Making the Hall of Fame: One need only hit as well as Orlando Cabrera

I was just watching an ESPN video about the retirement of New York Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard, when I noticed something interesting.  Included in the feature was the lineup card from Sheppard’s first game, between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox in 1951.  Among the Sox was Lou Boudreau, who I never realized played for Boston.  I checked out Boudreau’s stats on and learned something else about the Hall of Fame shortstop: The batter most similar to him, according to his career numbers, is Orlando Cabrera.

To offer a Beatles metaphor, in the baseball world, Cabrera is kind of like Ringo Starr: He has surprising longevity despite questionable talent.  A veritable journeyman, on his sixth team at 35, Cabrera boasts a .275 career batting average and has never made an All Star game.  If he’s a Hall of Famer, then so are half the active players today.

Scanning the rest of the Top 10 list of similar batters to Boudreau, there are two Hall of Fame members, Travis Jackson and Phil Rizzuto. A lifetime .273 hitter, Rizzuto was little more than Orlando Cabrera in the same lineup as Joe DiMaggio.  Had he played for the Washington Senators, Rizzuto would be an afterthought today.  Other peer hitters to Boudreau include Mark Loretta, Mark Grudzielanek and Dick Groat, more guys who probably shouldn’t lose sleep writing induction speeches.

Granted, Boudreau arrived at Cooperstown with some impressive credentials when he made it on his ninth try on the writer’s ballot in 1970.  He was a seven-time All Star, Most Valuable Player in 1948 and led American League shortstops in fielding eight times (by comparison, Cabrera has won two Gold Gloves.)  As player-manager, Boudreau also helped the Cleveland Indians capture the ’48 World Series, and he devised a fielding shift to contain Ted Williams.  There are worse things in the world beside the fact that Boudreau has a plaque hanging in Cooperstown.

That being said, Boudreau appears to be one of the more overrated Hall of Famers, and I’m a little surprised the writers selected him, as opposed to the Veteran’s Committee. It’s also interesting to consider that Boudreau only has 99 more career hits than another celebrated fielder, Dom DiMaggio who can’t make it into Cooperstown, despite the fact that Boudreau got to play through World War II, while DiMaggio lost three prime seasons to military service.

Then again, maybe I’m just not giving Orlando Cabrera his due.

Halladay, would he be so nice?

Toronto Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay is poised to collect a substantial payday. Preliminary indications are that Toronto will not attempt to resign the 32-year-old free agent to-be, whose contract is up after 2010. While a big team like the Red Sox, Yankees or Mets (or maybe the Dodgers or Angels) will gladly overpay Halladay, other clubs would be wise to steer clear. Here are a few good reasons:

  1. Halladay has spent his career, thus far, in the pitcher-friendly Skydome. Signing pitchers of this sort can be risky. Exhibit A? Mike Hampton. Exhibit B? Darryl Kile. The list goes on, and not all are just guys who went to pitch for the Rockies.
  2. Although Halladay will be 33 in May, he’s still likely to command $15-20 million a season for at least five years. The successful result of signing Halladay is that he collects another Cy Young award or two, pitches his new team to the playoffs year in, year out, and strengthens his future bid for the Hall of Fame. That being said, there’s also a chance that Halladay winds up at 37 as a No. 4 starter, with an 8-12 record and 4.40 ERA on a club that’s south of .500 (this mainly could happen if he goes to the Mets.) No matter what, he’s going to be expensive.
  3. Not only will Halladay cost a lot of money, he will also cost several good players. Since Toronto still holds Halladay’s contract, the best way to get him now would be through a trade, and I can’t imagine what that will take. I was in Geneva a few years ago and saw a Ferrari dealership that required prospective buyers to already own two Ferraris and be contacted in order to purchase the new one. I have to think Toronto’s negotiating strategy for trading Halladay will be somewhat akin.
  4. The track record is uneven for older pitchers who change clubs after playing most of their career with one or two teams. For every Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens, who kicks ass and wins multiple Cy Young awards, there’s a Catfish Hunter or Jason Schmidt or Kevin Brown, who has a couple good seasons, if that, and then is done. While I’m not sure if this a trend or an isolated case-by-case thing, I would think it wiser to commit more money to scouting and drafting quality players than chasing after big ticket items like Halladay.

That being said, someone will be paying hand over fist for Halladay before the winter is out, probably even within the next few weeks, mark my words.

Ranking the 2010 Hall of Fame candidates

I read on today that the latest Hall of Fame ballot is out, with first-time candidates like Barry Larkin and Roberto Alomar joining holdovers like Andre Dawson and Mark McGwire. It’s always interesting to look at who has a good chance of making it to Cooperstown each year. I also enjoy reading the names of all the veterans who automatically make the list one time, despite having as much chance of getting in as MC Hammer does of winning a Nobel Peace Prize (not that I’m trying to take anything away from Ray Lankford’s campaign.)

The Associated Press story I read included the names of all the players from this year’s ballot.  I will now list them, according to how I think they will fare:

Surefire first ballot inductees (90% or more chance of being voted in this year)

(1) Barry Larkin

Larkin is the one sure thing this year.  In an era of steroids and bloated contracts, the Cincinnati Reds shortstop seemed like a throwback.  Expect more players of his pedigree to be quickly ushered into Cooperstown over the next 15-20 years, while the likes of Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and McGwire, among others, struggle to win support.

Maybe next year (70%)

(2) Roberto Alomar, Andre Dawson

The AP story said Dawson was 44 votes of the 75 percent needed last year.  Thanks to Jim Rice, he’ll make it in at some point soon.  As for Alomar, his bid is strong but hurt by three key things: 1) He quit playing at 36, less than 300 hits shy of 3,000; 2) He notoriously spit at an umpire while with the Baltimore Orioles; 3) An ex-girlfriend accused him of giving her AIDS, which was most likely a baseless accusation, but never a good thing unless we’re talking Magic Johnson or Arthur Ashe.

Future Veteran’s Committee inductees (50-70%)

(3) Edgar Martinez, Dave Parker, Alan Trammell

All three of these players are Hall of Fame members in my book, though I wouldn’t vote them in this year.  Funny how this works.

Possible Veteran’s Committee picks (30-50%)

(7) Harold Baines, Bert Blyleven, Fred McGriff, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Tim Raines, Lee Smith

Each of these players could probably have an impassioned campaign mounted by fans, though strictly based on statistical merit, none of them seem to have good enough career numbers.  Raines and Smith probably come closest to being Cooperstown-worthy.  And I would take Morris over Blyleven– the latter had more career wins, but with a playoff game on the line, I’d want Morris pitching for me.

Long shots (under 30%)

(5) Ellis Burks, Andres Galarraga, Mark McGwire, Don Mattingly, Robin Ventura

In the eyes of the public, McGwire did steroids.  Meanwhile, Burks and Galarraga had their best seasons with the free-swinging Colorado Rockies, Mattingly had his career cut short by injuries, and Ventura, while a good bat and great third baseman, is probably best remembered for being put in a headlock by a 46-year-old Nolan Ryan.

No chance in Hell (5% or less)

(8) Pat Hentgen, Mike Jackson, Ray Lankford, Eric Karros, Shane Reynolds, Todd Zeile, David Segui, Kevin Appier

If any of these men make it in, I’m dusting off my glove and mounting a comeback (I quit playing Little League when I was 11.)  Then, Disney can produce an inspiring film about how a 26-year-old writer makes the Tampa Bay Rays with a 37 MPH fastball.

Tug Hulett and 10 other great baseball names

The news concerning the trade of Tug Hulett the other day prompted two reactions for me:

1) Who the hell is Tug Hulett?

2) Why haven’t I ever heard of a player with such a cool name?

Tug Hulett sounds like the name of a boat in an old Disney cartoon, a small, happy little vessel earnestly moving through choppy seas. Even if he doesn’t amount to much as a player — and at this point, he has 13 career hits — he could have a long career ahead of him in children’s programming, if he so chooses.

But I digress.

Tug Hulett is just the latest great name in baseball, a sport that over the years has seen some colorful monikers (like Tug McGraw.) Today, I offer 10 of those best names:

1. Van Lingle Mungo: My all-time favorite baseball name belongs to the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants hurler of the 1930s and ’40s. Sports columnist Jim Murray wrote that Mungo’s name seemed like something that could be sung by a sailor in the rigging of a banana boat. It also sounds like a dance step from the ’40s or a physical ailment or a new wave band from the ’80s.

2. Oil Can Boyd: A close second, Boyd got his nickname, according to Wikipedia, from his beer-drinking days in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, where beer is referred to as “oil.” He wins points for also having been bat-shit crazy, not that I’d expect anyone named Oil Can to be sane. I definitely wouldn’t want to come up against him in a street fight. The best man at his wedding was probably named Buckshot.

3. Kent Hrbek: The highest-ranking position player on this list, the stout Minnesota Twins first baseman had a name better-suited for WrestleMania or a children’s fairytale: “We tried to storm the castle but couldn’t overcome the Kent Hrbek.” Fifty years ago, he would have had a washing machine named after him.

4. Aloysius Travers: The hapless one-time Detroit Tigers pitcher makes this list as much because of his history as his name. A seminary student signed to pitch one game in the midst of a strike in 1912, Travers gave up 24 runs, the most in major league history and never played again. His name connotes the image of a school boy being pummeled by street toughs. You just don’t meet too many people named Aloysius anymore.

5. Yogi Berra: The only player to have a cartoon character named after him. I think.

6. Boog Powell: The Baltimore Orioles slugger comes from the Kent Hrbek school of having a name better suited for a 1930s strike breaker or “Flintstones” character.

7. Grover Cleveland Alexander: With probably the most regal name ever for a player, Alexander was dubbed for the president at his time of birth, Grover Cleveland. Baseball fan that I am, I get confused sometimes and think we had a president named Grover Cleveland Alexander.

8. Fernando Valenzuela: Like Van Lingle Mungo, this is another name that rolls off the tongue and echoes to be repeated. Just hearing the name makes me think of the Los Angeles Dodgers hurler twisted into a corkscrew position, a wild look in his eyes.

9. Rabbit Maranville: This sounds more like the name of a slick sports car than a baseball Hall of Famer.

10. Dummy Taylor: What makes this name so great is that Taylor, a New York Giants pitcher around the turn of the century, was actually deaf. Back in the day, there used to be all kinds of names like this: Frenchy, Whitey, Nippy. In our politically correct era, we just don’t see names like this anymore.

Ozzie Smith’s commencement speech at Cal Poly in 2003

I was a sophomore at Cal Poly in 2003 when the university announced Ozzie Smith would be speaking at commencement that June.

From a school known for producing architects and engineers, Smith was the most-famous athletic alumnus, easily, with his Hall of Fame career at shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres.  As an avid baseball fan, I sprung into action when I heard the news.  First, I got an assignment to preview the commencement ceremonies for the campus newspaper, the Mustang Daily, where I was a staff writer at the time.  I then spun that story into a longer series, detailing Smith’s connection with the university.

I did extensive research, interviewing the university administration, plus Smith’s former teammates and coaches.  I interviewed the coach for a summer league team Smith had played for in Iowa and learned he still came back every year for a Thanksgiving-time meal.  I was told Smith even remembered the names of people in town.  In the course of my research, I also learned that Smith had mentioned his Cal Poly coach, Berdy Harr, who died in 1987, in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2002.  It gave me an idea.

The day before Smith was due to speak at commencement, the university unveiled a $65,000 statue of him at the campus ballpark.  While I sat in the press area prior to the unveiling, waiting for Smith to show, a member of the Cal Poly media relations department tapped my shoulder.  I was led to the locker room, where Smith sat being interviewed for a local television station.  I had been unable to reach Smith thus far and was thrilled to meet him.  I even got an autograph, which is generally frowned upon in journalism.  When Smith was done with the TV interview, I was told I could ask one question.  I knew exactly what to ask.

“If you could have one person here, who would it be?” I asked Smith.

He appeared confused and asked if it could be anyone.  I said yes, anyone, living or dead.  He swallowed hard and the room was dead silent.

“Berdy Harr,” he said, his voice breaking.  “You needed people like him.”

I returned to my seat outside, and a little while later, Smith came out.  He opened his thank you speech for the statue by saying he had just been asked a “very good question.”  He proceeded to recognize Harr once more and greet his widow, who was seated among the crowd.  It remains one of the high points of my journalistic career.

The next day Smith delivered two fine commencement speeches, the student body president did a back flip at one of the ceremonies, and I got to walk with Smith and interview him after the event.  It’s worth noting that he delivered two different speeches, one for the morning and one for the afternoon, while most of the university brass recycled their pitches.  In fact, when I graduated two years later, I heard the university president use the same cheesy line about how the school would “keep the porch light on” for alumni.

For the record, the commencement speaker wasn’t half as cool my year.

Prediction: 10 Veterans Committee picks

Months ago, I wrote about “The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame.” It remains one of my most-read entries and even got mentioned in a Mormon blog, since it included Dale Murphy. Were I really slick, I’d post the Top 10 Mormons not in the Hall of Fame. That’s a project for another time, though.

Today’s list features players I expect to be Veteran’s Committee picks sometime soon. Rather than simply reposting my old list, though, I will offer a couple of clarifications. First off, this list will not include Pete Rose, Joe Jackson and Hal Chase. Deserving though they may be as players, they remain long shots because of their involvement with gambling. If anything ever does happen, it will come from the commissioner of baseball, not the Veteran’s Committee.

The Veteran’s Committee is baseball’s fiefdom for those players not quite good enough to make the Hall of Fame fresh off their careers but able to gather sentimental appeal over time. While the Writer’s Association recognizes the Hank Aarons and Babe Ruths of baseball, the committee is for the Phil Rizzutos of the sport. There are probably dozens of these kinds of players who will one day be in the Hall of Fame. Here are ten worth considering:

1. Dom DiMaggio: At some point, committee members will awaken to the injustice surrounding DiMaggio, one of the game’s great gloves and not a bad bat either. It’s a shame it didn’t happen within his lifetime.

2. Johnny Pesky: This might seem a stretch, as Pesky had 1,455 career hits and just seven full seasons. However, if DiMaggio makes it to Cooperstown, Pesky might too. Here’s why. Pesky lost three prime seasons to World War II. In the season before and two seasons following his military service, Pesky averaged .330 and led the American League in hits each year. Barring WWII, Pesky would have had over 2,000 career hits which is usually enough to get the Veteran’s Committee talking.

Pesky would benefit from DiMaggio’s induction for a subtle reason, though. In 2003, David Halberstam came out with a well-received book, The Teammates, which described the friendship of Boston Red Sox teammates DiMaggio, Pesky, Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams. Doerr and Williams are already enshrined. If DiMaggio gets in, it would make sense to let Pesky in too.

3. Gil Hodges: Having just finished The Boys of Summer, I am putting Hodges on this list over Murphy. Murphy had slightly more career hits and home runs, but Hodges gets the nod for also being a World Series winning manager with the New York Mets. He gets a sentimental boost too because of his death from a heart attack, two days shy of his 48th birthday.

4. Urban Shocker: After my original post about the 10 best players not in the Hall of Fame, a reader suggested Urban Shocker. I agree. Not a regular starting pitcher until he was 28, he won 187 games, nearly all of them in a nine-season stretch.

5. Carl Mays: A fellow pitcher from Shocker’s era, Mays notoriously killed a batter with a pitched ball in 1920. He also had 207 career wins, a 2.92 earned run average and won at least 20 games five times.

6. Bobby Grich: A power-hitting second baseman, like Doerr, the two had similar career numbers.

7. Dave Parker: I wrote in May that Parker was a Veteran’s Committee pick waiting to happen, since he had better career number than Cooperstown members Jim Rice and Orlando Cepeda. I maintain my position.

8. Ron Santo: Another player the Veteran’s Committee seemingly exists for.

9-10. Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker: The Detroit Tigers double play combination were repeat All Stars, each getting over 2,000 career hits. Neither merited induction by the Writer’s Association, but they’re the sort of candidates the Veteran’s Committee loves: Earnest, consistent and baseball men all the way. If Rizzuto can make it into Cooperstown, Trammell and Whitaker should as well.

The glory of these times?

I don’t much care for modern baseball. I rarely watch games on television anymore, and I gave the recent World Series only passing consideration. It just didn’t interest me that much. I’d rather read a book.

I used to worship the San Francisco Giants. Their teams of the late ’80s and early ’90s probably were nothing that spectacular, but even just thinking of guys like Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell and Robby Thompson puts a smile on my face. What I wouldn’t give to relive a game at Candlestick Park.

I don’t feel the same about the current generation of players, even the current Giants. Granted, I check nearly every day during the season, to keep up on statistics. But I feel apathetic whenever I contemplate turning on a game. If I do put one on, I quickly lose interest and change the channel to some movie on TNT or Comedy Central that I’ve already seen a hundred times. When in doubt, Boyz n the Hood trounces the Braves and Phillies every time.

Perhaps it’s easier to be nostalgic and re-envision something, forgetting whatever about it is unseemly, dull, or just plain ordinary, rather than to love it and accept it for whatever it may be, warts and all. Or perhaps my perspective has simply changed with age. Jim Bouton, the author of Ball Four, grew up rooting for the Giants, when they were still in New York. He wrote in one of his books:

I loved the Giants. I loved Alvin Dark and Dusty Rhodes and Sal Maglie. Even now, thinking back, I can remember exactly how I felt about these men. There is still that same rush of good feeling when I think about them and what they meant to me… But I think there are two Sal Maglies, two Alvin Darks, two Dusty Rhodes… So I think it’s possible that you can view people as heroes and at the same time understand that they are people, too, imperfect, narrow sometimes, even not very good at what they do.

With that said, the current game still seems lacking. Past generations had Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. Talented though Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Mark Teixeira may be there really is no comparison. Greatness is about more than just gaudy statistics. After all, Don Baylor on steroids probably could have hit 50 home runs in 1998.

I can think of only a few current players with the combination of class and talent to compare to past greats. They are:

  • Joe Mauer
  • Ichiro Suzuki
  • Tim Lincecum
  • Derek Jeter
  • Ken Griffey Jr.

Mauer reminds me of Ted Williams, Suzuki of George Sisler, and Lincecum of Lefty Grove. Jeter and Griffey make the list for putting up fine career numbers without, presumably, using steroids.

Beyond that, this era is a real crap shoot. Then again, it’s not much worse than anything else in the past 40 years. And maybe baseball’s always been this way and I’m just noticing.

Still, I long for bygone eras.

Something I didn’t know about JFK

With the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination coming up on Sunday, I coincidentally learned something interesting about our late president.

Turns out he could have been a baseball man, instead.

In finishing The Boys of Summer yesterday, I came upon a passage late in the book that described how Kennedy’s father, Joseph, nearly purchased the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, after the death of one of its major stockholders, John Smith. Team owner Walter O’Malley told author Roger Kahn about how he’d confronted his fellow shareholder Branch Rickey after hearing rumors.

“I said to Rickey, ‘What’s going on?”‘

“‘Well, with John Smith dead, I feel it’s time to sell. I told Mr. Kennedy you might disagree, but if he acquired my stock and Mrs. Smith’s, he’d have control. He’s got this son, John, who is brilliant in politics but has physical problems. Mr. Kennedy thinks running the Dodgers could be the greatest outlet in the world for John.’

“It might have been Jack Kennedy, president of the Dodgers, but Joe rejected the deal when he found he’d face an unhappy minority stockholder in myself. He didn’t buy, but if he had, Jack Kennedy could be in this chair and alive today.”

I like a little revisionist history as much as the next guy. Here are some other things to ponder.

Dwight Eisenhower played semi-pro baseball, George H.W. Bush played collegiately, and there’s an old rumor that Fidel Castro tried out for the Washington Senators. That never happened, though Castro did play baseball. Meanwhile, George W. Bush thought strongly, back in the ’90s, about becoming commissioner of baseball. The former Texas Rangers owner chose a different path, of course, though in some alternate universe, he got his dream, and Bud Selig instead became president and still found a way to cancel the All Star game.

Ronald Reagan got his start in show business in the 1930s broadcasting sporting events over the radio. Games were broadcast from a studio back then, as opposed to a press box at a ballpark, and the radio men recreated the action from a ticker and were allowed a certain amount of creative license. Apparently, the ticker went down one time for a Chicago Cubs game, and Reagan killed seven minutes of air time making up a story about how some fan caught a foul ball.

No wonder he wrote his own speeches years later.

Classic book review: The Boys of Summer

After more than a year, I finally finished The Boys of Summer this afternoon.  Written by Roger Kahn and first published in 1971, the book is part oral history about the Brooklyn Dodgers and part recollection by the author of covering the team as a young reporter in the early 1950s.  I’ve read many baseball books.  This numbers among the very best.

To be sure, it is not quite perfect.  The latter two-thirds of the book, where Kahn interviews thirteen former Dodgers is plodding at times, a he-said-this, then-he-did-that style of writing that would lull were the subject matter not so historically compelling.  The book is also unabashedly sentimental, by Kahn, a Brooklyn native and lifelong Dodger fan.  At times, it feels overwritten.

Taken on the whole, however, the work is astonishing.  Overwrought though the emotional appeal may sometimes be, it is powerful again and again throughout the book.  Kahn captures a quadriplegic Roy Campanella in tears remembering past glories, the funeral for Jackie Robinson’s oldest son, killed in an automobile accident at 24, and in an epilogue written years later, Pee Wee Reese wheelchair-bound, cancer-ridden and close to death.  Perhaps the most moving passage captures the death of Kahn’s father:

I drove down dark streets at reckless speed.  The sidewalk was a rotten place to die.  Pebbled cement scrapes a twitching face.  A man deserves privacy at the end, and anesthesia.  Surely my father had earned that for a gentle life.

The historical contribution is also undeniable.  Even if the writing were abominable, and it’s not, I would be interested to read about the codas for men like Robinson, Campanella and Gil Hodges.  Kahn’s level of detail is also meticulous.  One of my college writing professors said a good writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.  Kahn’s book is layered with dialogue and asides, material I struggle to capture.  It’s much easier to tell than to show.  Kahn does the latter, admirably.

There are a lot of baseball books and many fade into obscurity after a short time.  Kahn’s work endures, a rare sports entry in the canon of Western literature.


Before I end here, I wanted to add two points, not significant enough to figure into a review but worth noting nonetheless.

Early on, Kahn reveals a small tell, probably unremarkable to most readers but glaring to a past sportswriter like myself.  Kahn writes on page four, “Beyond undertaking a newspaper assignment, I believed I was joining a team.  At twenty four, I was becoming a Dodger.”  Going through journalism school, I learned objectivity.  I covered many teams, from prep to pros and I was never a member of them, saved for the few school teams I actually competed for.

Late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon put it better when interviewed for a book on sportswriters, No Cheering in the Press Box. Cannon said:

Most of the guys traveling with ball clubs are more publicists than reporters. A guy might be traveling with the Cincinnati Reds, though it could be any team, and he refers to the ball club as ‘we.’  I’ve seen sportswriters with World Series rings, and they wear them as though they had something to do with the winning of the World Series.  Maybe they’re entitled to them.  Maybe their biased cheerfulness helped the club.  I wouldn’t know.  I would not wear a World Series ring.

Kahn, to his credit, does little to suggest objectivity, noting in the epilogue, “I was neutral all right.  Neutral for Brooklyn.”

A more stinging critique of Kahn’s style comes from a different breed of writer, Jim Bouton.  Where Kahn wrote dignity and grace and heroism, Bouton captured players as ordinary louts, pill poppers and womanizers in Ball Four, his playing diary about the 1969 season.  In I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, the follow-up to his bestseller, Bouton derided Kahn:

Not long ago Roger Kahn, a writer who did not like Ball Four, wrote in Esquire about a player who was losing his skills and knew it. ‘It is something to cry about, being an athlete who does not die young,’ Kahn wrote.   And all I could think was, bullshit.  Only a man who never played the game could have written that line.  It’s fake, like the men who cry when they can no longer play baseball are fakes.

While I doubt Kahn didn’t legitimately believe what he was writing, Bouton may have a slight point about the value of experience.  Regardless, I appreciate both of their perspectives.

Transcript: My interview with Jose Canseco

I put batteries into an old recorder today and discovered I still have my interview with Jose Canseco from April 2008.

I interviewed Canseco in Oakland on his promotional tour for Vindicated, the follow-up to his bestseller, Juiced. I snapped the following picture that night:
Canseco Book Signing

Being that the former Bash Brother starred for the Oakland Athletics 20 years ago, my freelance assignment from a local publication, the East Bay Express, was to describe the fan reception. I wound up with a decent, if narrow story and lots of good material from the interview that wasn’t usable and has lain fallow on my recorder.

Until today.

As I constantly need fresh and interesting content for this site, I am posting the interview. The following was recorded in a Barnes & Noble back office, about an hour before Canseco’s appearance:

Graham Womack: Alright, my name’s Graham Womack, I’m doing a story for the East Bay Express. My story basically is about, um, your recept-

Barnes & Noble staff: I’m sorry to interrupt. Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee?

Jose Canseco: (to his publicist) Coke? Pepsi? You want anything?

Publicist: Water.

BNS: Water?

JC: I want coffee. Heavy, heavy cream and sugar.

BNS: Absolutely. Iced or hot?

JC: Hot.

BNS: Hot? Okay, I’ll be right back. (Editor’s note: I include all of this because earlier on the tour, Canseco accused another coffee server of trying to poison him.)

GW: Okay, so anyway, my story is on basically the reception you’ll be getting from the fans here in Oakland. I know 20 years ago with the Bash Brothers and everything, you know, you were probably one of the most popular people in America. I guess what I’m wondering now, is, um, I’m just curious to see how it compares 20 years later now, with having two books out and whatnot. I guess my first question would be, you know, how does it feel being back in Oakland?

JC: Well, it feels great. The last time I played here was in ’97. And then prior to that, obviously, I was traded, and I had a long career here with the minor leagues and then with the Oakland A’s, I think ’til ’91.

GW: Right, right.

JC: So I had a great time here. I think we won one World Series, won two, I think three or four championship divisions–

GW: ’88, ’89 and ’90.

JC: I don’t know what’s going to happen today. I hope the fans accept me in a very positive way and light and, uh, you know I just, I just hope they just realized everything that baseball has gone through, everything I’ve gone through and, you know, the way the game has changed.

GW: Do you maintain any ties to the A’s organization? Do you make promotional appearances for the team? Or do you come out and do any camps or anything?

JC: None whatsoever. No.

GW: Would you like to?

JC: Well, I think as of my first book, well as of before my first book when I was blackballed from the game, no organization or team wanted any ties with me whatsoever, so I could not do any type of promotions for them or speak on their behalf or any, or get involved in any minor league camps and so forth.

GW: Do you maintain friendships with any players from your A’s days?

JC: Um, no. Don’t know anyone, haven’t heard from anyone for many years.

GW: Have you been, actually, in the city of Oakland since ’97? Like, have you visited since then? Were you here for Juiced a few years back?

JC: I was here for Juiced, I think a few years back. But that was the last time.

GW: Lemme see, um, so how does the level of fan attention how does it compare to 20 years ago? I know I was doing some research for this article and I think it was Walt Weiss said in a Sports Illustrated article that like going out with you is like going out with Elvis. Is it still like that these days at all?

JC: No, it’s quieted down quite a bit. Back then, I was, one point in ’88 when I accomplished 40-40, you know the best baseball player in the world and the team was winning and winning World Series and championships, so forth. So, I think we were said to be the most exciting team in baseball to watch. So, yeah, I mean, we were like rock stars, [so many] people followed us around. And we sold out every stadium and sure, when we get in our buses, and go to fly out and go to different hotels, there were people all over the place waiting for us.

GW: What’s it like these days? Do you still get a lot of autograph requests in the mail and stuff?

JC: Um, no, not really. Maybe one here and there. Few here and there. And then very quiet, and I think the book Juiced and Vindicated has been kind of like the highlight of what ties I have with Major League Baseball.

GW: Do you think people still remember the Bash Brothers?

JC: I think so. I think if you’re from the Bay Area here, they definitely remember that cause this is where it started, between Mark McGwire and myself. So.. yeah, you know, people, I’ve done some autograph sessions here and there and they bring up the Bash Brothers or the big poster–

GW: Right, right.

JC: –that they had and so forth.

GW: Do you think fans in the East Bay and the Bay Area altogether, do you think they hold positive memories from the late Eighties? Do you think they have any bitterness or anything? I mean, what do you think fans’ emotions are like?

JC: I’m hoping and I’m thinking it’s more positive image of the big Oakland A’s back then, the biggest team in baseball, you know, the home run, the power, the pitching, you know long ball, McGwire, myself, and Dave Stewart with the pitching and Eckersely coming in and shutting them down, Carney Lansford, Walt Weiss and so forth. I hope it’s a positive thing.

GW: Do you miss the game at all?

JC: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I miss the game, love the game, wish I were still playing. Probably physically enough, to play the game, in shape. But things didn’t turn out that way.

GW: I should say that I believe, a dude I knew, I went to Cal Poly, a guy from there played with you on the Long Beach Armada, Dennis LeDuc.

JC: Yep, ‘mhm.

GW: No kidding, yeah, I think you guys were on the same pitching staff, actually.

JC: Yeah, yeah. He was there and it was a very short stint for me. It was a great time and ended quickly.

GW: I know back when you played for the A’s in the Eighties, you lived around San Ramon. Do you have fond memories just from your time of living in this area? Did you enjoy just actually living here and stuff?

JC: Yeah, I lived in San Ramon, so everyday I would take, I think, that Crow Canyon Road back, and I would have my Porsche and I’d kind of accelerate a little through those canyons. So it was a fun time going back and forth. So, they were great memories, coming into Oakland, playing here, you know those winning days, great ball club we had, just a very exciting team that we had.

GW: Lemme see… um, do you have any regrets from your first stint in Oakland from, I guess that’d be ’85 to ’91? Any regrets from that time?

JC: No. I think it was, everything was very positive. I mean, they built the team around McGwire and myself, and like I said, we went to a couple World Series, won a couple championships and World Series and so forth. And, you know in ’91, it kind of ended abruptly where I was traded to the Texas Rangers.

GW: Do you think fans in area now, do you believe they accept you for who you are?

JC: That’s probably a good question for them. I think they would have to get to know me personally to find out who I really am. I would say maybe I’m the kind of guy who’s multi-dimensional, not just a baseball player. I always consider myself entertainer in the game. I think the fans, as much money as they pay for, you know they got parking, they have tickets, they have concessions, they have everything. Before you know it, they’re spending 200-300 dollars. I think the fans deserve to be entertained. So I always consider myself an entertainer.

GW: Lemme see… um, just going back to the question I was on earlier. If say, say um– I know you said you were blackballed from baseball– say Billy Beane were to call you tomorrow and say, “Jose, hey we want you to come out and help us run a special camp next month.” Would you say yes?

JC: Well, first of all, I’d think it’d be April Fool’s. I’d think it was a joke. Cause I’ve actually had that happen to me.

GW: Oh, no kidding.

JC: I’ve had kids messing around, on the phone, cause I don’t even know where they get my cell phone from and say, “You know what Jose, this is from Kansas City Royals and we’d like for you to come and try out for our–” and I’m like, “Oh come on guys, this is a joke,” and they start laughing in the background. So, um, that’s probably an impossibility, if not an improbability because of what’s developed and happened between Major League Baseball and myself with this Steroid Era.

GW: Definitely. Also, I know you have a daughter. Do you keep a pretty low profile these days because of her?

JC: Oh, I definitely try… I’ve always tried to keep a low profile no matter what. But I guess, the kind of player I was or the way I did things and you know, you’re wearing a uniform, you’re 6’4,” 250 pounds, like a football player, and you’ve got world-class speed and hit 500-foot home runs, that’s kind of hard to keep under wraps.

GW: Definitely. Lemme see… I don’t have too many more questions… Just a couple more questions. What are your hopes for tonight? I mean, how would a perfect signing go for you? I know already you’ve been accosted by Major League Baseball investigators on this junket. So, what are your hopes for tonight?

JC: Well actually, um, accosted I don’t think is the correct word. It was very positive when they showed up in, I think it was New York and basically, they’ve finally come to the conclusion and admit that everything I’m saying is the absolute truth and finally want to join forces and try to clean the game up. So I thought it was a very positive thing that happened that night.

GW: Okay.

JC: Well, for today or tonight, just people come out, want to get to know me, they want to read the book. Maybe a lot of positive energy. And you know, I know I have a lot of fans out there. I think the image, my image has changed in the fact that people now believe what I’m saying is the truth and that everyone now is on my side. They’re definitely changing their attitudes and are very positive.

GW: I remember watching “The Surreal Life” a few years ago when you were on and I remember, they did an episode–

JC: Great, I’m sure all the girls watched it.

BNS: (motioning to another woman in the room) She used to tell me about it (the women laugh.)

GW: Well, what I was going to bring up–

JC: Was it the thong I was wearing?

GW: Uh… No, no, what I was going to bring up was I remember there was an episode that was about one of the signings you did for Juiced, and I remember they showed a segment at one point where there was a fan who was actually pretty rude to you and he was saying, he was saying, “Ah, can you sign it, From the guy who killed baseball?” Is that a common thing on your signings?

JC: No. Actually, it’s happened once or twice. But that was something that was set up for that show–

GW: Oh, okay.

JC: –specifically just to see if they can piss me off. But when my first book came out, you know I had a couple guys like that. But since then, I think everybody’s changed their tune a little bit.

GW: Okay, alright I think I’ve got all my–

JC: Boy, you were easy.

GW: Oh, what’s up? (I laugh nervously)

BNS: Hey, I just want to add to that, the phone’s been ringing off the hook all day today.

JC: They’re all assassins, and ninja warriors. “Is Jose there?”

BNS: I mean, it’s off the hook.

GW: Is it mostly fans? Or is it press?

BNS: Yeah, fans. Yeah, you’re the only press person here right now. (Editor’s Note: And save for a local television appearance, I was the only coverage Canseco got about his trip to Oakland. The signing itself was completely non-eventful.)

GW: Yeah, no, I actually I happened on to this just randomly. I was in the book store one day and I saw a sign up…. Probably, I would bet 90 percent of the people who’ve been interviewing you are more like “60 Minutes” types, but I guess I’m more of the local flavor.

JC: I get all types, believe me. I get the strangest, weirdest, out of this world, not-related-to questions. I mean people just want to know everything and anything.

GW: People ever ask you for steroid advice?

JC: Yeah, sure.

GW: No kidding.

JC: Mike Wallace did.

GW: Isn’t he like 90 now?

JC: He’s about 200. (laughter in the room) Everyone kind of has curiosity about it, questions about it and there’s not too much information about that in the market today.

GW: Alright. Well thank you so much for your time.


Postscript: It was a big thrill interviewing Canseco — he was it when I was six-years-old — and I got a nice story out of the experience, plus a photo credit. It’s worth mentioning that before I turned my recorder on, I’m pretty sure Canseco said I could take a bullet for him. He was joking. I think. I know I came into the interview nervous and starstruck, and in the days and months that followed, I learned from various other outlets how much I’d missed: Canseco was writing a book on cloning; his house got foreclosed; he got his ass kicked in a Mixed Martial Arts bout and got busted coming over the Mexican border with a performance-enhancing drug. Perhaps most notably, Canseco told A&E he regretted writing Juiced and that he thought he was addicted to steroids. Like a couple other celebrities I’ve interviewed that are seen as controversial, Canseco came off in person as polite, self-effacing and more insecure than arrogant. If I had to guess, I’d say history will remember him as a tragic figure as much as anything.