By Kristina Rutherford in Las Vegas
Jose Canseco is leaning over his driver on the third hole of a ritzy golf course just outside Las Vegas. His golf buddies—two guys he met playing poker whose names he often forgets—are doubled over laughing. Canseco has been putting on a show since he stepped on the Tuscany Golf Course, yelling “Horses–t!” after bad drives, peeing on trees, talking up cart girls and dancing on the green while he sings “Coming ’Round the Mountain.” But this takes the cake. Canseco just asked me—the reporter with the high-pitched voice, the one he’ll be spending two days with—to fake an orgasm. He lets out his best impression of what I might sound like, but Canseco isn’t satisfied with his pitch. Now he’s looking at me, expectantly. The laughter of his poker pals, two guys who feed his ego and hang on his every word, only fuels his performance. Canseco asks again when it’s just the two of us on the golf cart, because surely I’m embarrassed to fake it in front of the crowd. He threatens to end the interview if I don’t give in. He encourages me to go behind a tree and record it, in case stage fright or shyness hold me back. “Come on, just a little noise, ‘I’m coming, baby,’” he says.
There are tears in my eyes from laughter. I’m shaking my head, no. “Pretend, for me.” Still, nothing. On the fourth hole, the business idea strikes: Canseco wants to turn my fake orgasm noise into a bestselling 99-cent ringtone. “Who wouldn’t buy that?” he asks, grinning. “It would sell like crazy.” It takes his golf buddies several minutes to regain their composure enough to tee off.
Meet Jose Canseco, an immature, crowd-pleasing adolescent stuck in the body of a larger-than-life 47-year-old former professional ballplayer. It has been at least 12 years since the ex-Bash Brother let a reporter spend time with him, see his house and experience a day in his life. He’d almost cancelled this visit as well, saying he’s been the subject of too many hatchet jobs. Canseco tried to scare me into staying home: “I’m the Big Bad Wolf of Baseball!” In the end, he agreed to the interview with this sound reasoning: “You sounded cute.”
The man who emerges is at times the one you’d expect: arrogant, crass and wildly entertaining, the personality that makes Canseco an online sensation whose Twitter tirades land him in the news on a regular basis. A sample: “Hole families used to sleep in one big bed and produce no waste how did we go from their to killing polar bears in 100 years [sic]” and “Girls don’t hate me they masturbate to me.” But Canseco is full of surprises and contradictions. He isn’t stupid or crazy, despite what his misspelled rants suggest. At the heart of it, Canseco is honest, he’s endearing, he’s likeable, even kind. He’s also sad and lonely.
Eleven years removed from Major League Baseball, his millions squandered, Canseco’s life has been ruined by the sport that is his obsession. And all he wants is another shot. If he hadn’t written that tell-all book on steroids, he swears he’d still be in the big leagues hitting home runs instead of exiled from the game he loves. Canseco’s finances are a mess, he has only one true friend, and his relationships with the only people he cares about—his family—have paid the price while he chases the comeback dream. His teenaged daughter, Josie, is the love of his life and they don’t even live in the same city. Canseco still looks and acts the part of a rich athlete, but it’s a facade. He prefers quiet and privacy, but the man he presents to the world is loud and crazy because that’s what sells. Money is his Achilles heel; it drives nearly every decision he makes, and he can be downright mean in pursuit of it. Because if Canseco could get that lavish lifestyle back, maybe losing baseball wouldn’t hurt so bad. He is no longer rich, but still famous. He’s no longer a baseball star, just a has-been chasing a comeback he knows is impossible. He says he’s happy, but it doesn’t seem that way.
Nothing can prepare a person for the sight of Jose Canseco. He gets out of his white Cadillac and his bronzed, six-foot-four, 260-lb. frame dwarfs the car. His biceps are punishing the sleeves of a white Nike golf shirt that wasn’t designed to house anything this big. A Bluetooth earpiece hangs off his right ear. He extends his bear paw–sized hand for a shake and smiles to reveal sparkling white teeth. Canseco’s arms and legs are hairless and his lips are glossy from the cherry Lypsyl he’s constantly applying. He’s in black golf shorts, white tube socks and black sandals, and everything about him screams pro athlete. Only the stiff walk, the wrinkles around the eyes and the grey hair in his no-signs-of-receding-coif betray that the glory days are long gone, that he hit the last of his 462 big league home runs 11 years ago.
Canseco opens the front door to his five-bedroom home, located about eight miles from the strip, and a naked woman (a statue) greets us in the entrance. The marble hallway leads to a large living room dominated by a 74-inch TV that Canseco rarely watches, plus two more naked ladies, an eagle and two elephants (all statues). Canseco squeezes himself into a gold-tinged chair, and a giant 130-lb., blue-grey dog named Bruce—part Weimaraner, part Great Dane—settles on the carpet at his feet. Bruce is the dog Canseco calls “humble”—the only Canseco in the place who fits that description. In a carpeted room off the kitchen, two tiny dogs, each wearing a “World’s No. 1 Dog” sweater, yap behind closed doors, their food scattered on the floor. They belong to a woman whose Mercedes is parked outside, though she’s never here and Canseco never mentions her name except to call her “the other girl.” She’s a friend of his recent ex-girlfriend, 25-year-old model Leila Shennib. Then a guy you’d definitely want on your side in a fight walks through. His name is Donnie, and he’s another friend of the ex-girlfriend. Donnie lives upstairs, across the hall from Canseco’s nephew, Frank Alfonso, an Orlando-based artist who’s living here while he paints a mural for a poker player. Canseco welcomes anyone visiting to go on a self-guided tour, but the master bedroom is off limits. “Dead bodies,” he explains, smiling. “Welcome to the party house.” Mike Tyson and a tiger could parade through and nobody would flinch.
But this “party house” is all about appearances. Canseco, it turns out, doesn’t like to party. The bottles of booze on the kitchen counter don’t belong to him, because he doesn’t drink. He claims he hasn’t been drunk or high since he was 19. One bad trip on cocaine was enough. He rarely goes to clubs because it’s a hassle. Drunk guys always want to fight him, then ask for his autograph. Canseco may live in Vegas, but he doesn’t live the Vegas life. If it’s not working out, baseball, golf, poker or eating, he’s not interested. Celebrity appearances aren’t fun—they pay the bills. Later, a man walking his dog sees Canseco on his front lawn posing for a photo shoot. “What a life,” the man says, smiling. “It’s not a good one,” Canseco answers. “Believe me.”
You can’t blame him for making assumptuions, though: Canseco rents a five-bedroom, 5,000-sq. ft. home in a gated community for $2,800 a month and he leases a Cadillac. When he goes to the casino, he springs for valet parking. He goes out of his way to look the part of a rich man, though only the shell remains. Canseco makes his money through celebrity work he describes as feast or famine. He won’t say how much he expects to make this year, except that he’s “comfortable, for a regular person.” Several times Canseco reminds me he usually charges for exclusive interviews. He promises to bill $10,000 next time and insists I buy him dinner. “You have an expense account, right?” he asks, as we walk up to the restaurant. “I’m bringing lobster home in my pockets.”
Canseco earned more than $45 million playing professional baseball and he isn’t ashamed to admit there’s nothing left, that he plans to file for bankruptcy this year because he still owes the IRS $1.1 million. The founding member of baseball’s 40-40 club (40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in 1988, even if Canseco jokes it’s 40 women in 40 nights) finds it ridiculous when it’s suggested he should have money in the bank. The $23.5-million contract he signed with the Oakland A’s in 1990 made him baseball’s highest-paid player ever. Here’s how Canseco, sitting in his living room, legs crossed, breaks down the math on that contract: 40 percent went to taxes. His divorce to ex-wife No. 1, Esther Haddad, cost him $6 million and two six-figure sports cars. “Divorce and taxes alone are devastating,” he says. “Women are expensive.” He never figures in the other 10 sports cars he owned, or divorce No. 2. Instead, Canseco brings up family and the stock market. “What do you have left?” he asks. His right arm is in the air, and his thumb and index finger are joined together to form a big fat zero.
Canseco is forever trying to get it all back. His phone rings at least 10 times a day, and it’s always business-related. Over two days, he agrees to a celebrity boxing match, works through a baseball contract, hawks his anti-aging drink, “I Complete You,” tries to sell a sports radio show and works out the next taping of Hollywood Exes, a reality show with his daughter and ex-wife No. 2 (Jessica Sekely was a Hooters waitress and he couldn’t resist those orange shorts). It’s non-stop, and Canseco never says no, only asks how much. He wishes he’d agreed to shoot a porno when the $1-million offer was on the table eight years ago. These days, Twitter is Canseco’s means of attracting attention. He plots a Twitter death and decides he’ll tweet that he was found dead in a bathtub with 14 penguins, then reconsiders. “That’s too many. Two penguins is more realistic.” Canseco revels in the response he gets—one “hater” calls him a “dipshit,” another asks if he laces his steroids with heroin. “People take it seriously,” he says. “They’re all going, ‘He needs help! He’s going to commit suicide!’” The latest business goal is to get his more than 469,000 Twitter followers hooked on a Jose Canseco paysite that’s in the works. He’ll be wearing a camera eight hours a day so his fans and critics can communicate with him directly. “They want to see me. They want to say, ‘You’re the greatest,’ or ‘You’re an asshole,’ or they just want to motherf–k me,” Canseco says. “I’ll taunt them.” These ideas come from a man who claims he doesn’t like attention, or entertaining. “I like getting paid for entertaining,” Canseco explains. He’s wearing a hat that says “Trust Me” on it. “Why not create the perception about me that’s not me? It sells more and it’s more interesting to people. Who I really am is irrelevant. To baseball, I’m the Big Bad Wolf. To my family, I’m a nice, family guy. So, who do you believe?”
A point for the former: It’s day two, and we’re wearing out our welcome. Canseco is doing his best to look unimpressed while a camera flashes in his face, the photographer behind it trying to convince an unwilling model to pose under the lights he’s set up in the living room. The previous day, Canseco was all smiles. “Wanna take a picture of my butt hole while you’re at it? Let me shave it first!” Now, he’s had enough. He’s in a tight black tank top and black shorts, his hair still wet from the shower he took after batting practice. He looks like an unhappy comic book superhero. When a business partner arrives for an afternoon meeting, Canseco agrees to continue the photo shoot while they talk. But the photographer’s request that Canseco’s guest move to the middle of the couch doesn’t go over well. Canseco’s lips are tight, his eyes are narrowed. “This is money,” Canseco says, pointing at his guest. “You’re not money. I’ll cut you out in a second. Unless you guys are paying my bills, you have no chance.” The photo shoot is over.
Canseco has spent time in jail. He’s faced domestic abuse charges after purposely crashing into his first wife’s car and pulling wife No. 2’s hair. He’s earned a restraining order, has even been busted carrying a fertility drug across the Mexico-U.S. border. But among a mile-long list of regrets, No. 1 is writing that book—Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. If he could do it over, Canseco never would have exposed his steroid-using former teammates. Surrounded by people, he’ll loudly proclaim the 2005 bestseller saved the game: “You f–king ignorant cave-dwellers, how did I ruin baseball? Baseball is the best game in the world right now because of that goddamn book I wrote!” Away from the crowd, he’s honest: “It destroyed my life.” He got death threats, was labelled a snitch and his family suffered. Canseco doesn’t regret educating kids on steroids or exposing baseball’s biggest problem, but he never wanted to take down guys like Jason Giambi and fellow Bash Brother Mark McGwire. His publisher refused his manuscript unless he named names. Canseco was angry enough with the game to do it. “I have to live with that,” he says. The man who called himself “The Godfather of Steroids,” who educated players on their use for nearly 20 years before blowing the whistle, says he would have quit cold turkey had anyone in baseball asked. “They didn’t care,” Canseco says. “It was ridiculous back then, and I paid the price for it.”
He has no friends left from a life in baseball. Not one relationship, not after 17 years in the big leagues with seven different teams. Canseco says Juiced didn’t help but he blames MLB, says he was “blackballed” and forced to retire in 2002 after being cast as the poster boy of the steroid era. “Major League Baseball detached me from every level because I told the truth,” he says. “Nobody can touch me now.” At first, losing every friend in baseball bothered Canseco. He swears it doesn’t now. “I don’t want them,” he says. But the pain in his voice is unmistakable when he talks about former friends like Roger Clemens and Walt Weiss. He hasn’t spoken to either in more than a decade.
Losing the game hurts most. Canseco never retired on his own terms, and aside from the deaths of his parents, he counts his big league exile as his life’s greatest tragedy. It still gives him nightmares. Canseco makes a mockery of himself begging for write-in all-star votes and desperately offering free DH services to every team, even though he knows his efforts are in vain. “Pete Rose hasn’t been inducted into the Hall of Fame, [and] what I did against Major League Baseball is 1,000 times worse, maybe 4,000 times worse. The comeback is not going to happen,” he says. “But I still have hope.”
His sales pitch is perfected, and he’ll dish it out to anyone with ears: He may be old, but he can still crush a baseball more than 550 feet. He still has one more season of Major League Baseball in him, maybe two. He’d hit 40 homers this year if a team gave him a shot. “I’m going to be 48 years old, and when you see me hit a baseball, you’re gonna freak out,” Canseco says. “I have more bat speed than almost anybody in the big leagues.” The Godfather’s new message is that steroids are overrated, and he would have been a six-time all-star without them. Canseco says the 46 bombs he hit with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1998 were sans juice. He was going through a divorce with Sekely and he didn’t want to use steroids while handling breakup-induced depression. Canseco’s still on a steroid today, but it’s prescribed. After more than two decades of abuse, he quit juicing in 2008, but now needs a testosterone boost since his body no longer produces enough naturally. It means he’d still fail a drug test. Asked if he’s all-natural, Canseco nods his head, smiles and flexes his right bicep. “I have super genetics, in case you didn’t notice.” A boatload of arrogance, too. It’s so thick you stop noticing it after a while. But strip back the ego—it’s nearly impossible—and there’s no denying Canseco’s unrequited love for America’s pastime. He’ll wax eloquent for hours about hitting angles, the science behind powerful cuts and the way the ball spins. The love of the game and relentless pursuit of the comeback dream baffles Canseco’s nephew. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Alfonso says. “One thing is for sure, though—it’s a love-hate relationship.”
“Ready to ride the rocket?” he asks. Canseco’s sitting in the driver’s seat, grinning. We’re late for his batting cage session, though he has an excuse ready: “We’ll tell them we killed three midgets and stopped at a porn shop.” Perfect. As we get out of the car at the On Deck Baseball Academy, Canseco explains he’s taking a little BP himself, but first he’ll be giving hitting lessons to a guy named Foul Ball Paul, who has a disability. At first, Foul Ball Paul—a 26-year-old who’s decked out in full baseball gear and a blue hat with his nickname embroidered across the front—seems like a politician’s photo-op. Then Canseco walks in and plants a high-five on Paul, who peppers him with questions about the recent breakup with Shennib. Canseco promises to fill him in when they go running the next day. The owner of 1,260,000 baseball cards, Paul knows everything about baseball—it’s the game that unlocked his savant-like capabilities. He’s missing a gene required to process information, resulting in a disability his father likens to autism. Paul owns 1,262 Jose Canseco baseball cards, but it’s clear he doesn’t idolize the 1988 MVP. They’re friends, and a love of baseball is their shared passion. “Jose always takes time with Paulie, he always has,” Paul’s dad, Barry, says while his son takes cuts in the batting cage under Canseco’s direction. “A lot of the other guys who retire don’t want to take the time, but Jose’s different.” After Paul tires and Canseco takes his turn murdering balls in the cage, a kid wearing No. 33—known around these parts as the “Mini Bash Brother”—asks Canseco if they can take a photo together. This time, Canseco smiles for the camera. Before he leaves, he signs a bunch of baseballs for kids. “Don’t tell anyone,” he says. “You’ll ruin the bad boy image.”
But Canseco chips away at that image on a regular basis. He opens car doors for passengers, helps them out of his car, pulls out chairs for women at dinner, even offers up bites of his dessert. Many of the phone calls Canseco takes with his agent Jose Melendez are because Melendez has questions—he’s never been an agent before. Canseco likes and trusts Melendez, so he took him on as a favour a few months ago, and he’s teaching him the rules of the trade. Canseco helps Melendez for the same reason he lets three people live with him, rent-free: “They’re good people who need help.” It doesn’t matter that two of them are friends of his ex.
Canseco is never more kitten-like than at the mention of Josie. On an uncluttered desk in his upstairs office, there are only two pictures, and they’re both of his daughter. The little girl with the long blond hair is riding a brown pony, and she’s smiling ear to ear. In another framed eight-by-ten, she’s grinning for a grade school photo. This is where baseball has cost Canseco most. Today, his 15-year-old daughter lives in Los Angeles with her mother, Jessica. Josie is a five-foot-nine model and in Grade 10. Canseco pulls out his phone and scrolls through pictures every time her name comes up. It always makes him emotional. “I’ve sacrificed the last six years being far away from my daughter because of baseball,” he says. “It’s about time I was there for her. It’s taken a lot out of me. A lot.”
On the desk next to those pictures, though, is an unsigned contract that will take him 3,000 miles away from her. Canseco doesn’t want to sign it. He isn’t excited about playing independent baseball with the Massachusetts-based Worcester Tornadoes, because even though it’s baseball, it’s too far away. But Canseco knows he’ll sign it anyway, because his playing days are numbered. He’ll move even farther away from the love of his life in pursuit of the other love of his life. Again.
Canseco’s massive shoulders are hunched over in the booth of an IHOP, his mouth and eyebrows moving almost constantly because of the tic he’s had since he was a kid. The camera and the crowd of people are gone. For the first time, there are no theatrics, just blunt honesty. Canseco holds up a single finger when asked how many friends he has. Roger Clark, a guy he met through baseball seven years ago. “I had a lot of friends when I had money,” he says. “When I had no money, they all disappeared.” He can count the other people he cares for on one hand: Josie, his sister Barbie, his nephews and his niece. Twin brother Ozzie is on the fringe; Canseco doesn’t discuss him, and Melendez uses the word “hate” to describe the brothers’ relationship. After his father died last February, Canseco lost his sounding board; it crushed him. Now, if he’s upset, he talks to Bruce. Canseco calls himself a leper but he won’t admit he’s lonely. Asked to name a friend of his uncle’s, his nephew doesn’t have an answer. “I’m his friend,” Alfonso says.
Alone in the IHOP, Canseco makes The Decision. He’s going to sign that contract. A minute later he’s on the phone with Worcester Tornadoes owner Todd Breighner, discussing the move. Canseco makes clear he wants his own room on the road. “I don’t want to room with any players half my age,” he tells Breighner, laughing. Playing baseball with those guys, for some reason, isn’t laughable. When he hangs up the phone, Canseco shrugs. The deal doesn’t even bring a smile to his face. He knows it’s another decision that isolates him while he chases the impossible. “The game’s gonna take me away from my daughter again,” he says. “It bothers me a lot.”
Jose Canseco is afraid of a life without baseball. So afraid that he won’t leave the game until he has no choice, even if it means putting greater distance between himself and the person he cares for most. A couple in their 80s strolls by. As he watches them walk away, Canseco owns up to what makes saying goodbye to the game so hard, the reason he’ll work out and have cannons for arms until he dies. “I don’t want to be 80 and look back at what I used to be,” he says. “It’s such a long journey to the top, but the fall is so fast. It’s always more painful, and you don’t know how to handle it.” Few athletes do, and fewer still would admit it. Canseco is enduring a private struggle in the most public way possible, in part because it’s profitable, but also because he isn’t ashamed to admit that life sucks today compared to when he was a star ballplayer, that he’d do anything to get that life back. From a distance, Canseco’s struggle is funny; he’s a joke. Up close, it’s heartbreaking. Canseco won’t let go of the game that defined and then destroyed him.
He doesn’t know if his stint with the Tornadoes will work out. He doesn’t know what he’ll do next, or with the rest of his life. Everything is framed by the game he loves, and by regret. “My life has been sucked out of me from Major League Baseball,” he says. “That’s it. I’ve got nothing left.”