July 2 – Happy Birthday Jose Canseco
The first and only time I attended a game at Fenway Park was a July 17, 1996 night game between the Red Sox and the Yankees. As I settled into the most incredibly uncomfortable seat I had ever been in, the Yankees were surprisingly running away with the AL East Pennant, holding a nine game lead at the time over the Orioles and a full fifteen-game margin over third place Boston. Unfortunately, Kenny Rogers was on the mound for New York and he was facing Boston’s Tom Flash Gordon, who was in his last year as a starter. As usual when he wore the pinstripes, Rogers was not very effective that evening. He was knocked out in the fifth inning after loading the bases, with Boston leading 3-2. Joe Torre brought in Jim Wickman and the right-hander promptly gave up a bases-clearing double. When Wickman put two more Red Sox on base in the sixth, Torre replaced him with big Jeff Nelson.
The first batter Nelson faced was Jose Canseco, who had began his big league career as one of the Oakland A “Bash Brothers” with an end-of-the-season call-up in September of 1985. The following year he hit 33 home runs and was named AL Rookie of the Year. Two seasons later he led the league with 42 home runs and 124 RBIs plus he hit .307 and stole 40 bases becoming the first member ever of MLB’s 40-40 club. He also won the AL MVP that year. During those early years of his career, he was considered one of baseball’s greatest rising stars but as we later learned, that rise was being fueled with human rocket fuel.
Canseco’s string of injuries and DL stays began in 1989. By ’92, the A’s decided he was expendable and they traded him to Texas for Jeff Russell, Ruben Sierra, Mike Witt and money. He spent large portions of his two plus years with the Rangers on the DL. Boston then signed him as a free agent after the 1995 season and again he couldn’t seem to stay healthy. That’s what confused me about Canseco’s later admission of steroid use. I always thought steroids helped athletes not just train harder but also overcome injuries quicker. Jose must have been getting some bad drugs, no?
In any event, Canseco was not on the DL that night I visited Fenway and he had worked the count to 3-2 against the curve-balling Nelson. I will never forget the results of the next pitch. Canseco hit it on a line toward the green monster. I swear, as it passed my eye level, I could hear the ball swoosh. It was still rising when it went over the Green Monster. It remains to this day the hardest hit baseball I have ever seen in my lifetime. To put it in perspective, think back to all those famous bombs Mark McGuire hit during the All Star Home Run Derby contest held at Fenway in 1999. Canseco’s cannon shot was hit harder and travelled further than every one of them. Canseco’s three run blast made the score 9-2 and half of the Fenway crowd got up and left, thinking the game was over. We were able to move to much more comfortable seats behind home plate and as soon as we did the Yankees mounted a comeback. In fact, New York scored nine runs over the last three innings to take the lead. But John Wetteland failed to hold it and Boston ended up with a 12-11 victory in what turned out to be one of the most exciting baseball games I’ve ever seen live.
That home run turned out to be Canseco’s last one of the 1996 season and his final one as a Red Sox. A few weeks later he was again on the DL. The final five years of his career were spent playing for five different teams. They included the Yankees, in 2000. He had been placed on waivers by Tampa Bay that year and New York had picked him up. He appeared in 37 games as a Yankee and hit six of his seventeen-year career total of 462 home runs while wearing the pinstripes. He has since become one of the most controversial ex-big-leaguers of all time.