Jose Canseco had the look about him of a man on the brink of a momentous decision. He had been sitting apart from his teammates in the cramped Oakland Coliseum clubhouse pondering the implications of a slump that had left him with but two hits in his last 22 times at bat, and without a home run in two weeks. It had been an appalling drought for a hitter of such uncommon resources, and Canseco was not happy. At the same time, the young leftfielder was not especially downcast. He is only a rookie and would not turn 22 until July 2, but he has a philosophical turn of mind. "My mechanics are bad right now," he said coolly. "You have to expect that the pitchers will make their pitches now and then and get you out. I'm trying to stay levelheaded about it, trying not to let myself get down. I'm only 21 and I've got a lot to learn, not just about baseball but about a lot of things. I could be in the minors right now, after all. And I know I'll get back in the groove pretty soon."
It was an admirable speech for one of such tender years—thoughtful and balanced. Then came the shocker: "I may be developing some bad habits in batting practice. A lot of times I'll catch myself in the cage trying to impress the crowd. I don't think that's doing me much good. I was up late last night thinking about a lot of things. And I think what I may do is not take BP for a week or so, or at least until I get back in a groove."
Now, just a minute here. Not take batting practice? No way, Jose. Jose Canseco without batting practice is...well...like Baryshnikov without dancing shoes, Wynton Marsalis without a horn, Liz without a man. Canseco has taken one of his game's more pedestrian activities and transformed it into an art form. Indeed, the way the A's have been playing lately, there may well be fans who show up at the ballpark only to see Canseco take BP. After watching him hit those majestic shots into the ionosphere, the actual game itself seems tame and uneventful in comparison. Why even bother to stick around for it? Canseco is the Al Jolson of BP: Just when you think you've seen it all, he quickly proves that "you ain't seen nothin' yet." And it's not just fans he impresses; he leaves teammates and opposing players gasping in admiration right along with the folks in the seats. When Jose steps into the cage, everything stops.
It's hardly fair to say that all he's done for the A's is provide pregame entertainment. At week's end he led the majors in RBIs with 66, and his 19 homers tied him for the major league lead with Angel rookie Wally Joyner and Toronto's Jesse Barfield. Canseco was batting only .263, but his slugging percentage was .519. Still, it's his BP that has players talking.
Listen to Mike Pagliarulo of the Yankees: "Everybody watches Canseco. It's a show. He hits one after another over the fence, most of them to the opposite field. 'Line drives, not fly balls. The man is strong. He's something to watch." One Canseco BP performance was almost too much for Pagliarulo to bear, however. After seeing the mighty A hit one out on a half swing at Yankee Stadium, Pagliarulo took a hike. "I'm not watching this anymore," he muttered. "He checked his swing and hit one of the longest shots I've seen. That's enough."
"He puts on as good an exhibition as anybody in the game," says Yankee manager Lou Piniella. "He hits them out at every part of the ballpark. I think the next time we play them, I might tell my, pitchers they shouldn't watch him in BP. It can be a little intimidating."
Canseco began building his BP legend during spring training in Phoenix. The centerfield fence at Phoenix Stadium is some 430 feet from home plate, and it is topped by a 45-foot-high wooden backstop, "the green monster" of Arizona. Hitters have cleared that barrier before, but not very often and never, in anyone's memory, more than once. Canseco routinely cleared it in his BP exhibitions this spring, so many times, in fact, that not even he can recall the exact number. "Lots," he simply says.
Phoenix crowds would arrive early for the show and rise to applaud Canseco after every BP performance. The tradition continued into the season. Newspapers in American League cities would advise spectators to show up early and catch the youngster's act. Canseco rarely disappointed them. Jackie Moore, who was fired as the Oakland manager last week, says, "He'll hit a ball and you'll say there's no way anybody can hit anything that far. Then he'll hit one farther. He does put on a show."
But not everyone has been amused—specifically, Bob Watson, the A's roving batting instructor. "I don't like his work habits," Watson said in early June after watching a Canseco BP show in Chicago. "He's taking batting practice for the media. He wants to put on a good show for the people, so he's trying to hit the ball on the roof or over the roof. I told him we'd rather have him putting on a crummy show for the media and a good show for us. He's hurting himself and he's hurting the club. I have a saying with him: 'I'd rather you hit it through the fence than over the fence.' "
Canseco almost did exactly that during a game in Baltimore in mid-May when his line drive hit the wall in left with such force that it rebounded nearly to the infield. Canseco said later it may have been the ball he'd hit hardest all year—and that's saying something—but it got to the wall so quickly, he was held to a mere single. "If we had been playing in Fenway," said Oriole pitcher Scott McGregor, the victim of that laser beam, "the ball would have stuck in the wall."