Few have acted the fool like these two. It was as if, their skills shot, there was nothing left for them to parade but buffoonery. They would do anything, say anything. It has been two years now since either of them swung a bat with menace. Yet even as their stature has diminished prematurely—one is 32, the other 29—they have demanded attention.
Theirs has been the kind of behavior that makes true fans avert their gaze. The two of them have had physical problems, yes. The two of them have had problems at home, certainly. But these guys, in their puzzlement and their frustration, seemed to have been flat going nuts.
In Los Angeles, Darryl Strawberry put together two certifiably lame seasons in 1992 and '93, during which he hit all of .199 and 10 home runs for the Dodgers—after having averaged 31 homers over the preceding nine years. A back injury suffered in early '92, surgery later that season and a year of aborted comebacks served to excuse those totals. Still, the Dodgers began to lose patience. There were missed rehabilitation workouts, a shouting match with the general manager, an assault allegation by a girlfriend and an IRS investigation into possible tax evasion. In an interview in September, Strawberry even discussed suicide. And then, in November, while on tour with the Dodgers in Japan during L.A.'s destructive wildfires, he offhandedly said of his hometown, "Let it burn down."
And what of Jose Canseco? Like Strawberry, he was precocious. At 27, he had already hit 209 home runs and become the first player to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season. The off-field incidents, an arrest for gun possession and a ticket for traveling at a horrifying speed in a sports car, were considered part of the slugger's arrogance, the debris of his lifestyle—as natural and acceptable as the great drafts of air his swing produced.
And then, as in Strawberry's case, the gift seemed to desert him as he struggled through the 1992 season with back pain and a sore right shoulder. On Aug. 31 of that year, the Oakland A's, sensing a downward trajectory in his career, offloaded Canseco to the Texas Rangers. It was with Texas last May that Canseco let a fly ball bounce off his noggin and over the fence for a home run, a Keystone Kop routine that was edited onto that eternal loop of videotape—knuckleheads making the same stupid play, over and over, in every TV market in the country.
It was also with Texas that Canseco asked Ranger manager Kevin Kennedy to let him pitch an inning during a game in Boston last May 29. In a stunt that will not likely be repeated by this generation of power hitters, Canseco proceeded to blow out his elbow and miss most of the remainder of the 1993 season. If that was to finish his career, the ending could hardly have been more ridiculous.
We pause in our story for reflection. The crime of Strawberry and Canseco, in the modern morality play that big-money sports has become, is that they were not properly sensitive to their talents, not sufficiently appreciative of their good luck or wealth. That was their fundamental failure: They never thanked their lucky stars.
They had to swing huge, drive fast, sneer at every scrape. Their bravado was awesome, so long as they averaged 30 home runs. To average less—to average much, much less—was to invite humiliation from a smirking nation. Gentlemen, it's the American way.
Our story resumes, and we remind you that aside from the appetite with which we devour fallen heroes, there is nothing more American than a comeback. And so we return to Strawberry as he prepares to leave L.A. for spring training; we find him at Dodger Stadium, sitting in the stands next to leftfield, examining the sunshine where he expects to play this season.
To him, everything—his actions as well as the Dodgers'—can be explained by his back injury. "Really, it was the first time in my career I had to face something like that," he says. "It seems everything went downhill because of it. It was frustrating. It was devastating. Fingers pointing, people saying I was washed up. I understand it all. They want me out there playing. I want to be out there playing."