Nostalgia now Canseco's biggest draw

ZION, Ill. -- With two on, two out and his team down four runs in the ninth inning, Jose Canseco was battling.

Steve Grife, a former Chicago Cubs farmhand now pitching in relief for Lake County Fielders of the very literally named North American League, was throwing low 90s fastballs right over the plate. A hacker's dream.

But Canseco couldn't catch up, fouling off pitches, one after another.

He just turned 47. Though still jacked and tan, age has caught up to him.

After a major league whiff made the count 2-2 (the scoreboard wasn't working, so you had to keep track yourself, naturally), Canseco fouled off five straight pitches, spraying balls directly behind him and past the stands near first base, before Grife ended the game with a high heater that Canseco missed by a mile.

"Usually, I would've hit one of those," he said afterward. "He would've let me hit it nine miles. He threw me a couple fastballs I should've demolished. I fouled off five, six in a row, and I told the catcher, 'My god, he's going to wear me out or I'm going to wear him out.' In my prime, those fastballs down the middle, 89-90, you hit them a long way, but it didn't happen."

But his prime is long over. His last at-bat in the majors was 10 years ago this October, in Minnesota, when he played for the Chicago White Sox. Now, he's taking his hacks in places such as Desert Sun Stadium in Yuma and the Fielders' makeshift "Field of Dreams" stadium (Kevin Costner is a part-owner) off Illinois 173 and Green Bay Road in Zion, which, on Wednesday afternoon, was mostly populated with kids' camps and Barrington-raised pitcher Vince Bongiovanni's family.

After his strikeout, Canseco grabbed his three bats from the dugout and walked across the field, out of the fence in the left-field corner, down the gravel walkway and toward the bisected double-wide trailer that acts as clubhouses for both teams. The showers are in a perpendicular trailer.

The Yuma Scorpions are now 11-26 in the geographically ridiculous North American League, with one more stop left in the familiar Edmonton-Calgary-Zion-Maui road swing.

They have four more games left against the first-place Fielders, who play about 11 miles north of Six Flags, a couple miles south of the Wisconsin border and light years from U.S. Cellular Field, Canseco's last major league home.

A surreal life, indeed.

"Where are we?" Canseco said with a smile while looking around the trailers parked outside left field. "What is this?"

"You never know where you end up," Lake County manager Tim Johnson said. "That's for damn sure."

Johnson managed Canseco in 1998 with the Toronto Blue Jays, when they finished with an 88-74 record. He was dismissed the following spring, after admitting he lied about his service in Vietnam. He's been exiled from the majors, too. Canseco said Johnson is the only guy he still talks to from his glory days.

Through Sunday, it'll only cost you a few bucks, not to mention gas money to Zion, to watch Canseco try to recapture his youth one hack at a time, while his twin brother Ozzie stands sentry at third base.

It sounds bizarre, the Canseco brothers on this middling tour of North America, wearing Scorpion-emblazoned clothing. But is it, really?

Aren't the Cansecos just modern-day successors to the old barnstormers of the early 20th century? There should be more just like them.

Jose Canseco has been ostracized from Major League Baseball (certainly he deserves some blame for that), but not from the game itself. As Jim Caple showed in his fantastic profile of Canseco on ESPN.com, Canseco might be lying to himself that he can still hit like the Canseco of old, but he is certainly putting in an honest effort. I watched him coach his younger players, and I watched him try to murder opposing pitchers. This isn't a shameful way to live.

"Personally, I love playing the game," he said. "I don't know how long I'm going to be playing, but I still love swinging that bat."

He seems sincere about his desire to teach the game, though Yuma's poor record isn't reflective of that. I wonder if he could be a guest instructor for minor leaguers in someone's organization. But he's too toxic, too unreliable.

It's almost hard to believe he was in the majors 10 years ago, but he didn't hit that poorly for the Sox. In 256 at-bats over 76 games that year, he hit .258 with 16 homers and 49 RBIs.

Paul Konerko and Mark Buehrle are the last remaining players from that team. Konerko said Canseco was friendly in the clubhouse, and they talked often.

"He must love to play," Konerko said. "Because, to me, I couldn't picture playing the game at however old he is. He keeps himself in good shape. I think he's one of those guys who will always have the knack for hitting a ball really far, so go for it."

Canseco isn't the first faded star to play in a similar league. When I covered the Yuma Bullfrogs in the last year of the Western Baseball League in 2002, Kevin Mitchell managed his brother Keith on a team in Sonoma County. In 2005, Rickey Henderson played for San Diego in the WBL's successor, the Golden Baseball League. Canseco actually played for a GBL team in Long Beach, Calif., in 2006.

Canseco met up with his team after missing the first two games of a seven-game set. He took a brief hiatus to compete in a home run derby against Tim Salmon in Anaheim on Sunday, for charity. He won.

Canseco isn't hitting much yet. He's batting .250 with 13 RBIs and has hit only two homers in 25 games this season for the Scorpions. I wouldn't be surprised if he hangs it up before the season -- personally I was shocked he's still playing -- as early retirements happen all the time in these leagues, but for now he's dead serious about his game.

He nearly took the 28-year-old Bongiovanni (he pitched for the Blue Jays' Double-A team last season) deep in his first at-bat, sending a screamer past the 325-foot foul pole in left. But he wound up flying out to shallow right. He did drive a run in the 6-2 loss, scoring Joey Gathright on a groundball "with eyes" past third.

Yes, that Joey Gathright.

It's easy to write off Canseco as a steroid punchline, barely hanging on to a game that has disowned him many times over. His penchant for embarrassing himself is certainly well-known and earned. But for aging children of the 1980s, like myself, there is a nostalgia factor about Canseco that is impossible to be cynical about.

Just the other day, a New York City gallery held an art show for Costacos Brothers' poster collection, the punchy, superimposed celebrations of the era's greatest athletes. (A poster of a styling Jim McMahon and Walter Payton was tagged "Chicago Vice.") Along with some other choice selections, the "Bash Brothers" poster of Canseco and McGwire sitting atop a police car dressed like Blues Brothers sold for $1,500 at the gallery.

"Wow," Canseco said, smiling. "There you go. Those are old memories."

I recently bought a T-shirt of the Bash Brothers poster made in conjunction with the show, from the vintage clothing store No Mas. It fondly reminds me of my older brother's prep school dorm room and the joy we spent as kids marveling at Canseco's 40-40 club entrée.

So instead of watching the usual carnage on the South Side, I sat behind a chain link fence near home plate, the sun turning me an unflattering shade of pink, and watched a 47-year-old Jose Canseco try mightily to hit a minor league washout's best stuff.

There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

ESPNChicago.com's Doug Padilla contributed to this article.