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Jose Canseco's 40-40 Vision Starting to Come Into Focus

August 19, 1988|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

BALTIMORE — The only bedsheet sign in Memorial Stadium one evening this week read: "Congrats 33 on 30-30." So, the word is spreading. Jose Canseco has 40-40 vision and, slowly, America, not just Oakland, is turning its eyes to him.

Before this year, no man in history, neither Ted Williams nor Willie Mays, ever had 100 home runs in his first three full big league seasons. And no man has ever had 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in the same year.

This month, Canseco got the 100-homer mark. And he's on pace, although it should be close, for 40-40. On Wednesday night here, he should have had both his 32nd stolen base and 32nd home run. An umpire took the steal from him ("Just look at the replay") but nobody could bring his 415-foot home run back from beyond the center field fence.

Just a normal night's work for Canseco in 1988. A single on a rainbow curveball, a double with two strikes and a long home run on a pitcher's pitch, a fastball on the low-inside corner. Also, add in a nice running catch in right field. A double off the wall turned into a single out of fear of his arm. And he made a beautiful fadeaway slide to score when an outfield peg had him by yards.

At 24, the 6 foot 3 inch, 230-pound Canseco hits the ball as hard as Mickey Mantle or Frank Howard, runs faster than any other player on the A's team, has the second-best right field arm in the AL and, as Sparky Anderson once said, "Has the physique of a Greek goddess." His agent calls Canseco "a modern Hercules."

Fortunately, Canseco is no reverent Boy Scout. He does a little sulk or a mini-tantrum on occasion. Taking orders isn't a specialty. After years, coaches finally have gotten him to settle on one stance--not his Do The Jose dance in the box, wiggling, stretching and shifting his feet from pitch to pitch.

Unlike fellow A's slugger Mark McGwire, whose hair is red and whose heart is true blue, Canseco has enough mischief in him to be a pop hero. He came to spring training four days late and didn't bother to apologize because, hey, there was cash to collect at autograph sessions. Hot Manager Tony La Russa set up a locker room table and sign that read: "Welcome to Jose Canseco Autograph Day . . . Evening Lecture: 'Concepts of Team Play.' Special guest speaker: Jose (Card Show) Canseco."

So, Card Show showed 'em. In April, he predicted the unprecedented 40-40. Bobby Bonds, in 1973, had 39 homers and 43 steals. Last year, Eric Davis had 50 steals, 37 homers and missed 33 games with injuries. Still, Canseco's talk was brave for a man who'd never stolen more than 15 bases.

In this month's installment of Jose Makes Life More Fun, Canseco has done a verbal tattoo on Oakland's vast Coliseum, which has probably cost him 10 homers this year. Canseco, who has 21 of his homers on the road, has told the A's if they want to keep their fences in Azusa, then, this winter in his next contract he should be "compensated." After all, what's $400,000 compared to 40-40?

After lockering next to Reggie Jackson last year, Canseco has incorporated the Spanish language version of The World According to Buck into his act--how to play the outfield standing sideways, how to wear the tight uniform, how to gaze lovingly at the long homers and how to cook quotes like "I don't expect to reach my pinnacle for a few years."

On the surface, Canseco seems laid back to a fault. Don Baylor says, "He still needs a push." However, Canseco is a fanatical iron pumper. "You don't just wake up one morning and look like this," says the man Annie Leibovitz photographed striped to the waist for the baseball pinup of the '80's.

Canseco says his father is the family perfectionist and that he himself, especially after his mother's death five years ago, isn't into expectation and stress. Yet he keeps getting better at everything. His assists go up and his errors go down. A kid who was an outfield joke in '86 may be a Gold Glove by '90. The guy who didn't get his first walk until his 101st at-bat in '87 (driving coach Bob Watson batty) is fifth in the league in walks.

Suddenly, Canseco is showing patience, laying off high two-strike fastballs, choking up when he's behind in the count and, occasionally, forgoing his moon shot swing. His 12 two-strike home runs frighten pitchers more than the other 20. What if this guy always pretended he had two strikes? Could he hit 50 390-foot homers instead of 40 450-footers?

Last year, Mike Boddicker nicknamed him Jose No-Mistako. Now, however, a steady diet of up-and-in and low-and-away are not enough to keep Canseco's average in the .240's and .250's. Batting .291 and leading the majors in runs (93) as well as RBI (94), Canseco no longer is just a mistake hitter, a circus barbender who hit balls into waterfalls and concession stands.

Still, acquire finesse though he has, Canseco's appeal--the reason he is the core of the best team in baseball this season--is his near-Ruthian power.

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