The Godfather of Steroids
An individual’s identity is in a fluid state. Initially shaped by one’s upbringing and culture, self-perception usually falls in line with others’ opinions of one self. Whether it is in a home, school, or state, the values of one’s surroundings imprint themselves on its inhabitants. What about the individual who must cross these boundaries? As the world has become more globalized, national identities have given way to transnational identities. These new identities are not just a hybrid of multiple countries’ values, but are new and unique.
The transition from one culture to another can be taxing on an individual. Being viewed as a foreigner leaves one feeling marginalized. These marginal men are most often the ones who feel a need to adjust. A successful adjustment can quickly snowball into a revolution. Such was the case for baseball in the final decades of the 20th century. One particular transnational man ushered in and became the epitome of a new era in the game. Jose Canseco, the self-proclaimed “Godfather of Steroids”, used steroids to forge a new identity for himself. This identity later spread throughout baseball like a plague. The Steroid Era had arrived.
Although he defected from Cuba with his family at a very young age, Jose Canseco always felt like an outcast after his arrival in Florida. He even acknowledges his insecurities, saying “They always depicted me as the outsider, the outlaw, the villain. I was never ushered into that special club of all-American sports stars…After all, I was dark” (6). In order to deal with the pressure of being of Cuban heritage in the United State’s national pastime, Canseco had to excel. He did just that. After being drafted out of Coral Park High School in the 15th round of the 1982 MLB draft by the Oakland Athletics, Canseco rushed through the minor leagues (3). His prodigious power awarded him with the 1985 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Award (3). The success continued in the majors as he was named the 1986 American League’s Rookie of the Year and unanimous AL MVP in 1988 (3). Along with his bash buddy, Mark McGwire, Canseco launched mammoth home run shots as one of the “Bash Brothers” (3). After his career came to an end in 2001, the six-time All Star and four-time Silver Slugger had racked up 462 home runs, making him the all-time leader in home runs among Latino players at the time (3). The marginal man had made a name for himself. Who, or what, was to credit?
As if the pressure of being a foreigner was not enough, Jose Canseco Sr. constantly harassed his 5’11” 155lb teenage son every time he struck out, yelling such things as “You’re going to grow up and work at Burger King or McDonald’s! You’ll never add up to anything!” (2). Canseco’s high school friend, referred to as “Al”, presented him with one solution to the fear of failure, steroids (2). Originally distilled in laboratories from the testicles of bulls for men with low testosterone levels, steroids exploded into the world of sports after Russian weightlifters learned of their effects (12). Now it was Jose’s turn to be the ambassador of steroids.
After making a name for himself with his new power, Canseco fell in love with the substance. “Injecting was a near-religious experience…‘I needed steroids and growth hormone just to live’” (6). During an interview with 60 Minutes, Canseco glorified the edge that he credits for making him a major league-caliber player (2). He has no shame when he discusses his love for the drug, stating “I truly believe, because I’ve experimented with it for so many years, that it can make an average athlete a super athlete. It can make a super athlete incredible. Just legendary” (2). After telling CBS’s Mike Wallace “The national pastime is juiced”, Canseco claims to have even convinced the octogenarian host of the benefits of steroids (2). Canseco says that Wallace talked to him off camera for over an hour and that he “answered every question, and I did it gladly. Everyone is interested in living longer and living better” (5). Unfortunately, those words were especially true when it came to baseball.
In his 2005 book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, Canseco claims that up to 85% of major league players took steroids (3). He specifically singles out some of his former teammates, including Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, Ivan Rodriguez, and Juan Gonzalez as steroid users (3). The wave of steroid use could not be contained. As players got bigger and home run totals climbed, many players felt the need to join the movement. In Game of Shadows, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada talk about the impact players such as Canseco had on Barry Bonds. Watching Mark McGwire shatter Roger Maris’s home run record in 1998, “Barry Bonds was astounded and aggrieved by the outpouring of hero worship for McGwire, a hitter whom he regarded as obviously inferior to himself…(Bonds) had been around enough gyms to recognize that McGwire was a juicer” (8). What started as one man’s insecurities had transformed into a national craze, leaving many angry, or envious, players watching.
Steroids provided much more than just bloated players and broken records. After the 1994 strike, fan attendance dropped by about 25 percent in the 1995 season (1). Since one of the main sources of revenue for teams is ticket sales, “owners saw the need to take radical steps to win (fans) back…thanks in part to steroids, baseball got its own ‘Sports Center’ moment in the 1990’s, the rock ‘em, sock ‘em home run” (1). Fans turned a blind eye to the tell-tale signs of steroid use. At first it was Canseco, then Sosa and McGwire (and finally Barry Bonds) who mesmerized fans with their steroid-enhanced moonshots. The power surge was welcomed by everyone after the bitter 1994 season. The power slugger’s hero role was clearly established by the time Nike coined “chicks dig the long ball” (8).
The revitalization of baseball came at a precious cost. First, it was the universal increase in injuries. “Between 1998 and 2001, the number of days that players spent on the disabled list increased by 20 percent” (10). The injuries these power hitters experienced could be hampering, but it was not until the Godfather decided to open his mouth that steroids truly crippled player’s careers.
Jose Canseco is now considered the poster boy for steroids in baseball. He has not only admitted to steroid use, but has remained in the public eye solely because of his attempts to shed light on the shadows of the Steroid Era. His 2005 book Juiced drew criticism from both fans and players. Even his former manager Tony La Russa was a skeptic, saying “First of all, I think he’s in dire straits and needs money. I think secondly…I think there’s a healthy case of envy and jealousy” (2). Some of the statements in Juiced are truly outlandish and deserve such criticism. Canseco implies that he is the savior of baseball. “People like to credit Cal Ripken for helping save baseball or maybe Mac and Sammy for the great home run chase of 1998. Well, you already know about the steroids I gave Mac, without which he would have been lucky to hit 25 bombs a year, but I also helped keep Cal’s streak alive” (4). Canseco’s role in an age that revitalized the sport may have been significant, but he was no savior. He was an informant.
It is fitting that the man who made his career possible with the help of steroids is the same man calling out his fellow users. As former players like Palmeiro, McGwire, and Sosa are ridiculed and then torn down in front of national audiences, Jose Canseco loves the spot light of being infamous. Some reporters view that investigation into the use of steroids in baseball will “expose…dissect…humiliate” while others refer to players of the Steroid Era as “a Chernobyl generation that still glows with toxicity” (9, 11). The man that proudly glows the brightest is the Godfather.
As the list of known former users grows, most recently with superstars Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz, players and spectators are reminded of the ugly, recent past of baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig has tried to spin every confession of steroid use as an example of how the game is being cleaned up. After McGwire confirmed everyone’s suspicions this January, Selig stated “The so-called steroid era, a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances, is clearly a thing of the past, and Mark’s admission today is another step in the right direction” (7). The new generation of stars seems to agree with the commissioner’s statements. Philadelphia Phillies’ All-Star second baseman Chase Utley explains “I think I’m in a different position, because I came up in an era where there was testing. It’s not allowed and if you get caught, you’re in trouble…So guys who come up at similar times that I came up in, it’s not even relevant. It’s not even part of our game” (7).
Pressured by a demanding father and prejudice society, Jose Canseco used steroids to catapult him to stardom. His success caught the attention of many of his peers. Canseco has become the personification one of the most exciting and tainted eras in sports history. Steroids may have revitalized the game, but at the cost of total loss of respect for the majority of players of the period. As the public looks at the game with a raised eyebrow, players and other men involved with the sport try to ease the skepticism. Commissioner Selig’s claims that the game is now clean are far-fetched, but the words of Chase Utley may be more truthful than many doubters believe. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store. As the game looks to overcome the stigma of the slugging 1990s, recent MVPs Dustin Pedroia and Joe Mauer will emerge as the face of the new generation. Hopefully, a clean and honest generation.
- Bissinger, Buzz. “Home Runs Wanted. No Questions Asked.” The New York Times 5 May 2005: A35. Print.
- Bodley, Hal. “Canseco: Steroids Made Baseball Career Possible.” USA Today [McLean, VA] 13 Feb. 2005. Print.
- Canseco, Jose. “Biography.” Jose Canseco’s Official Website. 16 Apr. 2006. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. <http://josecanseco.com>.
- Canseco, Jose. Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. New York: Regan, 2005. Print.
- Canseco, Jose. Vindicated: Big Names, Big Liars, and the Battle to save Baseball. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2008. Print.
- Curtis, Bryan. “Jose Canseco and Steroids, a Love Story. – By Bryan Curtis.” Slate Magazine. 18 Feb. 2005. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. <http://www.slate.com/id/2113745/>.
- Donnellon, Sam. “Use Mac to Inject Awareness, Not Bury It; Baseball Thinks It’s Covering All Bases by Stating Drug Era Is Officially over — Wink, Wink.” The Vancouver Sun 29 Jan. 2010: F5. Print.
- Kakutani, Michiko. “Barry Bonds and Baseball’s Steroids Scandal.” Books of The Times [New York] 23 Mar. 2006. Print.
- Plaschke, Bill. “Shadows and Steroids: Baseball’s Dark Cloud Grows with Each New Barry Bonds Revelation.” The Vancouver Sun 8 Mar. 2006: F5. Print.
- Randolph, Ned. “Death of Cardinals Pitcher Raises Spectre of Drugs: Former Players Admit Taking Steroids but Clubs and Union Are Locked in Battles over Testing Policy.” Financial Times [London] 25 June 2002: 11. Print.
- Vecsey, George. “Manny Joins the Lost Generation.” The New York Times 9 May 2008. Print.
- Washington, Huel. “Sports Pace; When and Who Started This Mess About Steroids.” Sun Reporter [San Francisco] 17 Mar. 2005: 5. Print.