Jose Canseco Comes to Lynchburg

It was not that long ago that Jose Canseco was rocketing baseballs over major league fences. During his seventeen year Major League career he earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1986, was named the American League MVP in 1988 with 42 home runs and 40 stolen bases – the first 40/40 season ever recorded. His final at-bat came with the Chicago White Sox in the 2001 season. Although he did go to spring training with the Montreal Expos the following year, he was released before the season began.

Now he tours minor league ballparks doing autograph sessions for avid fans and displaying his physical talents in home run hitting contests against groups of local players.

This tour started in the summer of 2014 when he and his agent called around to minor leagues teams throughout the Midwest to see if there was interest. There was.

“So we decided to buy a 40 foot RV. We went to 22 or 23 cities and did home run competitions.” said Canseco.

Perhaps the most memorable stop of the CansecoMobile in 2014 was in Lexington Kentucky, home of the Low Class-A Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League.

For the usual home run competition’s Canseco is pitted against a group of locals. Each hitter gets ten outs, so any ball not clearing the fences of the ballpark is an out. This means Canseco gets 10 outs, while his competition has a combined total of outs based upon the number of participants, usually 40 or more, in which they need to match or exceed his total.

In Lexington things did not quite follow this plan.

Instead of just local softball and baseball players or other local celebrities taking part, then Legends manager and former Major Leaguer, Brian Buchanan joined the competition.
Canseco had 15 homers, but was out muscled by the combined team with Buchanan on it, as the Legends manager hit 15 of his own, to go with 5 more from the local celebrity crew, to give the locals the win.

“Yeah I did hit the 15 homers” said Buchanan now the manager of the High Class-A Wilmington Bluerocks, “but I have to admit that when I woke up the next morning, every part of my body hurt. So it came with a price, but I had fun. I think the fans had some fun, and it was a good deal.”
On Friday July 10th the Canseco home run tour came to Lynchburg Virginia and Calvin Falwell Field.

He is not currently touring in the CansecoMobile, but came to Lynchburg to face off against a quartet of locals including local sports reporter Justin Feldkamp and three other volunteers.
Asked about his home run swing for that day he said, “We’re gonna have to check it out. My softball swing is probably better than my baseball swing.”

The competition in Lynchburg was not as exhilarating as the previous year’s event in Lexington.

The locals had a single home run, hit by Lynchburg fireman Travis Guthrie, a line drive shot into the tree behind the left field corner, about 325 feet.

Guthrie’s response when asked how he felt about beating Canseco in a home run hitting contest, “Pretty good.”

Canseco had no home runs during the competition, showing warning track power in the left field alley where several balls were caught by the boys standing out there to shag the balls that would come up short. He continued to hit once the competition was over, and after about 20 swings to knock off the rust, he began to put some out of the park.

Cleveland Indians fans should recall Canseco for what some might consider the most infamous baseball blooper recorded on videotape, a home run ball that bounced off Canseco’s head at the old Cleveland Stadium.

Major League baseball has not released an official video version of the play, ostensibly because Canseco has been blackballed from affiliated ball, but a home video camera version from a televised broadcast is available on YouTube.

Asked about the play Canseco, clearly reminiscent, recounted his memory of the play.

“It was the funniest thing ever. You know when you’re growing up as a kid the first thing they tell you is, never take your eyes off the ball, and of course I took my eyes off the ball.”

Canseco continues his tale. “In Cleveland, that old ballpark, had a little bit of a crosswind, so I went back and as I’m moving back, for one second I look back to see where the wall was, cause I’m a big guy, 6’4” and 240 pounds at the time. The ball got there so fast that by the time I looked up it had hit me off the top of my head, so fast I really did not feel it hit me.”

The video shows the ball bouncing off Canseco’s head and going over the wall. You can hear the TV announcers wondering at what Canseco and Texas Rangers center fielder David Hulse are saying to each other.

“I slammed into the wall and I’m looking for the ball on the ground.” said Canseco, “I look over to my right and David Hulse is on one knee laughing hysterically and right at that point I knew the ball had hit me somewhere, and went over the fence. We could not stop laughing for a whole inning.”

The ball, hit by Cleveland designated hitter Carlos Martinez, ricocheted off Canseco’s head and over the wall for a home run. It was Martinez’ only hit of the day and the Tribe won the game by a score of 7 – 6.

While in Lynchburg, Canseco did not just recount his tale of the blooper, but responded to questions about his 2005 tell-all book Juiced and his use of PEDs.

“Absolutely!” he exclaimed about whether his book had an effect on the use of PEDs in baseball. “I think the rules and regulations, penalties and fines have made it the best game in the world. I think it is completely, 100% free of PEDs.”

He has regrets, especially since several contemporary players who were also dogged by allegations of PED use, specifically Oakland A’s teammate Mark McGwire and San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, have found ways to get back into the game, McGwire as hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Bonds in working with Giants players during spring training.

“Before the book came out I was already blackballed. I was 36 years old and not being able to find a contract after some great years. The reason the book was written was so I could tell what happened to me. Why I couldn’t get a job anymore. Why nobody wanted me.”

He claims that his agent at the time even went so far as to offer his services free of charge, but he was considered out of bounds for any kind of contract with a Major League organization.

Asked if he would write the book again, he responded, “Yes, because it changed the game, but in my case it also severed me from the game of baseball. I’m not allowed to coach, manage or in certain ways be involved with affiliated baseball.”

Now at 51 years old, he still sports that impressive physique he had while a player, but challenges the conventional wisdom that PEDs will make a mediocre ballplayer into a superstar.

“I think the misconception is, I can inject you with chemicals and you’ll become a star player. That is so far from the truth. A perfect example is I have an identical twin brother (Ozzie Canseco), the closest thing there is to me genetically. We used the same chemicals, did the same workouts, ate the same food. Why did he not make it to the Major Leagues and break records? That goes to show you that steroids are overrated.”

In baseball luck is usually a product of hard work. The many hours spent in practice and in games lead to being able to take advantage of opportunities. We all can name players who got hot at the right time, perhaps in a September call up that raised their stock for organizational decision makers, or an unexpected injury that opens a spot that did not previously exist and the player takes advantage and forges a career. Based upon his family anecdote, Canseco now believes that opportunity played a more significant role in his career, than did PEDs.

Whatever the real effect of steroids on baseball performance, Canseco used them to maximize his physical attributes and parlayed the opportunity into a seventeen year career in the game he loves.

“When I turned 40, 45 you realize, you start losing your leg speed. Of course I can’t run as fast as I used to. I think the last thing that goes is the hand speed.”

With his CansecoMobile and opportunities to put on a show in minor league parks he can remain connected to the game.

“I think it’s the closest thing you’ve got for me. Staying in touch with the game and staying in touch with my addiction, which for me is baseball. As long as I can do it at some level that I won’t embarrass myself or the team I’m definitely going to keep playing.”

For the fans throughout minor league baseball we can remember his past performances, and see the man who once put on a display of power across the Major League landscape. If that is not what you wish to remember, there will always be the infamous blooper play.

“People call it a tragic event,” said Canseco, “I call it the most funniest blooper in baseball history.”

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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