Last week I told you I would read Jose Canseco’s book so you wouldn’t have to, but it turns out you’re probably reading it anyway. And if you’re like me, you’re having a fine old time of it.
Canseco’s chemistry memwa, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big,” is reportedly selling briskly, and this bleary-eyed column can report that as tawdry tell-alls go, it ain’t half bad at all. Canseco talks about his career, his sex life, his legal troubles and his daughter, but mostly, as you know, he talks about steroids.
He’s for ‘em, you see.
In fact, “Juiced” comes across as a kind of infomercial at times. “Look at me,” Canseco writes. “See me on TV, or in the newspaper, and you’ll see that we do have choices in life about how we want to look and feel. If you don’t mind turning forty and feeling worn down and powerless … that’s your choice. But if you want to head into your forties feeling strong and active, and looking as good as you ever have, the way I do, you can choose that too.”
“Juiced” is a compelling, quick, fun read. I suspect that by saying that I’m praising Steve Kettmann, a friend who covered the Bash Brothers-era A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle, and who has written about steroids in baseball for the New York Times and Salon, among other publications. I asked Kettmann if he’d ghosted the book and he politely declined to comment.
Used properly, Canseco insists, steroids are a logical part of an athlete’s training regimen. They make athletes bigger, stronger, faster and more confident, he says, without side effects as long as they’re not abused. He believes they should be legalized in baseball for use under supervision.
Canseco writes that BALCO, the lab at the center of the steroid scandal involving Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and others, “was doing it right: They were giving blood tests … That’s the only way to design a cycle that’s right for you — to know the details of your body, your different hormone levels, and tailor your dosage accordingly.”
He knows this, he says, because he’s spent 20 years educating himself and experimenting on his own body.
You’ve heard and read about the charges Canseco makes, about Mark McGwire, Giambi, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez. And about President Bush, who was a part owner of the Texas Rangers when Canseco played for them. He also speculates about Miguel Tejada, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and a few others, and laments that if only poor Ben Grieve had let Canseco guide him down the steroid pathway, he’d have become a decent player.
But don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t think you’ve read “Juiced” just because you’ve listened to the chatterers talking about it on the radio or cable TV, or read the coverage of the excerpts leaked to the New York Daily News. Even as the book was overplaying, in my opinion, the extent to which the media has conspired to make Canseco look bad, it was happening again.
One small example: It’s become an accepted fact in the last week that Canseco wrote about Bush that he must have known what was going on in the Rangers clubhouse in the early ’90s. I repeated that charge myself last week, and dismissed it, arguing that Bush would have had to have been very savvy indeed to know what was going on in the clubhouse, and Bush isn’t known for being savvy.
But here’s what Canseco actually wrote: “There was no question that George W. Bush knew my name was connected with steroids.” That’s a very different thing.
Never mind what you think of Bush’s intelligence, or how actively involved he was in baseball operations. Teams don’t go around trading for superstars without doing some due diligence.
If it wasn’t painfully common knowledge in the Texas front office that Canseco was at least strongly suspected of using steroids, then that front office was made up of nothing but people even dumber than anyone has ever accused Bush of being. Canseco points out that Thomas Boswell was writing in the Washington Post about the slugger and steroids as early as 1988.
Canseco comes across as a likable guy, in that way that boys who are trouble are often likable. His shyness, he says, was mistaken for arrogance during his career, and there’s a reasonable, logical, not-Jose’s-fault explanation for everything he’s ever done that’s gotten him in trouble.
He’s bitter at what he calls his blackballing by baseball owners, who he says collectively decided to kick him out of baseball after the 2000 season, when he was only 36 years old and 38 home runs shy of 500, which he thinks would have gotten him into the Hall of Fame.
Baseball had not only closed its eyes to the steroid use that Canseco had brought to the game, he writes, but had actually encouraged him to share his expertise, to educate players and trainers. Of course, he doesn’t believe the owners should be criticized for encouraging steroid use, since it’s a smart business decision and proper, supervised use of steroids is not dangerous, he writes. His only problem is with their continuing denials.
And he writes that when the plan worked too well, when all those chemically enhanced home runs put all those butts in those seats and sent all those sluggers’ salaries skyward, the owners turned on him.
“They blackballed me from the game because I was the Chemist — the godfather of steroids in baseball,” Canseco writes. “They looked up and realized that the players’ salaries had gotten too high, and the players themselves had gotten too big and strong — all because I started things off by educating a handful of influential players on steroids, and showed them how to use them properly.”
Well, maybe. Canseco was still hitting some in his last year, with the White Sox, but he’d become pretty much a one-dimensional home run-or-nothing hitter, and it wouldn’t have taken a major conspiracy for 30 teams to decide they didn’t need to pay him a couple million to hit a few home runs and sell a few tickets while likely spending a lot of time on the disabled list and stirring up a snotstorm or two.
But the things Canseco writes about McGwire and Giambi and the others pass the sniff test, don’t they? Are you going to believe the various denials that have been pouring out of fax machines lately or are you going to believe Canseco and your lying eyes?
Putting aside the silly stuff about Madonna — he writes that she wanted to marry him but the whole thing was awkward and he wasn’t attracted to her because she wasn’t a buffed-out workout queen — and his two wives and his scrapes with the law and his feelings of inadequacy as a kid and ballplayers’ sexual shenanigans on the road, what Canseco has to say is interesting and deserves a listen.
Like it or not, he is a kind of folk expert on steroid use and abuse. We know that the law-enforcement approach to the steroid issue — testing and punishment — won’t solve it because no drug problem has ever been solved by law-enforcement measures. Canseco has a very good chapter called “Baseball Economics 101″ in which he explains why it makes a lot of sense for someone like Tejada, who grew up in abject poverty, to become very interested in steroids.
He asks you to picture yourself as a talented young player from a poor area of an impoverished country, “and let’s say you realize that, if you can put together back-to-back good seasons with strong home-run totals, you can realistically set up your family and yourself for the rest of your life with a $40 or $50 million contract.”
“There’s only one catch: To score that big paycheck … you’re going to need to guarantee that performance — and the only way to ensure that is to make the most of the opportunity presented by steroids and growth hormone. Put it that way, and I don’t see any young kid turning it down. Would you? Would you really?”
Who are we to say that Canseco’s idea that steroids should be legalized and used judiciously under a doctor’s care isn’t a better approach than the endlessly unsuccessful merry-go-round of testing and punishment? I think the answer might lie more along the lines of education and social pressure, but then again, that’s never worked either, so what do I know?
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