Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Jose Canseco is my hero

Jose Canseco is my favorite baseball player of all time. I don’t believe that he belongs in the Hall of Fame because he didn’t bring anything to the table defensively but some of my favorite athletes in other sports will never get into their respective halls of fame either.

I first became aware of Jose Canseco back in the late 80s. He was built like a defensive end long before you saw baseball players hitting the weights to build muscle. Before Jose turned in that 40/40 performance in 1988 it was widely believed that weightlifting would diminish flexibility and bat speed. Jose Canseco was a key factor in the Oakland A’s success and a lot of people forget that Mark McGwire was really the Robin to Canseco’s Batman. Over the years McGwire emerged as the hero, at least before he scurried away from the truth like a cockroach suddenly bathed in light.

I knew Canseco was on Steroids back in 1988. I was 17 and had no background in physiology nor did I ever dabble in steroids myself, but I knew he was juicing. Whenever anybody is built like that you have to be suspicious, but when somebody weighs 250 pounds and runs fast enough to steal 40 bases over 158 games you can take the suspicions to the bank.

I also recall reading an article on Jose Canseco and saw pictures of him in the minor leagues; pictures of a comparatively scrawny Canseco standing next to his equally scrawny brother. At the age of 17 I knew that it wasn’t natural for a guy to pack on that much muscle in such a short period of time. He had to be on steroids.

Of course there were plenty of media types who refused to speculate on that. I still remember listening to Jim Rome lash out at people who questioned the authenticity of Mark McGwire’s physique. Rome seemed to think that McGwire just spent more time in the gym than anybody else and he readily admonished people for being jealous of his work ethic when they speculated that those muscles came from a bottle.

That’s why to this day I think Jim Rome is the biggest moron in all of sports. Here’s a guy who gets paid to spew his opinion all day. He’s got no reason to hedge. You can’t get sued for slander and libel for expressing an opinion, where as real sports journalists can’t speculate without proof. Of course most sports journalists balk at having to cover anything resembling real news. They’d rather wax philosophically about the meaning of the game and focus and stats. Some guys like Jim Rome, who served as apologists for the better part of a decade, can share some of the blame for ruining baseball. I’d say guys like Rome are more to blame than Bud Selig because guys like Rome played an active role in dodging the issue. Selig just pretended not to see a problem which is a reasonable position considering most people weren’t making an issue out of it.

When Jose Canseco’s book, Juiced, was published people were furious. He was accused of being dishonest and throwing former teammates under the bus for the sake of getting paid. Everybody Canseco named called him a liar but nobody took legal action. The steroid apologists argued that it’s hard to prove a negative, but the reality is that none of those guys wanted to have private investigators poking around. As the issue of steroids become a priority and major league baseball implemented testing the truth slowly came into light. Raphael Palmeiro famously tested positive for Stanzinol, a powerful steroid, less than six months after testifying before Congress that he had never used steroids.

People started to give Canseco some credit but there were still suspicions that he got lucky when Palmeiro came up dirty. One of the reasons people questioned Canseco was because he dropped Alex Rodriguez’s name into the mix. A lot of people felt like Jose did that to sell books and possibly to impugn the integrity of baseball in general since A Rod was the golden child. Everybody loved him and believed that he would re-legitimize the game by setting all the records the right way. That all came unraveled over the past several weeks. A Rod, like McGwire, Palmeiro, Roger Clemens and numerous others, cheated and lied. His integrity is gone and his accomplishments are tainted. Baseball now has two black eyes.

Jose Canseco won’t go down in history as the guy who cleaned up baseball. I wouldn’t even go so far as to credit him with being a whistle blower. He simply came clean about a subject with which he was familiar. He confirmed what a lot of people had suspected for years.

Going forward it’s irresponsible to think that steroids will go way. The NFL has had a testing policy for years and steroids are still a rampant problem. Testing procedures are a joke but the goal isn’t to eradicate steroids so much as it is to create an illusion of propriety. Most NFL fans will agree that the majority of players in the NFL would fail the tests used in the Olympics and it’s understood that the 4 game suspension imposed by the NFL is a punishment for stupidity more than it is a sanction for cheating. Baseball is taking the same approach. Players are still taking steroids; they’re just smarter about hiding that fact.

So I’m going to go ahead and appreciate Jose Canseco because as far as I can tell the only difference between his career and that of everybody else is that he’s willing to admit that steroids helped him out. He’s never made any bones about that. Which is more than you can say for A Rod, who is now claiming that he’s not sure if steroids provided him with a physical advantage or if it was just psychological.

A Rod’s act of contrition is making me sick. I understand that he has to see himself as a brand and take steps to protect his image but he’s laying the BS on really thick. He’s tried to blend a heartfelt apology with a litany of excuses. He was young and naïve. He felt a lot of pressure to live up to his massive contract. He never went to college. His nameless cousin injected him with an over-the-counter substance purchased in the Dominican Republic.

When asked what steroids did for his game he answered that he felt that steroids “like anything else” are 50% mental. Then he said that if you drink water believing it will make you better you will perform at a higher level. Perhaps he didn’t compare steroids to water, but why did he even go there? It’s like he’s trying to make sure his confirmed steroid period doesn’t get subtracted from his legacy when it comes time to tally up the final numbers.

Jose Canseco never hemmed or hawed about what he did. If you ask him he will tell you exactly what he took, provide the dosage and outline his regimen. Canseco has never tried to dismiss the impact steroids had on his performance. He’s said all along that they made everything come easier. Steroids cut his workout time in half, helped him recover from injuries faster and allowed him to play longer.

Moreover, Jose Canseco doesn’t claim that he was misled by anybody or blame his youth for his mistakes. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Canseco call taking steroids a mistake. It seems as though he went into the world of steroids with eyes wide open. He doesn’t blame his steroid use on ambitious trainers, mysterious cousins or teammates with vials of tainted B-12. Jose Canseco is far from being a role model, but what athlete really is. These guys are human beings who get paid a lot of money to be really good at playing a game—not to be team players—not to be role models, but to perform at a high level as individual athletes. It’s important to keep your expectations reasonable.

These guys know that steroids are illegal and regardless of whether or not their league specifically outlined a policy prohibiting the use of steroids they know that steroids are tantamount to cheating. I knew that when I was 17. Professional athletes take steroids because they want to have an edge. That’s the one thing that all great athletes have in common. Steroids provide a significant advantage and when you minimize the risk of getting caught it’s a temptation few are going to pass up.

Do you think it’s magic when a QB manages to cut his recovery time in half coming off of major surgery? Were you really under the impression a 40 year-old pitcher could still bring 100 mph heat in September? Had you been holding out hope that Alex Rodriguez was actually from the planet Krypton?

Maybe A Rod thinks he can get away with his sob story because the fans and the media have proven themselves willing to accept this nonsense for so long. College football fans will marvel at a linebacker’s work ethic when he packs on 50 pounds of solid muscle over three years and not for one second consider the possibility that it wasn’t real. When you ask reporters and columnists why they don’t pose the steroid question more often they’ll tell you that it’s not fair to assume that everybody is on steroids.

But everybody isn’t falling under suspicion, only people who do freakish things. It’s a logical question and anybody who has hit the weights or the track in hopes of being a better athlete can tell you that some of these guys make it look too easy. The reason the average jock doesn’t spend 9 hours a day in the gym is because the human body isn’t built to endure that kind of regimen unless you’re providing it with unnatural levels of testosterone and growth hormone.

People don’t want to accept that. During Mark McGwire’s magical pursuit of the single season home run record there were people who pondered the physical transformation of Big Mac. He was a bulging beast of a man who, at an age when a lot of players see their skills diminish, was performing at the highest level of his career. Nobody wanted to talk about it. They wanted to enjoy history.

Well that history is ruined. Everything that has happened in baseball since the middle of the 80s is under suspicion…including Cal Ripken’s streak. Yeah, I said it. Cal was part of a tainted era and it’s not hard to believe that a guy obsessed with playing more than 2000 consecutive games wouldn’t be tempted to improve his recovery time between starts. It’s not like Cal was a young man when he broke Gehrig’s record and as far as we know Cal never passed a steroid test. More importantly, Cal played with guys who took steroids. Even if he didn’t take them he failed to take stand against them. That makes him, at the very least, an accessory.

Canseco’s hands aren’t clean. He was more than happy to pass his knowledge along to other players. They’d go to him for advice on what to take, where to get it and how to take it. Of course blaming Canseco for the problem is unfair; it’s all the players, coaches, general managers, owners, league officials, commissioners, fans, and reporters who looked the other way who made steroids the rule rather than the exception. Steroids were accepted by the people who mattered. Everybody’s guilty.

What sets Jose Canseco apart is his candor. You can say that he’s doing it for attention or money or to elevate his legacy by degrading the rest of baseball’s. I won’t argue that. But regardless of his motives it would appear that he’s being honest. That’s more than I can say for anybody else. So, Jose Canseco, you’re my hero.

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