HARLINGEN — Jose Canseco strolled briskly into the Harlingen Field clubhouse at 10:34 on Saturday morning.
Twenty minutes had passed since batting practice concluded, and 31 remained until the start of day two of the former big leaguer’s latest comeback tour.
An hour earlier, a 45-year-old man wearing a ponytail that stretched to the middle of the jersey number on his back arrived to the stadium via bicycle. Another gentleman exited the clubhouse sporting a handle bar mustache of which former Oakland Athletics reliever Rollie Fingers would be proud.
Somehow, in all this calamity, the 48-year-old Canseco stood out as perhaps the most absurd part of the Texas Winter League’s three-ring circus.
All four teams in the league played Saturday, and Canseco didn’t know which two teams for which he would be playing. He ended up playing for the Brownsville Stars in the first game and the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings in the second.
The man who made a career performing in sold-out stadiums hit cleanup before an audience of barely more than 100 people.
After today’s winter league games conclude, he’ll have spent three days playing with a strange amalgamation of players eager to break through and athletes hanging on for one last shot.
“Our lives are what we make them. Every day is a great baseball day and every day you get to play baseball is a beautiful day,” 39-year old catcher Tony Hinderman said, before giving his thoughts on the drugs Canseco used at the height of his career.
“Some guys do what they gotta do,” Hinderman said. “Has it tainted the game? Definitely. Was it fair? No.”
Canseco coaxed a walk in his first trip up to bat before being pinch-run for, the wear in his legs present even if years of steroids helped the slugger maintain a strong upper body.
He won two World Series titles, the 1986 American League rookie of the year and the 1988 AL MVP in 17 major league seasons. And he no longer owns any hardware associated with it.
After writing “Juiced,” revealing steroid use around baseball and outing big-name players, Canseco claimed he was effectively exiled from the game. And when money ran dry, all the possessions associated with his career eventually went away with it.
“I got rid of everything I owned from MLB when I wrote that book,” Canseco said.
Canseco sat on the dugout bench between at-bats Saturday at Harlingen Field and shared his thoughts, thoughts on anything that came to his mind.
He believes he was outcast from the game at age 37, three years after hitting 34 homers for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and four seasons after launching a career-high 46 with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“By the time I was 35, 36, 37, I was being blackballed out of the game, the reason being I educated players, trainers how to use steroids properly,” he said.
“They wanted to get rid of me to send a message to the players to stop using steroids or we’re going to do to you what we did to Canseco. At age 37, I didn’t have a job, and I tried to play for teams for free.”
To the delight of nobody in attendance, Canseco walked again.
He’s a divided figure, even here. The sparse crowd of mostly Winter Texans wanted to delight in a disgraced former icon’s misery of striking out or gaze in amazement at a 450-foot bomb. Bases on balls suited nobody.
This time, Canseco refused the aid of a pinch-runner. The league made a special rule for its ringer this weekend. Mainly, he doesn’t have to run if he doesn’t want to. The inning ended shortly after and Canseco’s topic of conversation turned to the baseball Hall of Fame.
“They’re talking about taking players’ complete careers away from them,” Canseco said. “That’s ridiculous, that’s so stupid. That’s ignorance. People who have a vote for the Hall of Fame are making big mistakes because there are already players in the Hall of Fame that used chemicals.
“Mark McGwire in ’86 came up, he was completely clean, hit 49 home runs in the most difficult ballpark to hit home runs (Oakland Coliseum),” Canseco added. “If he was to be playing in a dome, say a smaller ballpark, he would hit 65 easy. And he was completely clean. Now all of a sudden, using steroids, all that’s undermined. It’s pure ignorance, jealousy and envy. But how can you take all that away from that man?”
Canseco essentially came to the defense of a man he implicated when he wrote “Juiced.” In the book, he wrote that he injected his then-A’s teammate with steroids.
McGwire later admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs and has yet to make much of a dent in the voting for Cooperstown. Yet there remains a bit of hypocrisy when a man asks to forgive the player he implicated.
But it wasn’t the last hypocritical statement Canseco made Saturday.
Canseco rounded out game one on Saturday, a 13-1 Brownsville win against the McAllen Thunder, going 0 for 2, reaching on an error and grounding out.
As he made his way back to the locker room to change into a WhiteWings uniform, the few fans in attendance gathered around the clubhouse, where Canseco gave an impromptu press conference/autograph session.
Canseco closed the meeting by stating he is glad the baseball is clean now.
But he never actually apologized for using steroids. And in relation to tobacco and alcohol, he thinks it’s safer than other products legal on the open market.
“Hundreds of people die from liquor, from tobacco, from everything really,” Canseco said. “DUIs, car crashes, whatever. I don’t think there’s been any long-term testing done. It’s impossible to tell what the long-term effect (steroids have). Are there things in today’s market that kill people and are legal? Absolutely.
“You see that every day. If you told me you have to use one of the three: you have to smoke cigarettes, drink or use steroids, I definitely would use steroids because I know the other two will kill you for sure.”
Canseco gathered with his agent, Jose Melendez, in between games. The two claimed to have three television shows in the works, one of which stars Canseco helping regular people earn termination from jobs they hate.
“It’s called, ‘I Quit,’ which might be in production now,” Canseco said. “It actually helps guys quit their jobs by making them do crazy things. I think I shot a pilot for that. They want to quit their jobs, and I’m the guy that comes in and helps them do something crazy to their boss so that their boss will fire them.”
Melendez revealed that Canseco hates the media and the attention.
“He’s your classic shy guy,” Melendez said. “Very shy, very standoffish.”
Canseco certainly hasn’t been shy about taking seemingly any reality television, celebrity boxing match or independent league baseball opportunity to come his way.
And he clearly wasn’t standoffish when asked to talk about someone he doesn’t like, such as MLB commissioner Bud Selig.
“I think Bud Selig’s a total moron,” Canseco said. “I don’t know how he’s commissioner. I have no idea how that guy’s commissioner.”
The crowd that showed up Saturday was certainly loyal, sticking around long enough to watch Canseco play once more in game two.
When he wasn’t up to bat, Canseco looked a nervous mess, complete with constant sniffling, a facial tic and an obsession with the cherry Chapstick he kept in his pocket.
But at the dish, he claimed a steady focus. He started game two with a liner down the left-field line that strayed from the defense long enough to allow him to stumble into second base with a double.
He followed his extra-base hit with a long drive not quite deep enough to get out of the park. He settled back into the dugout, complained that “that’s a home run in Fenway” and retook his perch along the dugout rail.
Two more at-bats followed, and after a swinging strikeout and popup to shortstop, Canseco finished the day 1 for 6.
Canseco has maintained potential interest from the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings in bringing him aboard for the regular season this spring.
But after attracting a limited gate for two winter league days, a 2 for 14 performance in four games and not donning a major league uniform since 2001, one has to wonder if everybody’s had enough of Jose Canseco.