Commentary

Jose Canseco's bizarre baseball life

Player/manager for the independent league Yuma Scorpions still going strong

Originally Published: July 5, 2011
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

YUMA, Ariz. -- Batting practice is over and the temperature is gradually cooling from an earlier high of 105 degrees as Yuma Scorpions player/manager Jose Canseco stretches out his aching 46-year-old -- and still impressively muscled -- body in a recliner in the darkened lobby of the team's offices. He is waiting to play baseball.

It is about 6 p.m. on a Saturday, and the Scorpions game with the Edmonton Capitals is scheduled to start at 7:35. There is just one problem. The Capitals haven't arrived at the stadium yet. They are on a bus that is just leaving San Diego, some 170 miles away. The Capitals should have arrived hours earlier, but the plane they were on had a mechanical issue and the flight was canceled, forcing the team to fly into Los Angeles, then take a bus to San Diego, then take another bus to Yuma. They aren't expected to arrive until 9, 8:30 at the earliest. Jose figures they'll be lucky to start the game by 9:30 or 10 and end it before the league's 1 a.m. curfew.

Jose Canseco
Courtesy of Jim CapleJose Canseco, who last played in the majors in 2001, is now lacing 'em up in the North American League.

A two-hour transportation delay is not an unusual event by Yuma Scorpions standards. Why, on Opening Day, Jose wrote out the lineup card without listing a reliever, making the pitcher ineligible when Canseco tried to use him. Jose also went on the disabled list after he hyperextended his biceps swinging the bat that day, while his twin brother, Ozzie, left with a strained quadriceps muscle. Another night, the Scorpions catcher abruptly stripped off his gear, dropped it by home plate, walked off the field and said, "Here, you catch.'' The same day, Jose charged the mound after a pitch was thrown near his head, sparking a bench-clearing brawl. That was on Little League Day. Another night, police officers served Jose with legal papers in the dugout during the second inning.

So a two-hour-plus delay? Routine.

The Capitals bus finally pulls into the parking lot just before 9. The game starts at 9:52, with a crowd of maybe 400 in the stands, and ends just minutes before curfew. A photo in the morning paper will show a young fan napping on his mother's shoulder waiting for the game to start.

Oh, and there is a doubleheader the next day. And another doubleheader the day after that. And another doubleheader the day after that. Then a 27-day road trip to Edmonton, Calgary, Chicagoland and Maui (yes, Maui) -- although the team was still arranging transportation for that trip, looking for flights to get the Scorpions into town for the first pitch at two stops. Neither Ozzie nor the pitching coach would go to Canada because their passports weren't in order, leaving Jose as the lone person on the coaching staff.

"Just like managing in the majors,'' Jose says.

Jose says he recently was watching one of his home run tapes from when he was 21 years old and rookie of the year. "I wondered, 'Where did those years go to?' All of sudden, in a wink of the eye, it's gone," he says. "You and I are talking right now -- in a wink of any eye, you and I will be 80 years old. Where does everything go? … It seems like yesterday I was 19, 20, 21 years old, bashing arms with Mark McGwire. Sometimes you think, 'Did that really happen? Was I really a Bash Brother hitting home runs in the major leagues?' Sometimes I'll look at home run tapes my father made for me and I'll wonder, 'Is that really me?'"

Was it? At times, it almost seems there are two Jose Cansecos. There is the Jose Canseco who was the 1986 American League Rookie of the Year, the 1988 AL MVP, baseball's first 40-40 man (40 home runs, 40 stolen bases) and the young star who might have been the best player in the game. And then there is the other Jose Canseco, the caricature who boxed former "Partridge Family" member Danny Bonaduce (among others), claims major league baseball blackballed him from the game, appeared on MTV's "The Surreal Life,'' fought in MMA bouts, served house arrest and a month in jail for a nightclub fight, wrote a New York Times best seller, auctioned off a day spent with him at his house, competed on "Celebrity Apprentice'' with Meat Loaf and Gary Busey and has had so many legal issues that he says of the latest claimant, "Get in line.''

So really, the question is not, "Why is Jose Canseco managing a team in Yuma?'' the question is, "Where are the reality show cameras?''

Actually, Jose had hoped for reality show cameras when he signed on with the Scorpions this April. He did so after attempting to land playing jobs in Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Mexico. The gigs fell through for various reasons. "The final straw was [he was] going to go to the minor leagues of Mexico. That's how bad it was,'' says Jose Melendez, the Scorpions' general manager. "The minor leagues. There is the Mexican League and then there is the minor leagues of the Mexican League. And Jose said, 'Yeah, that's fine, that's fine. We'll do that.' He was going to go. [Then] this came up.''

"This'' was actually going to be a Las Vegas-area team in the North American League, an inexplicably far-flung independent minor league that stretches from Texas to Canada and Hawaii. Jose had hoped to sell a network on a reality show based on him managing and playing for the league's Vegas team. When the proposed team's stadium wasn't ready for the season, the league offered Melendez the Scorpions job (the NAL owns the team). Canseco came with him, quickly agreeing to the average salary for a manager in the league ($30,000) as long as he could play and pitch (he throws a knuckleball) and have Ozzie as his bench coach.

Jose still hoped to arrange a reality show in Yuma, even insisting on a 10,000-square-foot mansion on Martinez Lake some 40 miles out of town -- so far away, Melendez ran out of gas driving from it one day -- that would provide the proper setting for a reality show. No show has developed, but Jose still lives in the house, along with Ozzie, Melendez, pitching coach Roger Clarke and the occasional Yuma player. "I am with a bunch of single ball players in Martinez lake Arizona,'' he tweeted one day. "huge house on dove rd come by girls and party.''

It's a big place. There is a large-screen TV at the foot of Jose's bed -- on a recent morning, he was clicking between the College World Series and "The Shawshank Redemption'' -- because the large-screen TV mounted on the opposite wall is too far away to see.

This probably will not surprise you, but in addition to managing, playing and pitching for the Scorpions and trying to develop a reality show, Jose is working on an antiaging product. "There are a lot of antiaging products out there and I've been testing a few combinations over the last three or four years to see which ones really work,'' he says. "I think different ones work with different blood types and different genetic structures. I'm definitely looking to come out with some antiaging supplements in the next year or so. Still in the experimental process.''

There are many obvious punch lines to Jose Canseco experimenting with supplemental substances, but you don't need to spend much time with him to realize that the strongest antiaging agent for him is a round, white pill that weighs five ounces and has 108 red stitches.

Jose Canseco
Craig Fry/Yuma SunWhile Jose is a player/manager for the Yuma Scorpions, his brother, Ozzie, also plays and is the team's bench coach.

"Going out there and playing tonight makes me feel like 25 again, even though I'm going to be 47,'' Jose says. "So for a brief three-hour time, you're transported back to when you were a kid, when you were in your prime playing baseball. And facing guys anywhere from 20-25 years old. It's almost like stopping time. You get to live in the moment, it's something you love to do, you've done it for so long, and even though I'm going to be 47, I can still play -- maybe not at the best level as when I was 25, but the feeling is the same, the memories are the same, the attraction is the same. The smells, the lights, winning, losing, the sounds of it, the textures of it -- it's still the same.

"Even though it's not the major leagues, it's the closest thing possible.''

The Scorpions play at Desert Sun Stadium, an excellent ballpark by independent ball standards. It's the Padres' old spring training facility. When Jose was still playing with the Oakland Athletics, he avoided spring road trips here as much as possible, as did most every established major leaguer. Now it's his home stadium.

Yuma is the fourth independent team for Jose. He also played for very good men's rec teams in the Los Angeles area. He plays softball, too, and often talks about how far he can hit a softball and tweets videos of him hitting softballs (watch him on YouTube). He says he will attempt to hit a softball 600 feet. During batting practice he tells me he can hit a softball over the distant light tower in left field. When I tell him he sounds like Uncle Rico in "Napoleon Dynamite'' claiming he can throw a football over those mountains, Jose replies, "Yeah, but I can do it.''

"I think that's when he's happiest -- when he has a bat in his hands,'' says Clarke, the Yuma pitching coach who played amateur ball with Jose in the L.A. area. "We'll go out two or three nights a week. We'll hit the balls, hit softballs, hit baseballs, play softball, play co-ed softball. It doesn't make a difference. I've never met anyone so into it.''

Jose calls baseball his therapy. "It keeps me grounded. Baseball keeps me sane," he says. "It's something you can go to on a daily basis and forget the negative issues, all the things that have happened to you, how the world thinks about you, whether well-founded or not. It's my safety zone out here.''

This ultimately is why Jose is in Yuma. This is the only place he can still play professional baseball.

Jose is 47 and batting .250 with a .407 on-base percentage and a .782 OPS. He is 0-1 with a 12.91 ERA and has four strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings as a pitcher. He says he is not convinced he couldn't be a productive DH in the majors if given the chance. "Sometimes I convince myself or confuse myself that I'm still in the major leagues," he says. "At this point, that's all I have to hang onto. Baseball.''

Melendez watches the game from Sun Desert Stadium's unsold "luxury suite'' while cradling his 3-year-old daughter, Carolina, in his arms. It is past 11 and Carolina is sleeping through the second game of one of the Scorpions' 12 scheduled doubleheaders. Melendez's home is in Laredo, Texas, and this is the first weekend his family has been with him since he took the Scorpions job in April after seven months of unemployment. But this is life in independent baseball. After six years working in these leagues, Melendez knows this as well as anyone.

"I wish I could have found someone like [Melendez] during my good days in baseball,'' Scorpions pitcher and former big leaguer Franklyn Gracesqui says. "He's the type of guy who likes to give second opportunities. That's why I'm here. Even the young guys, there are guys who deserve to be here and some not so much, but he gives them all the chance to prove themselves. That's what makes him so special to a lot of people. You don't usually see that in a general manager or in a manager -- you don't see that in nobody, not in this business. He goes out there and gives you a chance out of nowhere. When no one else does, he does.''

And that includes Jose Canseco.

Melendez, 30, was the youngest general manager in baseball when he started six years ago. He grew up an enormous Athletics fan, and Canseco was his favorite player. When he got into independent ball, Melendez joked that he wanted to someday have Jose on his team. "Just for fun," Melendez says. He achieved that goal when Canseco played briefly with the Laredo Broncos, his first pro ball in four years. "It was bad enough for him to be playing at 46,'' Melendez says with a smile. "Now we're one-upping it as a player/manager.''

His goal for Canseco is to be relevant in baseball again, to be taken seriously, to no longer be a joke. He told Canseco he has 17 years of major league experience and more to give the game than McGwire.

"I told Jose, you just need one person to push for you,'' Melendez says. "If you do well here and people talk about you and how much you changed and how committed you are and how you got these kids ready to play and winning, it just looks good for you. He says, 'I don't care, I don't care. I don't care what people think about me.' I say, 'But it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity for you to change everything.'

"It came so easy for him that he thinks it will be easy all the time. I keep telling him, 'If you don't win, no one is ever going to hire you. Not only that, but I'm involved with you, too. My name is there, too. I've had so much respect from everybody I've dealt with. When I hired you last year a lot of people told me, 'What are you doing?' When I hired you in Yuma a lot of people were really like, 'What are you doing?'"

Melendez says he had worries about Canseco's commitment to the season but has been pleasantly surprised, watching him become "pretty dedicated." Canseco canceled two previously scheduled outside appearances so he could stay with the team, though he did miss games last weekend to compete in a charity softball hitting contest against Tim Salmon at Anaheim Stadium to which he had previously committed.

Jose Canseco
Craig Fry/Yuma SunCanseco has had his share of arguments -- and subsequent ejections -- with umpires since the Scorpions' season began in late May.

Hiring Canseco as your manager can be stressful. If Jose is scheduled to speak at the Rotary or Chamber of Commerce and the appointed time draws near without Canseco in sight, Melendez worries. "Because [the speech] is at 3:30 and it's 3:29 and I call him and I'm afraid he's going to say, how dare we book him, how dare we not get him a $10,000 booking fee. And I think he's going to tell me that, but he says, 'Yeah, I'm three blocks away.' He always does that. If you tell him 3:30, he'll be there at 3:30. Not 3:10 or 3:15. It always scares me. Always.''

And remember, these two share a house. Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen couldn't do that.

"It's not easy being with Jose Canseco 24 hours a day,'' Melendez says. "It's always about trying to get him focused on this is what he needs to do, and not about the past. Whenever he gets a call against us, it's like oh, they don't like him and 'I'm getting screwed here, I'm getting screwed.' You have to calm him down because that's not what it is.''

Melendez says when a possibility of playing in Puerto Rico fell through last winter, Jose got very depressed, complaining, "Nobody wants me. It's major league baseball holding me back again.''

"You know how he thinks MLB is screwing him?'' Melendez says, adding that he thinks the issue really is people in baseball just not taking Canseco seriously. "That's what really hurts me. To me growing up, he was the guy who can run, field, throw -- a superstar. And he also had the movie star looks and everything. For him to be seen as a joke? … He just has to get back to where he's from. Baseball. Screw all that MMA stuff, screw all that stuff. In a way he's trying to get away from that and get back to baseball.

"I want to change the culture so people start taking him seriously about baseball. He's doing the ultimate sacrifice, managing an independent league team.''

Chris Nowlin is waiting on the Yuma bullpen mound, waiting to audition his knuckleball for Jose. Nowlin didn't play baseball in high school or college but taught himself a mean enough knuckler by playing whiffle ball that he has been signed (and released) by seven teams, including one in Perth, Australia. He has worked with Charlie Hough and R.A. Dickey. He says he can be the next Tim Wakefield. He is 30 years old and says he will give baseball a go until he is 32. When asked why 32 is his cutoff, he replies, "I have no idea. Maybe I'll go to 33.''

Nowlin lives in Phoenix, about three hours away (faster if you push the speed limit). He just showed up at the ballpark, looking for a tryout. "If you email or call, there's a chance they'll say no,'' he says. "If this doesn't work out, I'm going to go to El Paso [Texas] because they have a 9.00 ERA. … It isn't hard. You just look up on the Internet to find the teams with the highest ERA and then show up at the GM's office.''

These are the stories that make independent ball so wonderfully interesting. You have to really love baseball or be really desperate -- or both -- to play in a league in which the salary cap for an entire team is $90,000. That's roughly $1,000 per month per player.

Consider Gracesqui, the pitcher who spoke so highly of Melendez. Like Canseco, he lives in a 10,000-square-foot building. Like Canseco, he has a big-screen TV at the foot of his bed. Unlike Canseco, he has a very short commute to the ballpark. That's because he lives in the Scorpions' clubhouse, sleeping on a mattress right in front of the team TV. "This is as good as it gets,'' he says. "Air conditioning. Cable. This is what I need. Get up as early as I want and get a run in. Get a heat pack if I want. Everything I need is right here. I don't need anything else.''

Starting pitcher Jon Huizenga relaxes with incense before games and eats a natural food diet that includes spirulina powder and almond butter on seaweed wrap (mmmmm). He also throws a sinker and says his previous coaches simply emphasized keeping his pitches "knees and below, knees and below, knees and below.'' Jose and Ozzie told him no, that if he does that, batters will simply look for pitches "knees and below.'' He needed to change their eye level by moving the ball up and down in the zone. "I've done that and it's worked well.''

Outfielder Joey Gathright has played six seasons in the major leagues with three teams. The Scorpions are his third independent league team and his second this season. His pro career began in 2002, the same year Jose's career in affiliated ball ended. He says he didn't even know Jose was the manager in Yuma until he arrived a couple of weeks into the season. Soon afterward he found himself playing center field alongside Canseco in left and wondering if he should shade over a little more.

Asked to describe Jose's managerial style, Gathright says, "Different. Jose thinks like a player and I like that. He still plays and he thinks like a player and knows what we want. Obviously, having someone like that helps a lot. Sometimes the managers forget that they used to play and some managers didn't play that long. You've got a guy with 17 years of experience who knows a lot about baseball, he knows about situations.''

Players interviewed complimented Jose for his knowledge and managing but you have to wonder how they feel when they lose playing time to a pair of guys in their mid-40s, one of whom last played in the majors 18 years ago. Or when their manager writes out the lineup card wrong. Or when he starts himself in left field even though he can't cover the necessary ground anymore. Or gets himself ejected arguing ball and strike calls while he is pitching.

Jose Canseco
Courtesy of Jim CapleFans still get the thrill that comes with an autograph from Canseco.

"The players all respect Jose for what he's accomplished, what he's done. Where he's been and why he's here,'' Melendez says. "They just want a manager who will give them the best chance to win. And sometimes they get confused when that's not the case. That's the only problem I've experienced. Other than that, everyone wants to play for him.''

After Jose fails to reach a catchable fly ball that costs his team a run in a one-run loss, I ask what is more important, playing or winning. "I think enjoying the game, period,'' Jose says. "As a manager you can't take it too serious, but you have to take it serious enough to respect the game. It's a fine line, going overboard and not taking it seriously enough. But I'm always going to enjoy the game. It's a game. And at this level, where nobody is getting rich -- if you're not getting rich, why not have a lot of fun?''

Jose is in the Scorpions' office signing 200 autographs in under 30 minutes for a memorabilia dealer -- it must be a little like owning a government printing press when you can make money simply by writing your name -- when the dealer's representative asks an inevitable steroid question. "One thing I was curious about? Rickey Henderson? 'Roids?''

"No,'' Jose says without glancing up. "His mother had more muscle in her body.''

(Yes, this is the requisite section on Jose and steroids. This will be brief.)

Jose says he no longer takes steroids, that he wishes he never took steroids and that he doesn't know what effect they had on his performance. But he also points out America's hypocrisy toward them. "It is amazing how there are so many legal drugs that they advertise on a daily basis, where the side effects are ridiculous and they almost say the side effects like they were no big deal,'' he says. "The hypocrisy of the United States government. That's all it really is.

"Can steroids benefit you more than tobacco? Can they benefit you more than liquor? Yet steroids are illegal, but alcohol and tobacco are not illegal. Pure hypocrisy.''

What Jose really regrets, however, is writing "Juiced,'' which revealed how widespread steroid use was in the majors. He says it helped clean up the game and maybe saved some lives (though he says he's noticed no side effects from taking steroids himself), but given a do-over he would not write it in a million years. "Completely destroyed my life, just for telling the truth,'' he says.

Well, Canseco's decisions -- boxing Danny Bonaduce? MMA? The nightclub fight? -- also played a significant part. When Jose says major league baseball blackballed him, that no one would give him a job even though he hit as many home runs with higher slugging and on-base percentages his final four seasons in the majors as his first four (shocking but true, as long as you include his one-month season in 1985), he neglects to mention how six teams had him under contract his final three years, including the White Sox twice, or that he announced his retirement in 2002 after hitting .172 with five home runs in 18 games for the White Sox's Triple-A club.

Ozzie says being with the Scorpions has made his brother more positive and upbeat about baseball than he has been for a long time. "I can't say I blame him after what his experience has been … going from the best player in the game to being a pariah, a leper or a snitch or whatever,'' Ozzie says. "But the way I see it, what he did was a very good job of journalism. Reporters basically go in and find information and report it but they're not called snitches, they're called journalists. He did the same thing, but he was put in a different category and all he did was report the truth. He should have been known as a good journalist, but he was known as a snitch.''

Jose says he knows how people feel about him. "I am the most hated man in affiliated ball on this planet,'' Jose says. "And I know that. And I accept it. That they have labeled me the modern-day Frankenstein, that I wear the scarlet letter for major league baseball. I know that. They would rather let a drug-addicted rapist and molester of small children coach in the majors before me.''

Jose says he frequently has nightmares in which he's not allowed to play for some reason. "It's the strangest thing. Where the bus leaves or the ballpark is closed or I can't get an at-bat," he says. "It's the strangest thing ever.''

Jose has nearly 400,000 Twitter followers. In his tweets, he comes off playful ("Hi lady gaga guess who''), excited ("OUr new centerfelder Joey Gathright is electric and reminds me of rickey"), petty ("Wow will Clark looks like a bloted seal on pros vs joes"), happy ("Love life") and quite often lonely (as well as careless with his punctuation and spelling).

June 3: Someone tell Leila Shennin that I love here.

June 7: Leila please call me.

June 8: Leila will you marry me please?

June 9: I made a total fool of myself for someone who never even cared about me. What an idiot I am.

June 9: Love makes fools out of all of us especially me.

"Leila is my ex-girlfriend,'' Jose says. "We broke up about three months ago. I was in love with her. I guess I still am in love with her. It just didn't work for a lot of reasons. No. 1 she just turned 24. So we were completely different in that sense. But she's a great person. She has her faults like everyone and we've all made mistakes. I think just the age difference alone set us apart. I do miss her and would love to be with her.''

Social networking is changing many things, but it still seems unlikely a woman dreams about receiving a wedding proposal on Twitter, especially after the man tweeted he wanted to marry Lady Gaga just two weeks earlier ("I love lady gaga wish I could meet her. would marry her in a second''). "I don't think there is any proper way of doing it,'' Jose shrugs, adding he was just trying to be different. "Obviously we're not talking now, so it's hard to get ahold of her. I thought that might get her attention, but obviously it didn't.''

Jose Canseco's pool
Courtesy of Jim CapleA pool is one of the perks Canseco has at the 10,000 square-foot mansion he calls home in Arizona.

In one tweet, Canseco called Charlie Sheen "the Jose Canseco of Hollywood or maybe it's the other way around.'' I suggest to him that a better comparison might be Mike Tyson, another athlete who was king of the world in the '80s but somehow squandered his talent, his money and his reputation. Jose disputes that, saying Tyson made far more money than he did.

"They say Mike Tyson made over $200 million,'' Jose says. "I wish I made a quarter of what he made.''

Actually, Canseco did. Or roughly that amount. According to the contract information at Baseball-Reference.com, Canseco earned more than $45 million in the majors. Regardless, he says it's all gone, though he has yet to touch his major league pension, which will pay him at least $180,000 a year at 62 years old.

Jose turned 47 on Saturday. Barring a breakthrough with his antiaging product, he is nearing an age in which he no longer will be able to play baseball competitively, even with the Yuma Scorpions.

"I guess then you've got softball,'' he says. "Then you're looking at mid-60s and 70s. When I can't even do that, that's when it will be hard times to handle. Maybe coaching, little league or something. Somehow you have to hang on.''

Asked what he wants his reputation to be, Jose says, "A guy who loved the game. A guy who was willing to play until he couldn't walk anymore. It's that simple. I love baseball, more than probably anybody. And I will play it, and then coach or manage it, until I can't walk or I die. One of the two.''

As Jose is saying this, he is icing his left elbow, which was hit by a pitch during the game. The elbow is swollen and he winces in pain several times. But he will be back the next night as Yuma's starting pitcher in the second game of another doubleheader. He also will leave his team with a 6-0 deficit when he is ejected in the third inning of an eventual 8-6 loss.

I think of how many former big leaguers I know and how few played the game at any level after retirement. Rickey Henderson played independent ball for a couple of years. Terry Steinbach played town ball in Minnesota for awhile. And Jose is still playing, even though he had to go to Yuma.

That is the irony. The man who wears baseball's scarlet letter, the game's Frankenstein and ultimate pariah, may love playing the game more than anyone currently in the majors.

Postscript: Jose homered for the Scorpions in consecutive games last week. They lost the first of those games then won the second, leaving their record at 11-21. The next day he flew to Anaheim for the softball home run derby against Tim Salmon ("I will show u that even at 47 I am the best power hitter on the planet''). In his first competition at a major league stadium since 2001, Jose won the derby with several mammoth home runs, including one ball that nearly landed above the left-field seats.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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