Dear Jose Canseco,
When The HOVG asked me if I wanted to write an open letter to you, I jumped at the opportunity.
We’ve never met, although you’ve responded to me on Twitter a few times, including wishing me a Happy Birthday (after I asked you to) and one time we actually made eye contact during Photo Day at an Oakland A’s game back in the early 90’s. You were my first sports hero and as I put my thoughts together for this letter, I realized it was about more than just the towering home runs.
As a young child, I enjoyed basketball, football and soccer, but I didn’t really care that much about sports. I was mainly interested in watching funny things and playing with my G.I. Joes, but everything changed when a friend invited me to his birthday in June of 1988. He decided he wanted his closest friends to go with him to an A’s vs. Minnesota Twins game. I knew the A’s were good that season and that the Twins won the World Series the previous year, so I was extra excited to go to my first ever baseball game. It was the first professional sporting event I had ever attended. On the way to the Oakland Coliseum, all my friends were filling me in on all-things A’s and they kept telling me how awesome you were. “You are gonna love Jose. You’re gonna love him!”
It wasn’t even the mid-point of a 162 game season, but I felt like I was attending the Super Bowl. The giveaway that night was a pin with your face on it and the date, June 24th, 1988.
Sadly, you rested that night so you remained a mystery. The Twins won 11-5 but it did not matter. That was it, I was instantly in love with baseball. The next day, I watched the A’s game on TV where not only did you win, but you smashed a pretty sweet home run.
And that was it, I had a favorite athlete.
I thought you were the coolest athlete I had ever seen and immediately learned everything I could about you and the Oakland A’s. While baseball today continues to hold onto traditionalist roots for dear life (much to its detriment, in my opinion), it was especially shocking in the 80’s to see such a flashy player that was a true showman. Your strikeouts were almost as exciting as your home runs. Every fly ball you caught seemed more dramatic than they anyone else’s, and your stolen bases convinced me that you were a super hero. How can a guy so big and strong also be so fast?
I watched every single game I could that season. I watched you hit home run #40 and screamed so loud when you stole base #40 that my dad came into my room to tell me he’d ground me if I didn’t calm down. My walls were covered in your posters and cutouts of you and your A’s teammates from magazines, and I collected every card of yours I could find. I still have every single Starting Lineup figurine they ever made of you. For my birthday one year, I asked my parents for the prized baseball card of my childhood: Your 1986 Donruss Rated Rookie. They bought it for me at its peak value of $100. I’m not sure what it’s worth now but it’s priceless to me.
Yes you were bad-ass but one of the main reasons I gravitated so strongly to you is that I was the brownest kid in school, and not only were you the coolest athlete in my hometown, you kinda looked like me. I wore my A’s hat every day. I even grew my hair out to mimic the mullet curl you had in the back. I dressed as you for Halloween for six straight years. I copied your batting stance. It was so exact that the coaches at Stanford Baseball Camp would call me “Little Jose” and my friends at camp would stand around to watch me take huge cuts in the batting cage and during games. I wanted to be just like you. Then I found out that you and your family escaped Cuba to come to America, just like my family and I escaped Iran to come to America. No other kid at school had that connection to you. You made me feel validated at a time where I didn’t feel like I belonged, just as I was about to become a teenager. We were bonded as athlete and fan.
But it was bittersweet. If there was a Jose Canseco tabloid story, I knew I’d have to defend you at school the next day. When that ball bounced off your head and over the wall for a home run, I faked being sick the next morning so I didn’t have to go to school and deal with other kids heckling me. defended you to anyone who would dare question you. I saw the media try to take you down and it felt like they were taking me down. It was clear that their issue with you was deeper than just baseball. Here we had a Cuban immigrant in the 1980’s become ROY and MVP in his first three seasons, on the cover of Sports Illustrated and living a completely unapologetic rockstar lifestyle. To them, you were a threat to the national pastime.
All that did was motivate me and make me a bigger fan of yours.
I remember you and the A’s sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the 1988 ALCS where you hit three home runs in the four games. I remember one towering home run you hit over the green monster that was hit so hard that Mike Greenwell just stood in place and turned around to watch it fly over the wall like the rest of us. He never even took a step. Then came Game One of the World Series. You were hit by a pitch in your first plate appearance, which made me furious. They were out to get you. When you came up to bat the next time with the bases loaded, I yelled out “Grand slam! Grand slam!” over and over again until you actually hit that grand slam. I’m not going to lie, I felt like I helped you in that moment. They kept replaying the ball careening off the center field camera and I remember thinking it was the coolest thing ever when they showed the dent you left in the camera. It looked like you guys had a certain victory on your hands when Kirk Gibson limped up to bat in the bottom of the ninth. Although I was new to sports, I had a weird feeling that something bad was about to happen.
Then. Crack. As I watched you watch that ball fly into the stands, tears filled my eyes. I knew I had just watched a historic moment against my team that I would be forced to watch forever. I live in Los Angeles now and anytime I attend a Dodgers game and they’re down in the eighth or ninth inning, they replay that home run on the JumboTron to get the crowd excited. It’s not fun to watch the worst moment of your childhood get cheered on over and over again. Anyway…as Gibson hobbled ran the bases and Tommy Lasorda ran out of the dugout, I ran into my room, slammed the door shut and locked it.
I didn’t come out until the next morning.
It was a poignant moment for me as a sports fan. To be that excited and confident and have the rug pulled out from under me hurt really bad. The unexpected loss to the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 also hurt, but at that point, I expected it. And although you guys won it all in 1989 against our hated cross-town rival Giants, the Loma Prieta Earthquake put a damper on things. As a result, I realized that only one fan base is happy at the end of a season, so I couldn’t expect my team to win every year…or any year.
Your personal story and what happened with that A’s team led to me favoring underdogs. The Bay Area had WGN so I used to go home after school and watch Harry Caray announce Chicago Cubs games. The Cubs became my 2nd team as a kid. I wanted them to win because people said they couldn’t. And as soon as I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, I became a Los Angeles Clippers fan because they were terrible and people said they couldn’t win. Back then the Staples Center was nearly empty and the team was horrible but I was along for the ride. They’ve risen and fallen so many times the last few years, and I’ve only been able to handle it because of my first few years as a sports fan. I will always root for the underdog because I like that narrative more. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the thing I’ve always loved most about sports is the narrative. My job now is storytelling, so this all came full circle.
August 31, 1992. That was the night the Oakland A’s traded you to the Texas Rangers. We had the best record in baseball, so making a trade seemed ridiculous but it was clear the A’s management had it out for you. I was in my room making an updated Oakland A’s collage to put on my wall when my dad told me it was time to pick up my mom from the airport as she was returning from a work trip. We were listening to sports talk radio when they suddenly announced your trade so nonchalantly that I thought they were kidding. I cranked the volume up and as they went into the details of the trade, I realized this was no joke. Then they explained how it happened. During an actual game, you were in the on-deck circle about to bat when they called you back into the dugout and sent you up to the GM’s office to tell you you’ve been traded. The best team in baseball traded its’ franchise player of seven years just like that. It was a disgusting move by the A’s. I was numb. I felt betrayed. I started crying and my dad stayed quiet because he knew what you meant to me. My mom got in the car and my dad quietly told her what happened and she just said “I’m sorry Payman.” After a silent car ride, we got home and I went into my room, closed the door and took down everything related to the Oakland A’s.
I became a Texas Rangers fan that night because the Oakland A’s traded away their best player and the only athlete I ever related to. But once you got traded to the Boston Red Sox a couple years later, I went back to the A’s. But truth be told, it was never the same. I never rooted for them again with the same passion. I mainly only went to A’s games that were against teams you were on and I proudly cheered when you hit home runs against us. In all honesty, my love of baseball began its die the night when you were traded. I still like the game of baseball itself but I don’t follow it like I once did and I doubt I ever will again.
When I think about baseball, it makes me think about those first few glorious years. And despite the fact that you took PEDs, it didn’t change what you did for me as a young immigrant trying to feel comfortable in my own skin. You were always yourself no matter what. So many athletes have completely generic personalities (see: A-Rod) but you were you, and always were. Even today on social media, you bare your soul like no other athlete ever, and I respect you for that. And despite all the hate and Major League Baseball clearly trying to take you down your entire career, you changed baseball with your book Juiced. Had you not written that book, a starting pitcher would have hit 80 home runs by now.
You helped save baseball, and I bet that drives your detractors crazy.
Jose, I can confidently say you will always be my favorite athlete. Thank you for all the home runs, thank you for the Championship in 1989, thank you for being yourself and thank you for helping me be me.
P.S. I would love to take batting practice with you one day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Payman Benz is a director and producer, whose credits include “The Last Man on Earth”, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, “Key & Peele” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live”. He grew up in Mountain View, California and now resides in Los Angeles. Payman grew up thinking he was going to be a baseball player. He was wrong.
You can follow Payman on Twitter at @PaymanBenz.
The Hall of Very Good™ Class of 2016 is presented by Out of the Park Developments, the creators of the wildly popular baseball simulation game Out of the Park Baseball. Out of the Park Developments has made a generous donation to The Hall.