Sports Nut

The Juice and I

Jose Canseco and steroids, a love story.

Canseco: steroids’ celebrity pitch man

For those who have marveled at baseball’s homoerotic rituals—the butt-slapping, the excessive man-hugs—let Jose Canseco, author of Juiced, add a more intimate encounter. Canseco claims that while he was playing for the Oakland A’s in the late 1980s, he and teammate Mark McGwire would lock themselves in a bathroom stall and inject each other with steroids. Pause on that image for a moment. Canseco was 6 feet 4 inches and weighed in the neighborhood of 250 pounds; McGwire was 6 feet 5 inches and adding beef like an Arby’s franchise—for the two of them to squeeze into a men’s room stall must have presented something of a geometric challenge. Now imagine McGwire gently lowering his uniform pants while Canseco (“I’m a good injector”) hovers over his derriere with a syringe, and add the fact that these men are enjoying this ritual immensely, even laughing about it, and there you have an enduring image of the Bash Brothers. Back, back, back, back, back—side!

Juiced is a mesmerizing book, and not just because Canseco throws off stories like that without a trace of self-regard. Canseco has pulled off the impossible: He has written a giddy testimonial to steroids. Perhaps the fact that he named his alleged co-juicers gulled sportswriters into thinking that Juiced was meant as a confessional. It reads more like a huckster selling long-life elixir at a rural county fair. “Steroids, used correctly, will not only make you stronger and sexier, they will also make you healthier,” Canseco crows. “Certain steroids, used in proper combinations, can cure certain diseases. Steroids will give you a better quality of life and also drastically slow down the aging process.” Then he helpfully adds, “I’m forty years old, but I look much younger.”

The sports memoir usually relies on a heartbreaking premise: that playing sports is a wretched, dehumanizing job, and that the only way to survive is the daily intake of massive quantities of controlled substances. Canseco’s book has all the substances but none of the morose style. It was his pre-steroid youth, Canseco argues, that was wretched and dehumanizing. In high school in Miami, he was a runty 5 feet 11 inches and 155 pounds, and too shy to stand up in front of the class. His father Jose Sr. humiliated him after every strikeout: “You’re going to grow up and work at Burger King or McDonald’s! You’ll never add up to anything!” (His twin brother, Ozzie, barely seen here, suffered the same wrath. Perhaps Jose Sr. was half right.) It wasn’t until Canseco was drafted in the 15th round by the Athletics, and watched his beloved mother die, that he decided to tune into steroids with the encouragement of a high-school friend he calls “Al.” To Jose’s great relief, Al, too, was a good injector.

Upon reaching the majors, Canseco proclaimed himself the “godfather” of steroids and set about evangelizing their glory to his teammates. “I probably know more about steroids and what steroids can do for the human body than any layman in the world,” he boasts. For Canseco, steroids weren’t just about padding his home run and RBI totals. Injecting was a near-religious experience. Steroids eased his degenerative disc disease and extended his life: “I needed steroids and growth hormone just to live,” he writes. With the zeal of the converted, Canseco credits steroids with helping him avoid temptations, like hard liquor and amphetamines, and notes that the majors are a cleaner, more sober place since the drinking and pill-popping old-timers were replaced by the younger generation of ‘roiders.

For Canseco, even steroids’ most gruesome side effects have a silver lining. For example: “[O]ne definite side effect of steroid use is the atrophying of your testicles.” Uh-oh. “But here’s the point I want to emphasize: what happens to your testes has nothing to do with any shrinking of the penis. That’s a misconception.” Well, I suppose that’s slightly less revolting. “As a matter of fact, the reverse can be true. Using growth hormone can make your penis bigger, and make you more easily aroused. So to the guys out there who are worried about their manhood, all I can say is: Growth hormone worked for me.” Why, doctor, get me some steroids!

Steroids made Canseco into one of baseball’s great playboys. He slept with, by his own estimation, a “couple hundred” women in 17 seasons in the majors“but I’m not talking about outrageous numbers.” Canseco would often select potential dates by inviting a few dozen women to his room for a “beauty contest”; the winners would be allowed to join him in public later that night. Even his monogamous relationships had a certain macho luster. He dated and married Miss Miami, divorced her, and then dated and married a Hooters girl. He flirted with Madonna, who invited him up to her Manhattan penthouse and sounded him out about marriage. (The New York Post dubbed him “Madonna’s Bat Boy.”)

In the hundreds of pages devoted to the wonders of steroids, Canseco chronicles a single moment of heartbreak. When his daughter Josie was still an infant, Canseco’s estranged second wife Jessica, the Hooters girl, disappeared. He called a friend at “one of the airlines,” who managed to track Jessica to Kansas City. When Canseco finally reached her, Jessica said she had left him for another jock: Tony Gonzalez, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs. Canseco was grief-stricken. He walked to his bedroom closet and pulled out a Street Sweeper shotgun. Canseco says he used the gun to shoot sharks when he went deep-sea fishing—an image so comic that we’ll put it aside for now. Anyway, Canseco had the Street Sweeper and was ready to do himself in when a tiny noise called him forth from despair. “Something had decided that it wasn’t my time yet,” he writes. Maybe it was his infant daughter. Maybe God. Or maybe—and this is just a hunch—it was the steroids, calling to save their champion.

There’s a great memoir buried inside this half-great one, and it has nothing to do with steroids. Canseco, who was born in Cuba, was a rarity in 1988: a Latin baseball superstar. He’s also the first Latin ballplayer to write an important memoir, and every page seethes with racial resentment. Canseco lashes the media for giving preferential treatment to white stars like McGwire and Cal Ripken Jr.—who he says behaved just as wretchedly as he did but were spared the public vilification. Seizing on his arrests for battery and weapons possession, the media portrayed him as an out-of-control Cuban lout. “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.” For all the miracles steroids performed on Canseco’s body, that was the one thing Anadrol and Equipoise couldn’t change.