Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire left baseball the same way they entered it—one right after the other. But while McGwire has been anointed one of the game’s gods, Canseco’s retirement this month generated less noise than a successful putt for par. And while there’s a growing consensus that McGwire is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, there’s an equally strong agreement that Canseco won’t pass muster with the gatekeepers in Cooperstown. That’s a shame, because Canseco deserves to be enshrined right alongside McGwire.
Canseco’s critics tend to think of him as a slightly higher life form than Dave Kingman, a prodigious home run hitter who won’t sniff the hall because he had about nine other hits. But actually, when you look at the numbers, Canseco is a different species of ballplayer altogether—more, in fact, like McGwire.
Canseco won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1986. McGwire earned the same honor the next season. McGwire hit .263 over his career, Canseco .266. McGwire knocked in 1,414 runs, Canseco 1,407. According to Bill James’ Similarity Scores, which match ballplayers based on a number of offensive categories, the player whose career stats most closely resemble McGwire’s is … Canseco.
In other areas, Canseco was even better than McGwire. He stole 200 bases in his career—to McGwire’s 12—and he was the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. (Only Barry Bonds and A-Rod have duplicated the feat.) Though neither Bash Brother covered himself with postseason glory, Canseco out-homered (seven to five) and out-slugged (.398 to .349) McGwire in fewer October plate appearances. It’s also worth noting that McGwire never had a season in which you could have called him the best overall player in the game. Canseco did: 1988, when he was named the American League MVP.
McGwire did amass his stats in nearly 1,000 fewer regular-season at-bats and, of course, he finished with 583 home runs. Canseco slogged through the last years of his career searching in vain for 500 long balls—one of the benchmarks dangled as an “automatic induction” carrot by Hall of Fame voters. Sports Illustrated’sTom Verducci argued that Canseco “had the kind of career that will test how the modern voter weighs offensive numbers in the age of unprecedented slugging.” This gets the point exactly wrong. Sixty percent of Canseco’s 462 home runs were hit before the 1995 season—the year they put Flubber in the balls and Brady Anderson became Harmon Killebrew. Verducci’s skepticism is more rightly applied to McGwire, who hit 60 percent of his dingers beginning in ‘95.
Intangible factors are also weighed to McGwire’s advantage. By the end of his career, McGwire was an Andro-fueled, mythic giant whose little boy watched from the on-deck circle. He was Rob Deer as drawn by Norman Rockwell. Canseco, on the other hand, became a laughingstock, a cartoon, and a blooper-reel staple when a ball bounced off his head and over the fence for a home run. If McGwire aged like wine, Canseco was a comet—all fiery excitement at the start, trailing off into dull rock.
But at the beginning of their careers, it was Canseco who was the catalyst for Oakland’s near-dynasty in the late 1980s. During much of that time, McGwire was suffering through a prolonged awkward phase. From the ages of 25 to 27, when most players are entering their prime, McGwire hit just .223 over nearly 1,500 at bats.
The criticisms leveled against Canseco stand in—too often transparently—for the allegation that he wasted that one-time promise. NBC’s Ted Robinson wrote that Canseco “squandered his vast potential. This is a guy who could have broken an amazing number of records.”
True enough. But ignoring what he could have done, Canseco posted numbers that place him squarely among the elite. To dismiss him because his story didn’t have a happy ending is to deny his period of brilliance. Not every player has one. If Fred McGriff and Rafael Palmeiro can become candidates for the hall by grinding out respectable year after respectable year (and they should), surely Canseco should be honored for his briefer—but brighter—ascendance.