Jose's last blast

Bumbling, arrogant, bloodshot-eyed but utterly endearing, Jose Canseco transformed the sanctimonious steroid hearings into a theater of unpleasant truths.

By Kevin Berger
Published March 18, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

No one could ever call Jose Canseco graceful. That's not why baseball fans liked him. We liked him for his swagger and speed and roaring home runs. We liked him for the time he was playing right field for the Rangers in 1993 and ran back to catch a drive off the bat of Cleveland's Carlos Martinez. To this day we still love that the ball hit him on the top of the head and bounced over the fence for a home run. That was the quiddity of Canseco -- bumbling, original and unforgettable.

Who knows if the steroids hearings in Congress Thursday will result in a home run for baseball and young athletes. If they do, the nation will have to thank the monumentally egotistical, contradictory, defensive, angry and still utterly endearing Canseco. The whole damn thing has bounced off his head and into America's lap.

In his opening remarks, Tom Davis, chairman of the Committee on Government Reform, acknowledged that it was Canseco's book, "Juiced," in which the former Oakland A's player trumpets his own steroids use and blows the whistle on Mark McGwire and other former teammates, that jump-started the hearings. Which, we must say, began on an utterly predictable sanctimonious note. Politicians, including Kentucky Sen. and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, acted as if they were all of a sudden going to crack open the national pastime and spill out its dirty secrets. (Yo, Jim, contrary to your comment, Hank Aaron hit nearly as many home runs in his late 30s, 115, as he did in his late 20s, 123.)

As baseball fans, we have known for years that players bulked up on, if not steroids, then something. Forget about Mark McGwire in 1998 and Barry Bonds in 2001, for a moment. Let's remember 1996, when Baltimore leadoff hitter Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs, following three seasons of, respectively, 13, 12 and 16.

In our way, we are as complicit in the steroids brouhaha as the baseball executives and players who were mercilessly grilled for 12 hours in the Rayburn building Thursday. We know something is awry in Mudville when some of our favorite outfielders trot up to the plate with the physique of the Incredible Hulk, and once scrappy second baseman drill 500-foot rockets over the center field fence. But we get a free pass to a clear conscience. We're fans. Baseball is our escapism and passion and we can enjoy it any way we want. Which sometimes means sitting in the stands, watching a home run sail into the night, and saying to our pals, "My, those extra reps that Barry has been doing in the weight room this season sure have helped."

I should admit that I tuned into the hearings Thursday mostly in agreement with Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf, who said that Congress's new zeal around steroids amounted to "chemical McCarthyism." The din of condemnation seemed hysterical, hypocritical and a distraction from baseball's much more serious political scandal, which is its exemption from the federal antitrust act, which allows wealthy owners to earn exorbitant profits and pretty much rob cities of taxes in the process. And isn't it rich that this is the same government committee that mostly failed to investigate wrongdoing at Enron? The collapse of which made it awfully hard for a lot of folks in Houston to afford tickets to watch the Astros' Jeff Bagwell slap a double to the right field gap. In short, the steroid witch hunt seemed another log on the bonfire of religious moralism that blinds us to the country's more serious problems.

And yet, even before Thursday it had become hard to entirely shut the steroid scandal out of our baseball dreams. In the wake of Canseco's best-selling confessional, and revelations that fly-by-night steroids lab BALCO was fueling big-time ballplayers, there was plenty of evidence that steroid use is more than rare, and while I've tended to minimize both the advantage they provide players as well as the damage they cause, Thursday's hearing made it impossible to look away from the dangers. That was probably its most important achievement. The medical scientists at the hearings delivered compelling evidence of the damage that steroids can wreak on human bodies and minds. They were particularly good on how steroids can do really nasty things to teenagers, who are wont to drive to a Tijuana pharmacy, where they shoot up a substance originally designed to revive exhausted donkeys.

Less compelling, and in fact overplayed, was the impact that star players have on kids. On the one hand, everyone who's a longtime baseball fan can remembering idolizing a favorite player as a kid. (I loved Maury Wills; I wrote his name on all my school binders.) That rare vision of innocence, I suspect, explains why many of us still cherish baseball, despite its outrageous excesses, like a one-inning relief pitcher being paid $10 million a year. On the other hand, players are just players, not parents or teachers, a fact that sometimes got smothered at the hearings by myriad personal and political agendas.

In their testimony before the Congress members, the parents of teenage boys who used steroids and committed suicide all but blamed Canseco, Bonds and McGwire for the death of their sons. Denise Garibaldi, a clinical psychologist from Petaluma, Calif., whose son Rob was an aspiring ballplayer, said that "with his sports' heroes as examples, and Major League Baseball's blind eye, Rob's decision was a product of erroneous information and promises. In his mind, he did what baseball players like Canseco have done and McGwire and Bonds are believed to have done." To herself and her husband, she said, "There is no doubt in our minds that steroids killed our son."

The dramatic speeches by the Garibaldis and the other bereaved parent, Donald Hooton, were no doubt ringing in the players' ears as they strode into the hearing room. And you felt for them -- Canseco, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank Thomas and Curt Schilling -- when they sat down to testify at the same table where the grieving parents sat. After all, as baseball fans, we like to believe we know them so well; being implicated in a teen's suicide has to be a helluva cross to bear. McGwire, in particular, could have been thinking only of Garibaldi and Hooton when he said, his voice cracking, "First and foremost, my heart goes out to every parent whose son or daughter were victims of steroid use. I hope that these hearings can prevent other families from suffering."

It was definitely a powerful moment, one that landed McGwire back in the arms of the nation, as he was so celebrated to be in 1998, when he broke the home run record of Roger Maris. McGwire struggled with his composure throughout his statement. But compassion for the noticeably svelte retired slugger dried up quickly. As expected, he did not answer questions about his own or others' steroid use, on the advice of his lawyer. He offered to become a spokesperson for Major League Baseball, telling young people about the dangers of steroids. It didn't work. Countless times over the next two hours, he was asked by Congress members to explain his own reputed steroids use, and each time he intoned, "I'm not here to talk about the past."

Mark Souder, R-Ind., lectured him: "If President Nixon had said about Watergate, we don't talk about the past, how in the world are we supposed to pass legislation?" Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said to McGwire: "We are both fathers of young children. Can we look at those children with straight faces and tell them that great players like you played the game with honesty and integrity?" McGwire: "Like I said earlier, I'm not going into the past." By the end of his testimony, he'd promised to change the mission of his foundation to help abused and neglected youth. He said he would refocus it on educating young people about the danger of steroid use. It was hard not to think McGwire would better serve the world by telling young people the truth about his own career, and leaving his foundation to work with the irrefutably more serious problem of child abuse and neglect.

As they fielded questions, the players didn't distinguish themselves on the panel. Except Canseco. They stuck to short answers and parroted the party line that baseball could curtail the usage of steroids by players with its own laws. Curt Schilling went so far as to recant his own statements that steroid abuse was widespread. Now Schilling told the panel that it's a limited problem, that he knew only 5 to 10 people who used steroids in his 15 years in baseball. (Later, Henry Waxman, the committee's ranking Democrat, read from a 2002 Sports Illustrated article, in which Schilling had said steroid use "has become a prominent thing very quietly. It's widely known in the game.")

Canseco aside, Schilling and the other players insisted baseball could solve the troubling but limited problem of steroids on its own.

Major Owens, D-N.Y.: Do you think it's possible that self-regulation will solve this problem?

Schilling: Yes, absolutely.

Palmeiro: I think it's possible too.

McGwire: Me too.

Sosa: Yeah, I think it's possible if we work together.

Canseco: In my honest opinion, not completely.

Schilling more than once was called a politician by the politicians, and he behaved like one, often responding that he needed more information before he could offer an opinion. Only when he tried to distance himself from Canseco, and underscore that he had nothing to do with steroids, did Schilling get fired up. "Unless you were Jose, and you were actually using, I don't think you had any firsthand knowledge about who knew," he said of his fellow players.

Palmeiro only grew animated when he insisted that he had never used steroids, despite the claim to the contrary in "Juiced." "The reference to me in Mr. Canseco's book is absolutely false," Palmeiro charged, wagging his finger at the camera. New Baltimore Orioles slugger Sammy Sosa, in what was certainly a new role for him, was the one player who didn't stand out at all, as he consistently echoed the short answers of McGwire or Palmeiro.

As the hearings dragged on, it was apparent that the appearance of the players before Congress wouldn't have yielded any new insights if it weren't for Canseco himself. Just as he was on the diamond when he played, he was arrogant and embarrassing and contradictory. He was your basic Shakespearean train wreck. You wanted to turn away from him but you couldn't. Perspiring at times, his tie coming undone, he never echoed the other players, answering questions with his own weird and rebellious logic. You could actually glance into his bloodshot eyes and see him changing his opinion on steroids on the spot.

In case you haven't heard, "Juiced" is a full-on endorsement of Winstrol, Deca, human growth hormone and the like. "Steroids are the future," he writes. "And believe it or not, that's good news." Of course, that's only if steroids are administered properly, and by such knowledgeable experts, Canseco tells us, as Victor Conte, founder of BALCO, and former bass player for Tower of Power. "Steroids will give you a better quality of life and also drastically slow down the aging process," claims professor Canseco. Hey, if "you don't mind turning forty and feeling worn down and powerless, and looking like someone on the down slope to the nursing home, 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." That's right, "It's called evolution, and there's no stopping it."

Medically and scientifically, "Juiced" is a disaster. It makes anti-aging booklets handed out at the New Life Expo read like the Merck Manual. Foolishly, Canseco allowed his natural braggadocio, which served him well on the baseball field, to overrun his comments about health and medicine. He has a lot to teach us how about how he felt with steroids coursing through his body. But making himself over as the Dr. Phil of steroids advice was not a smart move and kills the book, which is an otherwise wild and entertaining ride through his baseball career.

What can you say? Canseco is so shamelessly megalomaniacal that he ends up sounding honest and likable. When he writes, "And when I became the first player ever to hit forty homers and forty stolen bases in one season, I was hands down the best player in the world. No one even came close," you're going, "Dude, high five!" When he writes about certain players doing interviews -- "I can just throw up watching the total phonies go to work, guys like Cal Ripken or Alex Rodriguez; everything out of their mouths sounds like it was tested by some kind of focus group beforehand" -- you've got to love him. He's completely right.

But, man, did he look wrong at the hearings. Whether it was the gravitas of the committee room, the bank of prying Congress members, the testimony of real physicians and scientists on the baleful effects of steroids, or the drama of the bereaved parents -- or all those factors together -- Canseco wilted. He may have entered the Rayburn building high on steroids and fame, but under the glare of the Congress members, he was a humble spokesman for Just Say No.

Elijah Cummings, D-Md., pointed out the contradiction between the conclusion in "Juiced" that steroids could be beneficial and Canseco's comments in the hearing that he wanted to preach abstention. "Help me out with that," Cummings asked. Canseco responded: "If Congress does nothing about this issue, it will go on forever. That I can guarantee. Basically, steroids are good for certain individuals. Not good for everyone. I think I specify that in previous chapters -- if you medically need it, if it is prescribed to you, I think those were the things I was talking about."

Actually, he wasn't talking about that in previous chapters. He was talking about how steroids and genetic designer drugs were the unavoidable future of health and beauty. Finally, under fire from Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who also read a few lines from "Juiced" that sang the praises of steroids, Canseco, looking beat, practically disowned his foray into letters. "This book took, I think, over two years to write. While that may have been my opinion two years ago, it's not today, absolutely not. I have spoken with people, and seen certain things, that steroids have done. I'm completely turned around and ..." Lynch cut him off with a curt: "We'll wait for the sequel."

Now it was your turn to feel for Canseco. While the other players stuck to their focus-group-tested comments, the unruly pariah, flawed and human, had transformed before our eyes. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., asked the players why "it took so long for the league to act on this issue since it was so well known that abuse was going on?" Predictably, the other players said they didn't know. Canseco, though, as only he could, praised and undermined himself at the same time. "Basically something like a book written about the problems in Major League Baseball had to be done. Absolutely. It definitely triggered a lot of events. I think it finally made Major League Baseball aware of that -- to stop covering up what's really going on."

And that's what he had done. He was the accidental hero.

Following the panel of players, baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Players Association honcho Donald Fehr promised that baseball would be more transparent about steroids abuse from now on and would work to rid the evil substance from the game for good. The weary Congress members didn't seem convinced that baseball could regulate itself. But most were willing to give it a chance for now.

Who knows what Canseco will say about steroids once Congress members go back to worrying about Social Security and the war in Iraq and, most of all, reelection. He may well resume his role as the drugs' unabashed celebrity booster. Which would be unfortunate. Because beneath all the sanctimony and doublespeak that at times suffocated the hearings, rays of insight emerged. Major league scouts and other coaches should not be encouraging young players to bulk up to hit long home runs like Canseco, which has certainly promoted the spread of steroids in baseball -- and perhaps contributed to tragic deaths, which though rare are certainly worth talking about at congressional committees. And the Congress members may have shamed both Bud Selig and Donald Fehr into realizing that a testing program that lets players test positive for steroids five times before they're banned from the game will not banish illegal performance-enhancing drugs in our time.

But baseball is ultimately our game. Isn't that the new Major League Baseball promotion? (It is.) Are we ready to live with a game in which bigger is not better, where second basemen are best known for fielding and leadoff hitters are celebrated for speed and pitchers acclaimed for change-ups? If baseball gains back some of the diverse players and colorful characters it's always losing under the crush of conformity and commercialism, then cracking open the steroids scandal will have been a hit way beyond the medical rooms. And like I said, strange as any individual baseball game can be, there's one person for whom we can be grateful.

"I guarantee that Jose Canseco is not going to win any popularity contest with players," said Dutch Ruppersberg, the bawdy representative from Maryland, to the gathered players, TV cameras and Congress members. "But he's the best thing that's happened to you all."

Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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