First, a look at the bright side of the Oakland Athletics' season: The A's have won more games than any other team in the major leagues (86-51 through Sunday); they have been in first place in the American League West since the third week of April and have led by at least three games since April 30. They have already set a home attendance record and will soon become the first Bay Area team to surpass the two million mark (the Giants drew 1,917,863 last year). They have the big league home run leader, who may, incidentally, become the first player in history to hit 40 or more homers and steal 40 or more bases in the same season, and who is the odds-on choice to become the American League's Most Valuable Player. They have last year's phenom who, while not quite the Ruthian presence he was then (49 homers), is still on a pace to hit more than 30 homers and drive in more than 100 runs. They have the majors' most productive relief pitcher and two of the league's five winningest starters, as well as a slick-fielding shortstop who has at least an outside chance of becoming Oakland's third straight Rookie of the Year. That's not all, of course, but you get the idea.
And now the bad news. Well...uh...that is...O.K., how about this? The ball doesn't carry in the Oakland Coliseum. Otherwise, rightfielder and prospective MVP Jose Canseco would be on course to hit 50 home runs, and first baseman Mark McGwire 40. And Canseco is peeved because people tend to think of him as some kind of machine instead of the sensitive sort he really is. And McGwire just wishes everyone would shut up about last year and take him for what he's worth this season. "Look, I don't think I'll ever hit 40 home runs again." he said last week after clouting his 26th and 27th in a three-game sweep of the Red Sox. "I'll be very happy to hit between 25 and 30 every year. Not many guys have done that." True enough. Says Canseco, "What Mark did last year was incredible. I don't see how anyone can expect him to do that again playing in this ballpark. Balls that go 440 feet in most parks don't reach the warning track here. If you want to set big goals for yourself, this isn't the place to do it."
And yet Canseco, who averaged 32 homers and 15 stolen bases in his first two full seasons, set a whopper for himself at the beginning of the season when he said he saw no reason why he couldn't become the league's first 40-40 man. Only 15 players have hit 30 or more homers and stolen 30 or more bases in the same season—Bobby Bonds did it five times, Willie Mays twice—and Canseco wants to go them 10 better. Not that anyone questioned his raw power—the 6'3", 230-pound Canesco's tee shots were already part of baseball legend. It's just that no one considered him much of a threat on the base paths.
That's because they hadn't been paying attention, says Canseco, who is, if anything, prouder of his speed than of his power. "People see me run, and they say I look lazy, lackadaisical," he says. "Then they time me, and they can't believe it. I've done a 3.8 from home to first, and that's from the right side of the plate. I've run races against just about everyone in this organization, and no one's beat me yet. My stride is deceptive. The smaller guys just look as if they're running faster, with their quick little steps. But I can beat them all."
Through Sunday, Canseco had 34 steals and 35 homers—the last of them a line drive, opposite-field, three-run shot that beat the Yankees 5-4 on Saturday—which puts him right on schedule for 40-40. And, says Oakland manager Tony La Russa, "He's not shooting for numbers, but to win games."
It somehow doesn't seem fair that so much speed and strength should reside in the same magnificent 24-year-old body. In fact, Canseco doesn't look so much like a ballplayer as a chiseled Mayan god. But he's offended, even hurt, when it's suggested he's that good only because his natural gifts give him an enormous advantage over lesser mortals. He prefers to be thought of as just another guy named Jose who has had to work hard for everything he has.
"There's so much talk about his power that people overlook the work he's done to correct his limitations," says Athletics hitting coach Jim Lefebvre. "He's spent hours working on his stroke, on his concentration, his patience at the plate. He's walking more now, not swinging at so many bad pitches. He's a better two-strike hitter."
"I don't think the average person has any idea of the amount of effort that goes into the kind of play he's giving us," says La Russa. "And I don't mean just his hitting. I'm looking at the whole package—his defense, his baserunning. He plays this game intelligently."
Canseco appreciates such comments because he sometimes suspects that no matter what he does, it isn't good enough for some people, including his own father, Jose Sr. "I hit three homers in a game earlier this year, and my father called from back home in Miami afterward and said, 'Hey, what happened in your other at bats?' I mean, give me a break, Dad, will ya?"
Part of Canseco's problem lies in the great expectations he arouses. "Jose didn't exactly sneak into this league," says La Russa. Indeed, his arrival late in the '85 season was trumpeted as if he were the reincarnation of the Babe himself. After an astonishing climb through the minors—he hit 25 homers in just 58 Double A games in '85—he had fans everywhere he played gaping at his monstrous homers. Crowds around the league assembled early just to watch him rattle the rafters in batting practice, until the A's told him to save his big swings for games. But the poor man had become a legend before his time.