Canseco Uses His Head in Helping Tribe to Victory
Bob Toth | On 26, May 2020
It’s the kind of event that almost 30 years later seems improbable and remains one of the more bizarre home runs hit in the storied history of Major League Baseball.
Players have crashed into walls and over walls attempting to reel in deep flies, but the list of persons which can claim Jose Canseco’s experience with this particular memory and claim to fame has to be limited (although it has been, unfortunately, duplicated in recent years). Canseco, who mashed 462 homers in the big leagues over the course of a 17-year career (tarnished by performance enhancing allegations), never hit a home run that was quite as memorable to the one in question popped over the outfield fence in Cleveland in 1993.
In the final season of play at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, the cavernous and soon-to-be-razed home of the Indians for more than 60 years hosted an unusual sight in a contest between the Tribe and the visiting Rangers in game three of their home series against Texas. The struggling Indians, 18-28 and in dead last in the American League East once again, were looking to claim their first series win since the beginning of the month, when they won back-to-back series in a three-team homestand against Oakland and California.
Jose Mesa drew the starting nod for Cleveland, filling in for the injured Mike Bielecki, who needed some extra time while dealing with a sore right elbow. The coaching staff, however, was not optimistic about what Mesa may bring to the mound for the Wednesday evening start, especially when recognizing that he was pitching on just three days of rest after walking five and giving up seven hits in five and two-thirds innings in a loss against Detroit on May 22.
“When [pitching coach] Rick Adair came back from the bullpen after watching Jose warm up, he said, “He’s got nothing. We’ll be lucky to get five innings out of him,” said Indians manager Mike Hargrove in quotes in the May 27, 1993, edition of The Plain Dealer. “He had to pitch and he did a nice job.”
Mesa’s counterpart for the evening was the converted starter and southpaw, Kenny Rogers.
Mesa, a young right-hander in his first full season with the Indians after being picked up from Baltimore in July of the previous year, got into trouble quickly in the first as Cleveland fell in a hole right out of the gate. After David Hulse went down swinging to start the game, former friend of the feather Julio Franco popped a 1-2 pitch over the center field wall for a solo home run, putting Texas up by a 1-0 count. Mesa bounced back to strike out Canseco before Ivan Rodriguez doubled to left and Rafael Palmeiro padded that Rangers lead with a two-run blast to center to win an eight-pitch battle, giving Texas an early 3-0 edge. Mesa notched his third K of the inning, freezing Dean Palmer looking, in an all-or-nothing type of a frame.
The Tribe threatened with a pair of two-out singles by Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle in the home half, but Carlos Martinez was unable to capitalize on the scoring opportunity. Both pitchers fared better in the second, as Mesa got three consecutive fly ball outs while the Gambler set Cleveland down in order. Mesa needed just eight pitches to retire the top third of the Rangers order to start the third before his teammates got to work, as Baerga drove home Thomas Howard after he singled and Felix Fermin moved him to third with a double to left. After three, it was 3-1 Rangers.
Mesa retired the Rangers in order again in the fourth before things got a little wacky on the lake front. Rogers fell behind Martinez, 2-1, before the Cleveland DH caught a pitch below the belt and drove it the opposite way deep to right. Canseco raced back towards the 370′ sign and braced for impact with the wall. He looked up but, despite an outreached glove hand to defend himself, Canseco found himself rudely acquainted with 108 stitches of aggression. The ball missed his glove entirely and instead landed squarely atop the head before taking flight a second time and finding new residence on the other side of the right field wall for Martinez’s fourth home run of the season, making it a 3-2 game.
Hulse and Canseco gathered together in front of the sign emblazoned on the outfield wall recognizing the final season of play at Cleveland Stadium, as the grumpy old host witnessed something that even it had not seen in 62 years of baseball within a stone’s throw of Lake Erie. Hulse tried briefly to hide his laughter with his glove, but even the confused Canseco, staring back stunned at his empty glove, came to chuckles and smiled over the event that had just transpired.
Rogers, who had already given up four hits over the first three innings before the atypical roundtripper by Martinez to start the fourth, unraveled from there. Three pitches later, he plunked Reggie Jefferson. Glenallen Hill worked a walk on his payoff pitch. Alvaro Espinoza and Junior Ortiz both were retired quietly before a walk by Howard loaded the bases and Fermin, not known for RBI production, put the Tribe on top with a two-run single through the right side.
Mesa made it through five, getting a double play ball to get out of a brewing mess in the fifth after a one-out walk by Gary Redus and a single by Benji Gil. Rogers countered and held them with a quieter fifth of his own, working around a two-out baserunner when Jefferson reached on error.
Cleveland expanded on its one-run lead with a big sixth inning, forcing Rogers to fold them. Espinoza singled and Ortiz dropped down a sacrifice; the utility man hustled his way on the sleeping Rangers and motored all the way to third on the play. Howard could not get the run in as he grounded out for the second out, but Fermin’s big day continued as he singled to center to make it 5-3 and he scored on a triple by Baerga on a ball misplayed by Canseco (who thought the ball was foul) to make it 6-3. Jeff Bronkey came on in relief for the Rangers, but promptly gave up a double to Belle to score Baerga with the seventh Indians run of the night before Martinez grounded to short to end the rally at three runs.
Each of the next three Indians relievers allowed runs, making a comfortable 7-3 lead much less so. Three singles in the seventh around a strikeout by Palmer plated a run off of Mark Clark, who got the hook in his second inning of work for Derek Lilliquist. He got the final two outs of the seventh, but his first pitch of the eighth was sent into orbit by Butch Davis (who had taken over after Franco hurt his right quad earlier in the night) to cut the Cleveland lead to 7-5. He was yanked after following the homer with a walk of Canseco. Eric Plunk got the call from Hargrove and got the next three outs, but he made his two-inning save attempt a little scary in the ninth when he gave up a one-out double to Doug Strange and an RBI-single to pinch-hitter Juan Gonzalez with two outs before getting Doug Dascenzo to fly to short left with the tying run stuck at first.
After the game, the conversation was on the topic of the unusual home run provided to the Indians by Martinez, with a tip of the cap to Canseco, of course.
“I thought it was gone,” said Martinez in quotes from The Plain Dealer the following day. “Then I thought he was going to catch it. Then I saw it hit him in the head and bounce out. You’ve got to laugh at something like that. It’s kind of funny, but that’s the way this game is.”
Hargrove may have had the best look at the ball from his spot in the Tribe’s dugout and shared that he was the only one there that saw the ball go over the fence.
“Everybody else was looking for the ball on the ground,” said Hargrove. “I’ve seen guys knock the ball over the fence with their gloves for home runs, but I’ve never seen somebody get hit in the head and have the ball go over the fence. I can’t believe he was still standing. If I got hit with a ball like that, I’d be knocked flat.”
Canseco handled it all in stride, addressing the play too improbable to script while eating a plate of chicken and rice postgame.
“I’ll be on ESPN for a month,” said Canseco, who at that point was already well accustomed to being the center of attention after Rookie of the Year and MVP campaigns early in his career with Oakland. “I’m entertaining.
“I went back and thought I had it and then it grazed off my glove and hit me in the head. I don’t know what happened,” he continued. “How can I be embarrassed? I’ve been through it all in baseball…The only hit I got in the game went off my head and over the fence. You don’t want something like that to happen, but it was funny.”
According to Canseco’s account after the game, the hometown fans behind the Texas dugout gave him plenty of business about his blunder.
“You can imagine what they yelled at me,” he said. “They were just waiting for something like that to happen. I don’t want it to happen again. I’ve never had a night like this.”
While Canseco may have been through a lot, as he shared, his involvement on this night was certainly well beyond the normal scope of nightly warfare on the diamond. Indians fans had already been treated with the unexpected during the series, as fans in attendance for Monday night’s game on May 24 saw spot starter Tommy Kramer fire a complete game one-hitter, but for the reported 14,305 fans in attendance for the series finale, they witnessed the kind of spectacle that is most uncommon on a Major League turf.
As author W.P. Kinsella wrote in his novel Shoeless Joe, “Baseball is the most perfect of games, solid, true, pure and precious as diamonds. If only life were so simple. Within the baselines anything can happen.”
Photo: Ron Kuntz Collection (via Getty Images)
Video: MLB Advanced Media via YouTube