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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

A Slugger's Excuse
Book Review by Dan Schwartz

Jose Canseco. Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. New York: Regan Books, 2005, 284 pp., $25.95, cloth.

 

Today, these players may seem like pariahs. But don't be too surprised if someday we look back on some of them as pioneers. —Jose Canseco, Juiced

 

Baseball is the best game in the world . . . . I always worked to honor the game.
—Jose Canseco, Juiced

 

I say earth to baseball.
—Senator John McCain, March 17, 2005

 

Allen Ginsburg frequently noted how America prefers to treat the symptoms but not the disease. Perhaps that's why Major League Baseball now finds itself embroiled in the game's biggest scandal since the 1919 Black Sox. Unfortunately, Jose Canseco and his book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big constitute a tragically overdue message delivered by an incredibly wrong, occasionally comic, messenger. Canseco blows the whistle on steroid use but fails to admit many of his own errors and, most significantly, shows no signs of repentance. Instead, he continues to endorse and encourage the use of steroids and human growth hormone, extolling their virtue in the book's opening pages:

 

We're talking about the future here. I have no doubt whatsoever that intelligent, informed use of steroids, combined with human growth hormone, will one day be so accepted that everybody will be doing it. . . . As a result, baseball and other sports will be more exciting and entertaining. Human life will be improved, too. We will live longer and better. And maybe we'll love longer and better, too.

 

Throughout the pages of this self-absorbed volume, Canseco often sounds like a snake oil salesman or infotainment pitchman. He minimizes the risks of steroid use by reminding us, "We human beings are made up of chemicals. High school chemistry students learn to recite ŽCHOPKINS CaFe,' which is all the chemicals that make up the human body: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, potassium, iodine, nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, and iron. Maybe it bothers some people to think of our bodies as just a collection of those elements, but I find it comforting."

Similar sentiments were expressed by the apologists for Love Canal.

According to Canseco, the real problem in baseball isn't steroids, but that "baseball doesn't know how to sell itself to people." In his twisted world, steroids are just a new marketing strategy, a way to make "baseball more exciting and entertaining." To hear him tell it, baseball's owners have always known about the steroid problem but have looked the other way because home run records and chiseled sluggers have revitalized the game and boosted attendance. And now baseball has blackballed him, the "chemist," because players have gotten too big and strong and the owners no longer want to pay the high salaries that such talent demands.

These are just some of Canseco's bizarre perspectives on the game, which also include the belief that his place in baseball has been that of a chemical pioneer who played through injuries and pain, rather than how others might see him: an ego-driven, self-indulgent slugger who is in deep denial over steroid abuse and the toll such abuse will likely have on his long-term health.

There is no question that Canseco's physical attributes, his good looks, and prodigious home runs made him a crowd pleaser with a huge following throughout the 1990s. But like many talented athletes with egos the size of their paychecks, Canseco wore out managers and teams and now seems unwilling to admit his role in his fall from grace. Instead, he wants us to believe that he was blackballed from the game for being such an effective teacher of intelligent steroid use to other players, rather than because he was an aging, disgruntled superstar whose presence on a team eventually became a liability when his only useful role was that of designated hitter.

In general, Juiced is a long string of inconsistencies and contradictions, the most obvious being the number of times he claims to have shot up, or shot up with, Mark McGwire. "What we did, more times than I can count, was go into the bathroom stall together to shoot up steroids. . . . [O]ften I would inject Mark as well." In subsequent TV interviews, however, particularly the one on 60 Minutes, Canseco claimed they only did it twice. So when he writes, "I injected Mark in the bathrooms at the Coliseum more times than I can remember," it's both prophetic and pathetic.

In one of the book's more memorable passages, Canseco weighs in on McGwire getting caught with andro-stenedione in his locker. He thinks McGwire planted it there on purpose, that his fellow bash brother "created the andro controversy" as a distraction. "McGwire using andro would be like a hospital patient on morphine asking for an aspirin."

Canseco admits to supplying and shooting up other teammates, including Rafael Palmiero, Pudge Rodriguez, and Juan Gonzalez, among others. He also admits how irresponsible he and others were in disposing of the needles ("dumpsters and out of the way trash bins") where his eight-year-old daughter might not have found them.

Arguably, some of the most disturbing admissions regard his driving, where he brags about getting his Lamborghinis and Ferraris to speeds as high as 205 miles per hour or trading paint on the highway with one of his ex-wives during a minor domestic dispute. When a drag-racing McGwire and Walt Weiss allegedly force a little old lady off the road, it's hushed up by the club. And Canseco also claims that some cops only pulled him over when he was traveling more than 200 mph because they'd never seen the interior of a Lamborghini Diablo.

Although most of us have been taught that "self-praise stinks," Canseco apparently went to a school that teaches it's not bragging if you can do it, and if you got it, flaunt it. At one point he even states, "I wasn't the type of guy to brag about anything," yet that is much of what he does in the book. If he isn't bragging about his cars, he's bragging about his physique, all the women he's had, and, most unbearable of all, his knowledge and intelligence ("Having cracked a few books in my day . . . ").

Interestingly, Canseco's upbringing seems to have been a strange combination of White Heat ("Top of the world, Ma!!!") and Fear Strikes Out! ("Is that good enough for you, Dad?!?!). He's forever whining about how tough a parent his father was, how nothing was ever good enough for him, and how he kept threatening that Jose would end up working at Burger King or McDonald's. "My father was a real perfectionist. He was tough on himself, always trying to do everything in life perfectly. And he was hard on us, too. But my father was expecting too much of us, and we couldn't live up to such high expectations. Now he says he hopes he didn't push us too much." Perhaps most telling is how his dad would give him $5 for every home run he hit. If you grow large thinking baseball is all about home runs, it's just a short step to marketing the game a la pro grappling—one of Canseco's other brilliant ideas about how baseball can better entertain the fans.

When his mother was dying, he made her and himself a vow that he'd become the "best athlete on the planet," leaving the reader to wonder how she would feel about her son's cheating to achieve his goals, not to mention the rest of his "lifestyle."

The passages about his parents point to another recurring theme in the book: When Canseco isn't bragging, he's blaming. He blames everyone and everything else for his shortcomings and poor choices. The blame includes manager Tony LaRussa, the strike, Donald Fehr, the players union, the owners, the umpires.

As far as the book itself is concerned, the fault is not all Canseco's. Besides the contradictions and inconsistencies, Juiced is poorly written, poorly organized, and poorly edited. Anyone who saw the 60 Minutes episode and subsequent interviews had to wonder whether Canseco had read his own book. A good guess would be that there was some half-fast editing after Canseco delivered it, such as the awkwardly inserted quotations one would not usually associate with an autobiographical work: "ŽBy 1984 Jose's name was already buzzing throughout the organization,' says Pedro Gomez of ESPN."; "ŽHe flew me to Boston,' [second wife] Jessica said." Isn't this supposed to be a first-person narrative? It reads more like a series of disorganized, ridiculously short, underdeveloped personal essays, and Montaigne he is not.

Although there's not much in this book to praise, Canseco does score some points for partial honesty. He seems sincere when he joins umpires on the picket line. He documents the officiating crisis and some of its manifestations, including umpires asking players for sporting goods and participation at charity event ball signings. He even accuses Roger Clemens of getting prime tee times for umpires at the best country clubs, a practice that opposing pitchers and hitters—and perhaps even Commissioner Bud—might disapprove of if found to be true. There's also a long quote by A-Rod on what a good guy Canseco is because he gives so much to charity. Admittedly, Canseco does do a lot of good charity work and signs a lot of autographs for free, but after bragging about his too-conspicuous consumption, the reader will not confuse him with Roberto Clemente.

Canseco also does a fair job documenting some of the prejudice and bigotry that Latin players endure at the hands of umpires, sportswriters, and baseball in general. He describes his experiences in the Pioneer League in a way reminiscent of one of last year's great books, Stealing Lives, which documented the conditions endured by Central and South American baseball prospects. Still, quite a number of his examples are marred by additional contradictions. When Jack Clark got a bigger contract than Kevin Mitchell, Canseco spoke out about it and got high fives from minority players around the league. But when he overhears a sportswriter ask if a new Latin player spoke English, he contends, "The sportswriter would never do that with Schwarzenegger." Yet there are Latin players who do not speak enough English to participate in an untranslated, after-game interview. (Arnold's difficulties have more to do with second language interference and poor enunciation.)

Canseco even has some fun things to say about the owner-commissioner's old team and the progress he's made toward profit sharing. "The Milwaukee Brewers want to make as much money as the New York Yankees, even though the Brewers are fielding a brutal, horseshit team." A lot of teams "aren't even trying to win—never mind putting together a world-class team. They're trying to save money." But Canseco doesn't blame Bud for this. He simply states, "The brotherhood steers the ship."

While he names names when it comes to his teammates and other players, even players he personally turned on to steroids and growth hormones, he lets the owners and the owner-commissioner off easy when he states, "I'm not going to name any actual owners; I don't want anyone picking up a phone and sending a hit man after me."

The one former owner he does attempt to call out is George W. Bush, but he does more dancing than fighting. According to Canseco, Bush and then Texas Rangers general manager Tom Grieve saw all these "guys getting bigger before their eyes . . . [b]ut they never made an issue of it." He points out how Bush sat behind the dugout and spent a lot of time in the clubhouse, but he also notes that the future president spent most of his time there talking to Nolan Ryan and avoiding the Latin players. He calls Bush on his apparent hypocrisy in having his administration try to turn steroids into a witch hunt, even though Bush and Company helped move the (steroid) revolution forward. He further states, "There was no question that George W. Bush knew my name was connected with steroids—the story Tom Boswell had written in 1988 wasn't the last word on the subject—but he decided to make the deal to trade for me anyway."

Whether you concur with his take on steroids or not, Canseco does help document the scope of the problem. He notes that "a lot of bodybuilders supplement their income by selling" steroids and "so do trainers in gyms, and sometimes the owners of the gyms themselves. . . . I know people who have made millions and millions of dollars selling steroids. The profits can be incredible."

In sum, the reader is left with two major questions: Why did Canseco write the book, and how do we get steroids back in the bottle?

As to the first question, Canseco notes that he's being sued for millions of dollars, so that at least might be part of his motive. As for the latter, enforcing U.S. laws and MLB rules might be a place to start. Where were the FBI? the DEA? the Bureau of ATF? the Florida Highway Patrol?

At the end of the book Canseco writes, "All I'm saying is the lives we lead are the products of the choices we make." "It took me some time to think about what I wanted to say in this book and compose these chapters, but things have a way of working out, don't they?"

Sure. Just ask Ken Caminiti.



—EFQ

 

DAN SCHWARTZ teaches at Saint Louis University. He loves baseball, but hates what's been happening to the game, from the Machiavellian owners to the steroid-using sluggers.

© 2005 Dan Schwartz

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