sport I’ve ever followed, and that was only as a kid. My brother and I were swept up in the high drama of the 1996 World Series, rooting for the New York Yankees as they defeated the Atlanta Braves to win their first championship since the 1970s. My parents were in Manhattan the night they clinched it, and swore they could feel the din of fans rejoicing as it shook the island. But a couple years later, I switched my allegiance to the New York Mets, preferring these lovable losers to what I had come to regard as an unappealing evil empire.
In 2000, the crosstown rivals would meet for a World Series matchup destined to break my heart. It was during the Mets’ pivotal Game 4 loss that I first saw Jose Canseco — near the end of a storied career in the majors — at the plate. Though he’d only joined the team, unexpectedly, in mid-season, and hadn’t appeared in the playoffs until then, he went out as a pinch hitter deployed by Yankees manager Joe Torre. If I didn’t quite know Canseco’s reputation, the color commentators would have made it clear what a big deal this was, and besides, you could tell he had power just from looking at him. You knew he was there to crush a towering home run.
Instead, to my relief, he struck out. Not such a hotshot after all, huh? Yet in a twist that has amused baseball trivia enthusiasts ever since, Canseco wound up with a ring, essentially for being active on the roster of the team that eventually won the series. Right place, right time.
Just like when your bat finds the ball.
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My dim recollections of Jose Canseco as a ballplayer are now overshadowed by what he says online. Among Twitter obsessives, he’s known as an unpredictable, frequently hilarious, shoot-from-the-hip commentator, someone who is just as likely to proposition Jennifer Lopez as he is to feud with Barstool Sports. He can reminisce about his good old days in the MLB and then, a moment later, raise the possibility of dating an alien — “female alien, of course.” The posts are riddled with typos and misspellings, as though his magnificent brain is working too fast for his fingers to keep up. He says that Tupac and Jeffrey Epstein are still alive, has cited the philosopher “Cornell West,” wants an army of robots to cleanse the world of corruption and thinks the next billion-dollar industry will be “controlling your dreams.” He also believes that the most famous video of an alleged Bigfoot sighting, the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, is footage of wrestler Andre the Giant in a gorilla costume. In short, he’s a must-follow personality.
An early Twitter adopter, Canseco has been using the app since 2009, when he began to promote a website, JoseCanseco.com, as well as an upcoming MMA fight with 7-foot-2 Korean kickboxer Hong-man Choi (he lasted 77 seconds). He also regularly warned against the use of steroids in baseball — the subject of his 2005 bestselling tell-all autobiography, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big. But the tweets of this era ran counter to his athletic philosophy as outlined in the book.
Juiced turned Canseco into the “godfather” of the MLB’s steroid scandal, with the slugger arguing that such performance-enhancing drugs aren’t as harmful as we’re told, can have significant health benefits and may actually improve the game. That would have been controversial enough, yet he went further, naming famous players he claimed to have ushered into a steroid habit, among them Mark McGwire, his “Bash Brother” on the Oakland A’s, who would go on to hit a record 70 home runs in the 1998 season with the St. Louis Cardinals. A 2008 sequel, Vindicated, rehashed how accusations from Juiced were borne out in investigations that followed, and speculated that Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez were steroid users as well.
In 2002, at the time of his retirement (but before he admitted to steroid use), Canseco speculated that 85 percent of players were juicing. “There would be no baseball left if they drug-tested everyone today,” he said in an interview. Over time, however, he came to regret exposing other players, which helped set the stage for congressional hearings and the Mitchell Report, an exhaustive investigation into the culture of illegal steroids in the league. “I never realized this was going to blow up and hurt so many people,” Canseco said in a documentary, explaining that Juiced came out of a desire for “revenge” against the MLB for supposedly forcing him out while protecting other users.
It’s this apparent hypocrisy on the issue that rankles him to this day. He’s outraged that players he identified as part of a performance-enhancing drug ring, including McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, have struggled to gain the votes necessary to enter the Hall of Fame, while some suspected of taking steroids or human growth hormone have sailed right in.
The Hall of Fame selection isn’t quite as complex as electing a pope, but it’s not far off, and there’s a similar murkiness as to how voters’ attitudes shift. Despite his role in tarnishing a handful of pros who have been kept out ever since, Canseco is right that the institution has sent a mixed message on PEDs. McGwire, who admitted to using steroids, received correspondingly little support in his Hall of Fame bid, up to the final year he was eligible. Clemens, in contrast, never made such a confession, never tested positive for PEDs and was acquitted of obstruction and all the other charges related to his denials on the matter — but because a strength and conditioning coach claimed to have injected him, and said he overheard Clemens discussing steroids with Canseco when they were teammates on the Toronto Blue Jays, he too has failed to be anointed in Cooperstown, thanks to a large voting bloc that merely presumes his guilt. His window of eligibility closes after the 2022 ballot.
Canseco, of course, has nothing to lose: He was dropped from any further Hall of Fame consideration after failing to meet a 5-percent vote threshold in 2007. Therefore, he’s free to wage a one-man crusade against the baseball establishment on behalf of guys like Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. “It’s not about me,” he tweeted during one tirade. Occasionally, he has stated that steroids don’t make you a better athlete. “I am going to prove that steroids are overrated and that the players who used them should be in the hall of fame,” reads a tweet from 2012. Another from the same period: “Steroids don’t give you hand eye coordination and that’s a major part of hitting.” He has even rhetorically asked why his identical twin brother Ozzie barely played in the MLB despite their shared genetics and matching steroid regimens.
Part of this, no doubt, is self-serving: Canseco wants to be remembered as a talent greater than the scandal that consumed his life. But there’s also a whiff of remorse: He clearly feels for the dudes brought low by his exposé — which, in theory, meant to describe a systemic reality affecting the whole league. Instead of confronting this landscape, Canseco implies again and again, the MLB picked a handful of bad apples to take the fall. And he has a point.
Of course, his status as the baddest apple saps his credibility, and his history of legal trouble is another reason Canseco is casually written off: charges of battery against two different wives, violations of probation, failure to appear for a child custody hearing and possession of a firearm without a permit. In 2014, he accidentally shot himself in the hand while cleaning a gun. In addition to these ugly and embarrassing stains, Canseco is often held up as an example of a superstar squandering their millions — between his spending, divorce settlements and IRS woes, he was forced to file for bankruptcy almost a decade ago. None of this does him any favors when it comes to serious discourse around sportsmanship, though if anything undermines his case for steroid forgiveness, it’s his chaotic, ranting style of debate.
To say nothing of the other tweets.
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Canseco is a born poster, as we say in extremely online culture. But he’s not a nasty, extremist crank, like former MLB players Curt Schilling or Aubrey Huff, who have faced consequences for sharing hateful content and misinformation online. Instead, his swagger recalls the height of his celebrity: the guy who can step up and knock it out of the park without breaking a sweat. That is, he’s an entertainer. He connects. He has no illusions about what he is, and he’ll tell you, probably while misconstruing how tombstones work. (Hint: They tend to have a name on them.)
In a virtual realm where everyone postures one way or another — and in a sport that tried to deny its vast corruption — Canseco is neither a phony nor running from his mistakes. If you go to his Las Vegas car wash on a Wednesday afternoon, he’ll be there to sign an autograph for you, free with any $5 purchase. Pay him $100, he’ll do a Cameo video for your personal use, and if it’s for your business, the price increases to $700. Simple as that. His Instagram account, where he’s alternately depicted as the baseball hero of legend or a fiftysomething bruiser eternally wearing a backwards ballcap and a large cross around his neck, reveals him to be a golf dad who loves his model daughter, Josie. Who, yes, really has the nickname “Poop.”
I understand why a lot of fans have decided Canseco is an obnoxious loudmouth who sullied the game. But, to be perfectly glib about it, that’s what makes him compelling on the internet. Do I care that he’s trying to milk his name for every last drop? Not when he’s so shameless in a hustle that does no harm. And far worse than cheating with steroids is the belligerence they must have amplified: the domestic violence, the bar brawl, the guns, the attempts to professionally box everyone from basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal to influencers Logan and Jake Paul. (Most of this happened over the decades when he was on PEDs, though he’s issued many of his fight challenges since declaring himself clean; from 2010 on, he has tweeted that he uses no illegal drugs.)
By far his most popular bit on Twitter — insulting and provoking Alex Rodriguez, particularly about his dating life and supposed infidelities — stems less from Rodriguez’s admitted use of PEDs, which ultimately earned him a 211-game suspension, than from the belief that Rodriguez has carried on an affair with his now ex-wife, Jessica Canseco. The steroid scandal, in fact, is an area where Canseco is happy to defend A-Rod. Unfortunately, showman that he is, his antagonistic tweets are much funnier for being so brazen and blunt. He prizes the value of a rivalry.
It’s not right or necessary to excuse Canseco’s testosterone-fueled aggression. Part of me suspects he’d dismiss any such rehabilitation, anyway. What I like about him these days is his willingness to sit with failure, to reflect on how a young kid — the 1986 Rookie of the Year, and MVP by 1988 — was overmatched by the spectacle he served. Lots of celebrities want to appear unfiltered on Twitter, but Canseco has no problem saying that he’s broke, that he’s a warlock, that he’s lonely, that aliens are watching to make sure we don’t launch nuclear weapons. I’m not sure we have anyone else to convey the pathos of a washed-up marquee athlete the way he can. As in conversations about the mental and physical toll of sports from gymnastics to football, the public should realize that elite competitors we thrust into the spotlight and discard after their prime are ordinary people, with all the same human weaknesses.
Maybe Canseco didn’t “clean up” baseball. But why should it fall to one ill-equipped, ’roided-out All-Star? His objection that the MLB is canonizing some likely dopers while shunning others, and scapegoating the handful of players who did come clean about PEDs, is justified whatever the baggage. And with his principles what they are, we shouldn’t be surprised to see him defend archnemesis Alex Rodriguez when the National Baseball Hall of Fame weighs controversy against the shortstop’s induction next summer. Canseco has, if nothing else, the knack for separating animosity from admiration.
“Alex Rodriguez 40 + homers 120 + rbi 333 bat.ave….steroids are overrated. He’s the man,” he tweeted on April 17, 2015, the spring day Rodriguez hit two home runs to lift the Yankees over the Tampa Bay Rays. Imagine offering that generosity to someone you hate, and then you may know the passion of Jose Canseco.