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Archive for January, 2011

Ken Burns places Canseco right where he should be

Posted by athomeatfenway on January 2, 2011

It is challenging to get a balanced perspective on Jose Canseco.  He had a successful playing career.  He found controversy at every turn.  He has a significant place in Baseball history.  I’m just trying to figure out what it really is.

1986 Rookie of the Year.  1988 AL Most Valuable Player.  First player to produce 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in one season.  Participant in four World Series.  Owner of two championship rings.  Basher of 462 career homers.  Most famous proponent of steroid use.  A carrier that infected others by showing them how to do effective drug cycles.  Author who exposed steroid-using potential hall-of-famers and journeymen.  Combatant in the Celebrity Boxing ring.  Contestant on the 2011 season of Celebrity Apprentice.  Squanderer of $45 million dollars +.

I forgot to mention womanizer, collector of fast cars, generous friend & philanthropist, contract breaker, father, son, husband and brother.  And owner of exotic turtles and big cats.

Jose’s life has been a wild ride.  So wild it is difficult to capture.

What better person to seek perspective on Jose than from Ken Burns, the great Baseball documentarian ?

So, I plopped myself down and watched every second of “EXTRA INNINGS”, the last CD in Burns’ acclaimed 1994 video history.  I also screened TENTH INNING, Burns’ 2010 release.  Between the two, I would see where the historian slotted Canseco in the overall scheme of things.

Canseco’s first appearance in BASEBALL last less than 1 second.  He is in right field,  watching Kirk Gibson’s game winning homer sail over the 360 foot marker in Dodger Stadium to win game 1 in the1988 World Series.  Gibson is soon rounding the bases and doing his iconic double arm pump.  It is Gibson’s moment.  The Canseco sighting is accidental.

Next sighting:  Burns paints the quaked and damaged1989 Baseball season with film and poetry.  He shows us how the Pete Rose gambling story dominated summer. He shows us Pete’s banishment on August 24 and Bart Giammati’s sudden death on Sept. 1.  The sadness is capped on Oct. 17, before the scheduled start of Game 3 of the World Series between Oakland and San Francisco when an Earthquake of 6.9 Richter magnitude struck.   63 in the Bay area are killed. 12,000 are homeless.   As the ABC cameras roll following the 14 seconds of quaking, you see players holding their children, walking with wives & girlfriends to safety.  Cameras whirling, P.A. announcer asking for calm, there is Jose, striding off the field with a group of A’s.  Number 33 is tall and enormously muscled, poured into a tight uniform.  He looks every bit the 6 foot 3 and 230 pounds at which he is billed, with a broad upper body that tapers to an impossibly compact 30 inch waste.  He holds the hand of an attractive blonde in a red dress with his left hand.  Under her left arm is a mink coat.  Jose wears his glove on his right hand while they walk together, exchanging a quick word with an A’s coach as they move off the field. This glimpse of Jose lasts 6 seconds.  Again, J.C. just happens to be nearby as history is made.

Jose’s next appearance is in THE TENTH INNING. This time it is intentional.  This time Baseball is at a major turning point.   We see film of the young star; he is credited for astounding the baseball world with his unprecedented  40/40 in 1988, and the narration by Keith David quickly attaches the label that will someday follow Jose to the grave, “…but something else was helping him achieve such an unprecedented combination of speed and power.  Canseco and others had transformed their bodies by taking heavy doses of anabolic steroids, synthetically produced testosterone.  When taken in large enough amounts it allowed users to lift prodigious amounts of weight every single day, rapidly building muscle mass, while increasing their speed and agility.”   Time on screen:  Six seconds.

Jose does not return to the Burns history until steroids return.  His fourth appearance occurs as Burns gets to the telling of the 1998 season when McGwire & Sosa chased Maris.  Burns sets up McGwire’s homer rampage by talking about the emergence of smaller ballparks, the lack of inside pitching, and a popular new training regimen adapted in 1987 from Mac’s steroid using teammate, Jose Canseco.

It’s the 90’s and homeruns are hit at record rates.  The camera pans over a vintage Maris pose, then to Ken Griffey, Jr., then to a muscle bound Mac.  The next two stills are of Mac and Jose as Keith David  intones, “He began training with teammate, Jose Canseco, the duo became known as The Bash Brothers for their soaring homeruns and the forearm bump they exchanged after each towering blast.  The two sluggers led the A’s to the WS three years in a row.  Over the next few seasons, McGwire continued to add muscle to his already massive frame, and spent months on the disabled list with frequent injuries to his overstrained joints and tendons, but when healthy he hit balls out of the park with astonishing frequency. In 1995, he hit 39 hr in only 104 games.  In 1996 he smashed 52 in 130 games….” Once more, this visage of Jose last just 6 seconds.

Thus far, Jose had not received screen time commensurate with his career accomplishments.  4 appearances.  19 total seconds.  An earthquake.  Two steroid labels.

It doesn’t get better for Jose.

Later still in TENTH INNING, Burns examples the baffling pitching of Pedro Martinez, when we see Jose, in a Tampa Bay Devil Ray uniform in 1999, helplessly taking called strike 3 on the inside corner via a curveball. Pencharo.

In all of the above, missing is film of the mammoth moonshots Jose hit in batting practice.  No where to be seen are the lasers leaving the park in an eyeblink and striking a façade 450 feet away.  Absent is a 40-something Reggie Jackson saying, this kid has so much potential he reminds me of, well…me !

Later still, Burns turns his full focus to steroids and Jose returns.  Bob Costas assigns blame to the Baseball people who “didn’t notice a damn thing when guys showed up looking like they were inflated with bicycle pumps.” Then, as Keith David summarizes baseball’s conspiracy to keep secret the game’s steroid problem the camera reveals a photo of Canseco with finger to his lips, shooshing a gaggle of Fenway autograph seekers.

Tom Verducci soon thereafter explained that by 2000, the steroid mess and the names involved so big, that no owner or player union official was willing to clean it up until somebody made them.  Next we see Jose swinging through the back of his powerful swing, dressed in the home whites of the Chicago White Sox, his 6th and last team.  “In May of 2002, Jose Canseco who would later claim that without steroids he would have never even made it to the major leagues, never would have retired from baseball with 462 home runs.  He told the press that 85% of major leaguers players were taking steroids.  There would be no baseball left if we drug tested everyone.  But hardly anyone took his claims seriously. “  The camera pans over Jose’s powerful pose, then jumps to a close up of him peering thoughtfully below the brim of his Chicago batting helmet.  Screen time:  60 seconds.

Soon, Burns rolls film of John McCain tongue lashing Donald Fehr and Bud Selig for forcing him to give them a whupin’.   We see Jose with McGwire in a fist bumping HR celebration.  4 seconds.

The next 50 seconds define Jose’s lasting contribution to the game.  We see a February 2005 front cover of the NY Daily News, which shouts, “Explosive Book Rocks Baseball, STEROID FIRESTORM, Who used performance drugs, How and where they did it, What they say about it, Fury over Canseco revelations.”  The outed  included Wilson Alvarez, Ivan Rodriguez, Brett Boone, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Mark McGwire.

Next come the Congressional Oversight hearings. We watch Jose tell Rep. Waxman that there is “no doubt in my mind” that team trainers, managers and general managers were aware that some players were using steroids. The iconization of Canseco as the all time poster boy for steroids is complete.

In EXTRA INNINGS, Burns covered 1975 to 1994, showing us the greatness of many Canseco contemporaries including Bo Jackson, Ozzie Smith, and Kirby Puckett.  In TENTH INNING, Burns covered the early 90’s to 2009.  The featured greats include Bonds, McGwire, Griffey, Ichiro, Maddux, Glavine, Clemens and others.

There is no homage to Jose Canseco, the first player to hit 40 HR’s and steal 40 SB’s in 1988.  Instead of a homage to a power hitter that once made everyone around him stop to watch his BP and at bats, we see Jose striking out, Jose keeping secrets, Jose burning bridges, Jose testifying, and Jose’s incendiary writing.

There is only guilt and the destruction he wrought.

There is no puzzlement about Canseco’s treatment on my end though really.

Very early in TENTH INNING”, Burns asserts that even after labor and steroid problems, “Superstars (still) continue to retire as heroes in the full glare of the spotlight, while lesser players continue to quietly disappear, their statistics the only residue of their existence in the game.”

And that is what Jose’s career stats are:  residue.  Silent, dusty statistics on the pages of Baseball Reference and the BB Encyclopedia made moot by the tainting of all stats between 1985 and 2003.  Jose doesn’t get the hero treatment because his career was a drug fueled sham.  He’s not the only one you can say that about.  But he is the only one who has made statements in public to support it.

Once a symbol of power, Jose will forever be a symbol of cheating.

Some months ago, a comedian joked that when Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th career home run it appropriately landed in Monument Park between the (fictitious) plaques of Lance Armstrong & Jose Canseco.

I’m glad George didn’t live to “see” that one.

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