Nearly 16 years after retirement, Jose Canseco is bringing his colorful personality back to the majors. NBC Sports has hired him as an analyst for 25 Oakland A’s games this season.
USA TODAY Sports
LAS VEGAS – Jose Canseco sits at one of the two long poker tables in the living room of his Las Vegas home, his massive biceps bulging through his tank top, and he’s ready to take a swing at any topic thrown at him.
His perceived banishment from the game? He’ll give you chapter and verse on that.
Regrets over writing the book that made him a pariah in baseball? Yes, plenty.
Do steroid users belong in the Hall of Fame? Hell, yeah, and there are some in there already.
His chances of one day managing in the majors? Better than zero.
Blowing through the $46 million he made as a player? It’s easier than you think.
His choice of attire – tank top and skull cap – on his TV appearances? Fans love it.
Through a good portion of his 52 years on this planet – and some may suggest he belongs in another one – Canseco has earned a reputation for speaking his mind, and he did so for more than an hour in an interview with USA TODAY Sports.
His outspoken nature is part of what made Canseco attractive to the Oakland Athletics and their TV partner, NBC Sports California, who hired him to do pre- and postgame analysis on 25 of the team’s games this season.
This is his first job in the majors since, he believes, being forced into early retirement after the 2001 season at age 37 when no team would offer him a contract, even at the minimum salary.
Canseco is convinced he could have played another five years but was blackballed from the game because of his strong links to performance-enhancing drugs, which he chronicled in the 2005 book Juiced. He went down swinging, accusing big stars like former teammates Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez and Jason Giambi of using steroids. Many of his claims were later confirmed.
Canseco didn’t envision the day he would return to baseball’s good graces – he doesn’t think his current gig meets that description – but the A’s saw their former slugger as a great fit for their needs.
Coming off consecutive last-place finishes and bereft of stars, the A’s were not exactly ratings magnets. New team president Dave Kaval saw in the onetime AL MVP a chance to liven up the broadcasts and create a buzz while rekindling in fans thoughts of a happier past.
“I thought it was a joke when they first called me. I’m going, ‘C’mon, this is a bad joke.’ Is it April Fools? Who is this?’’’ Canseco said. “If you look at my history, I wrote the book ‘Juiced’ and I was kind of excommunicated from Major League Baseball. Nobody would hire me in the baseball world, whether in coaching, whether as an analyst, bat boy, nothing.’’
So far the A’s are glad they took a chance, and they’re even promoting his appearances on social media.
Canseco is not as polished as Dallas Braden, who along with fellow ex-pitcher Dave Stewart has also joined the broadcasts as an analyst this season, but brings a self-deprecating sense of humor and particularly keen observations on hitting.
He’s also unafraid to rip the A’s when they perform poorly, comparing them to a Triple A team during a lousy spell in April.
In a Bay Area sports landscape that includes two NFL teams, the hugely popular Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco Giants, anything that helps the A’s separate themselves from the pack represents a plus.
If Canseco likens a long game to sexual foreplay and an A’s walk-off win to climax, as he did last week, well, that’s part of the package.
“People have been impressed by his knowledge of the team, the players and the league,’’ Kaval said. “So he’s providing a lot of insightful commentary. At the same time, there’s a shock value to some of the things he says, but there are some kernels of truth to them as well.’’
The self-proclaimed “Godfather of steroids,’’ Canseco did plenty to draw the ire of baseball, during and after his playing days.
Gallery: Jose Canseco, getting back in game
While with the A’s in 1989 he was arrested for illegal possession of a weapon, and three years later he was charged with aggravated battery for allegedly ramming his wife’s BMW with his Porsche. In 1998, Canseco pleaded no contest to a charge of domestic violence for hitting his second wife, Jessica.
He also pleaded guilty to criminal battery charges stemming from a 2001 bar fight in Miami Beach that also involved his twin brother Ozzie. A decade later, Jose sent Ozzie to impersonate him at a South Florida boxing match in which he was supposed to fight.
All those incidents, along with the home run ball that bounced off his head and the unsavory post-baseball appearances in an MMA fight and celebrity boxing matches combined to sully a career that featured six All-Star Game invites and 462 home runs, turning Canseco into a caricature.
That image has been exacerbated by the 2014 gun accident in which he shot his left middle finger and his stream-of-consciousness tweets on topics from robots to women to bodily functions.
The misadventures may also erode the credibility of Canseco’s claims when he says of MLB, “Obviously they blackballed us.’’
Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who was at the helm of the A’s for most of Canseco’s first eight seasons with them, was highly critical of his book but reestablished a relationship with his former star in recent years, and actually speaks fondly of him.
Still, La Russa maintains Canseco was not banished from the game but rather became more trouble than he was worth as his injuries mounted and his skills diminished. Between 1992, when the A’s traded him to the Texas Rangers, and his final season of 2001, Canseco played in more than 120 games just once. He reached the 30-homer mark three times in that span, the last one in 1999 with the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
“He had some situations where his ego and the bigness of him vs. being a part of the team became an issue, so that’s something people factored in,’’ La Russa said. “Everybody was aware of the fact he’d spoken out, and he had a PED issue and he was bigger than life. Blackball is a very strong term, and I absolutely don’t believe that was the overriding factor.’’
La Russa thinks highly enough of Canseco’s baseball IQ that he and Stewart discussed hiring him when they ran the Arizona Diamondbacks together from 2014-16, although the conversation didn’t go far.
Canseco’s path back to the game started taking shape three years ago when he attended a reunion at the Oakland Coliseum to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the A’s 1989 World Series championship.
Known for his bravado and imposing physical presence (6-4, 240 pounds) as a player, Canseco was so worried about the reception he would get from former teammates and fans, he could hardly sleep the week before. He was actually greeted warmly by both camps, although it bears mentioning that McGwire – with whom Canseco has tried to mend fences, unsuccessfully – was not there.
“He was nervous as hell,’’ said Stewart, the staff ace during their years together in Oakland. “I don’t think I’d ever seen him nervous, not where you could visibly see it. Josey’s always been very, very composed. It was actually refreshing to see the nervousness and a little bit of the shyness, timidness.’’
The nervousness resurfaced in Canseco’s early TV appearances, broadcast from a studio set up in his house, but has diminished as he has grown more comfortable in a role he never thought he’d perform.
Though he enjoys the gig, Canseco would much rather be on the field in uniform as a coach or, preferably, a manager.
“I’ve gone through so many ups and downs that I believe there’s a chance I might be a major league manager one day,’’ he said. “No matter how small it is, I believe there’s a chance. I truly do. And that’s my dream, to eventually do that. Because I love baseball. I’ve always loved baseball. That’s the best job in the world to me, to be a manager. I would rather be a manager of a baseball team than to win the lottery.’’
The odds of either of those events happening appear fairly similar, though perhaps they’re more likely than Canseco entering the Hall of Fame. In his first year of eligibility, 2007, he received 1.1% of the vote, considerably below the 5% required to stay on the ballot.
Canseco acknowledges he didn’t produce enough during the second half of his 17-year career to merit serious Hall consideration, but he makes an impassioned case for other steroid-tainted players.
“I don’t have the stats. I was injured all the time and I didn’t play enough,’’ he said. “But other players that used PEDs? Hell, yeah. The Mark McGwires, the (Barry) Bonds, the Clemens, the Palmeiros, the Juan Gonzalezes, the Sammy Sosas. Are you kidding me? Those guys with those legendary stats, how can you keep them out of the Hall of Fame?
“And on that subject, it’s simple: If you let one PED user in the Hall of Fame, you have to let them all in. Don’t be a hypocrite.’’
So, which players now in the Hall used PEDs? Canseco says he knows, but this time he’s not naming names. He learned from the damage inflicted by his book, which forced baseball to confront its PED problem but also – fairly or not – tarnished the reputation of several peers.
Former Kansas City Royals pitcher Mark Gubicza, now a color commentator with the Los Angeles Angels, welcomes Canseco into the broadcasting fraternity and speaks highly of him, but points out his book hit a raw nerve.
“It’s like saying something about your family member,’’ Gubicza said. “Sometimes it might be to the benefit of your family member, but it’s always difficult to do that, because this is one tight family, the baseball family.’’
Canseco acknowledges the motives behind the book were hardly pure: He was angry at MLB for supposedly ostracizing him and at the players union for not backing him up.
Still, in many ways it was the messenger who got killed.
“The one who took the worst beating was me, the death threats was me, excommunicated by Major League Baseball was me,’’ Canseco said. “Even other players who they knew at the time were using PEDs are inducted in the Hall of Fame, are being taken care of by MLB. I regret deeply hurting some of my friends, I do. But I think people have to understand I took the major blow, and everyone else got, I guess, protected by MLB.’’
MLB officials declined to comment, but apparently did not oppose his joining the A’s broadcasting crew. The gig represents a new source of income for Canseco, who makes his living through personal appearances, speaking engagements, home run derbies and hawking products.
Once the highest-paid player in baseball, Canseco filed for bankruptcy in Nevada in 2012. He said taxes, two divorces and a penchant for helping out friends and relatives sucked away all his money. A taste for fancy cars may have figured somewhere in there as well.
Canseco now lives with a cat and two dogs in a large but unremarkable house at the foot of the Sunrise Mountains, in a neighborhood about 12 miles from the Las Vegas Strip where houses of 3,000-plus square feet cost around $400,000. He and Ozzie still go bowling and play softball together. Their days of brawling in a bar seem to be in the past.
Years of abusing steroids left Jose Canseco incapable of producing enough natural testosterone and forced him into a replacement-therapy program, but he says his real drug was the game, and withdrawal was difficult.
“My addiction was never PEDs,’’ Canseco said. “It was baseball.’’
He’s clearly happy to be connected to the game again, and to have another platform to express his views.
Tom Stathakes, general manager of NBC Sports California, says the network is giving Canseco plenty of leeway to be himself.
“As long as it’s not personal, he can basically say whatever he wants,’’ Stathakes said. “I wouldn’t exactly dress the way he does, but we’ve sort of let that go for now because we knew that’s who he is. We didn’t say, OK, we’re going to hire Jose Canseco and now we thought he was going to be a very conservative broadcaster sitting in the corner. We knew exactly what we were getting.’’