Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.
He exists as a steroid era sideshow these days, a periodically entertaining stream-of-consciousness Twitter presence (and former VICE columnist) rife with semi-ironic malapropisms and comical self-regard. But there was a time before Celebrity Apprentice and the tell-all memoirs and the celebrity boxing matches and the curious border arrests and the alleged nunchuck-twirling Hollywood action star sizzle reel when Jose Canseco was viewed as a real and legitimate Major League Baseball star—at least as much as he was viewed as a wildly idiosyncratic goofball.
And then, 23 years ago today, he reached the tipping point.
May 26, 1993: The Cleveland Indians' Carlos Martinez drove a baseball deep to right field, and Canseco, playing for the Texas Rangers, took off toward the warning track in pursuit. At that time, Canseco was a couple of months short of his 29th birthday, and a couple of seasons removed from a 44-home run/26-steal campaign with the Oakland Athletics that was almost certainly aided by chemical enhancements. But given that those revelations wouldn't come until later, he was still viewed as a formidable power hitter capable of running the bases. He entered this game hitting .291 with eight home runs; as The Hardball Times' Chris Jaffe wrote, he "had power, a decent average, and durability." From 1986 to 1991, he'd averaged 34 home runs and eclipsed 100 RBIs five times, and he'd won a World Series and a pair of home-run titles and an MVP award.
Sure, Cansceo also had the cojones, back in 1990, to start a 900 pay-to-listen telephone service providing daily updates on his life and career, a pre-Internet attempt to capitalize on his fame. There were tabloid rumors linking him to Madonna. He had been arrested for reckless driving and for carrying a semi-automatic pistol back in 1989, and the A's had traded him away in August of 1992 for three players. But on that day in 1993, Canseco was still very much a viable—perhaps first-tier—power hitter in the major leagues.
Then Canseco reached the warning track at Cleveland Stadium and lost sight of Martinez's fly ball in the sun. He made a wild stab for it with his glove. Next came the unthinkable: The ball bounced off the top of his head over the fence. Martinez had a home run, and Canseco had just executed one of the most embarrassing bloopers in modern baseball history. Off his head, it looked like, says the astonished play-by-play announcer, and replays would confirm that this is exactly what had happened.
"I really didn't feel it," Canseco said, after his team lost the game 7-6, with Canseco's noggin proving the difference between a win and a loss. "I really don't know what happened other than I was looking for the wall and the ball nicked off my glove and hit my head."
He then added a statement that would prove prophetic: "I'll be on ESPN for a month. I guess I'm just an entertainer."
Canseco reinforced that perception a few days later. On May 29, with the Rangers trailing the Boston Red Sox 12-1, Canseco convinced manager Kevin Kennedy to allow him to pitch an inning of relief work. He threw 33 pitches, gave up three runs on two hits, and wound up tearing a ligament in his right elbow. After being examined by surgeon James Andrews, he was ruled out for the season. "If this was a career-ending injury," he said at a press conference, "I would have other things to fall upon."
It turned out that Canseco's career wasn't over. But in a way, it was, because he'd never again be the speed and power threat that he once was. He would last in the big leagues until age 36, spending time with the Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, and Chicago White Sox, but in only one other year would he stay healthy for more than 120 games. He could still hit the long ball—he had 46 in 1998 for the Blue Jays (while also striking out 159 times), and wound up with 462 in his career—but his true claim to fame would come in 2005, when he published the autobiography Juiced, which exposed the widespread use of steroids in the major leagues, most notably by Canseco himself.
Still, it was the comic 1-2 punch—the ball off the head, and the pitching stint gone wrong—that would come to define Canseco's public persona as much as his once-tantalizing talent. (To wit: Will Myers pulled a Canseco last season, and no one really cares). To Canseco's credit, he's managed to parlay that reputation into a second act as a C-list celebrity, showing up on programs like The Surreal Life and making promotional appearances like the one he has scheduled for this June 4: A home-run challenge on Superhero night after a home game for the Frisco Roughriders, the Rangers' Double-A affiliate. His Wikipedia entry is a bizarre hodgepodge of inexplicable legal troubles and self-promotional moments; his Twitter feed is by turns confusing and brilliant, sort of like his career, and he is entertaining enough to keep scoring further opportunities to capitalize upon his fame. When the Rangers cap Canseco wore while making his self-proclaimed "four-base error" was put up for auction a few years ago, he Tweeted his desire to reacquire it; more recently, he used the social media platform to share his plan for deploying nuclear weapons against the Martian polar ice caps. And perhaps none of this glorious sports afterlife—the Japanese banking haikus; the Oprah "Where Are They Now?" segments; the TMZ walk-n-talk threats to shoot his daughter's boyfriend—would have been possible if Canseco hadn't first made himself a public spectacle by completing the most ridiculous single-week parlay of odd on-field moments in modern baseball history.