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Jose Canseco: Pioneer or Pariah?

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I love Bill James’ writing on baseball. Actually, I just love the whole concept of Bill James. Like me, he was a sort of dorky baseball super fan trained in statistics, who leveraged that into a full time spot for himself right in the heart of the sport. Without Bill James there is no Moneyball. He has arguably been as significant to the history of baseball as anyone since Jackie Robinson. He literally changed the way the sport was played.

Yesterday, I learned on Blogcritics that James had finally weighed in on steroids in an article entitled “Cooperstown and the ‘roids.”

After reading it, I was shocked at how similar it sounded to every single thing that Jose Canseco said in his book, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big.

I pointed that out to a friend and he replied with the following question: “So is Canseco actually smart or did he just get lucky?”

My answer: Canseco is definitely that smart.

Let’s get a couple things out of the way first.

1. Juiced is in no way a literary work of art, it is however without a shadow of a doubt the most significant sports release of all time in terms of how it wound up affecting the game it chronicled.

2. Canseco has possibly become an even more significant figure in the evolution of the game than James. It’s become fairly accepted history that steroid use was this ugly plague that Canseco unleashed and popularized. Most look at him as a pariah. If Jose thought he was blackballed from baseball a decade ago, you can only imagine how likely he is to ever get another job within the game again now.

Fair or not, Hall of Famer Cap Anson has been historically blamed for segregation in baseball, and Canseco, likewise, will always be seen similarly with regards to steroids, but to blame baseball’s steroid problems on Canseco is just plain silly. Do you really think that had Jose “just said no” that steroids never would have hit baseball. The establishment will tell you that Canseco is comparable to “Freeway” Ricky Ross’ impact on the popularization of crack, but at most Jose probably just sped things up by maybe a year or so.

I must admit that I read Juiced expecting very little (a mindless read perhaps) and actually came away extremely impressed. Did anyone who reviewed this book at the time of its release not use it as a forum to vent their anger about the steroid situation at Canseco and his “cash in” book?

Perhaps the one thing that most angered the press at Canseco’s autobiography is the fact that it was in no way an “I made a big mistake and I’m sorry for it” memoir. You know, like the one Michael Vick will be paid a few million to write some day.

Canseco put things quite simply in Juiced. Without steroids he wasn’t nearly good enough to make the Major Leagues, and he made the personal decision to change that. My guess is that Jose loses no sleep at night knowing that he traded your respect for hundreds of millions of dollars. He also writes in Juiced that he not only thinks that most people would have done the same thing, but that he also thinks that you’d be a fool not to.

In my mind, there are plenty of huge fortunes out there that made leagues shadier than Canseco’s. I’m willing to admit it. If I were in Canseco’s shoes and knew the payoff I’d have probably done it too.

Canseco argues that he made that decision after doing a lot of research on steroids. It’s his contention (and everything else he said in that book has been proven true) that he knew exactly what he was doing to his body, good and bad, claiming that it was not only easy to instantly see who was doing steroids in baseball, but it was also really easy to see who wasn’t using them very intelligently (Jason Giambi).

There isn’t a single mea culpa in Juiced. Canseco argued that he felt that steroids were the path that mankind would use to live longer and healthier lives in 2005, something that James just wrote nearly word for word. I’ve always wondered what people would say about the obliteration of the record books if steroids were as benign as vitamins. They probably someday will be.

People were shocked when Jim Bouton revealed rampant amphetamine abuse in Ball Four. People wanted to be just as shocked about Juiced, but anyone who claims to have been is either lying or an idiot.

Steroid use by East German swimmers in the Olympics was such a given as long ago as the '70s that jokes about it were very likely Johnny Carson staples on The Tonight Show every four years. Ben Johnson over Carl Lewis was way back in 1988.

Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire instantly became baseball pioneers in the late '80s by challenging the accepted notion that lifting weights was a harmful training activity for baseball players. Conventional wisdom had always been that weightlifting would by ruin a baseball player by robbing him of too much flexibility. There were a million articles about it back in the day and almost every single one pondered whether Canseco and McGwire were using illegal drugs.

As Claude Rains said in Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" As Claude Rains also said in Casablana, "Round up the usual suspects."

Bill James’ article mostly deals not with the present day, but with how things will look in 40 or 50 years. My guess — and James seems to agree — is that by then Jose Canseco will probably look a lot better and Bud Selig and the other so called custodians of the game a whole lot worse.

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  • Brad Laidman

    Didn’t even realize that Canseco just dropped this bombshell. I guess it would be good as a writer to do my research before I write the article. :)

    “It’s not about naming names,” he said. “I’ve never had anything against the players. It’s always been against Major League Baseball. I know who’s on that list, but like I said, it’s not about attacking the players. It’s about the machine that allowed this to happen. What I speak out of my mouth is the truth. It burns like fire. Just remember, I have never lied about this subject.”