The Most Influential Player of the Decade
It’s bandwagon time (or “bandwagen” if you’re German). We’re at the end of not only the calendar year but the first decade of the 21st century. Technically, the century began in 2001 and the first decade ends in 2010. Look it up. The lists you’re seeing now: Best of the Decade, Worst of the Decade, Most Mediocre of the Decade – these lists are really a year early. But since the mass media runs much of our culture, we follow like chickens looking for heads. If the bandwagon says our decade ends December 31, 2009, we’ll play by those rules.
With that in mind, it’s been an eventful past ten years. Who would have thought coming into the decade that the Red Sox would win as many World Series titles as the Yankees? Or that some of the game’s biggest heroes would be knocked off their pedastals for being human? That baseball wives would make headlines, in some cases unexpectedly and inadvertantly? Who would have thought on December 31, 1999 that the next ten years would throw names into the headlines previously reserved for pre-TMZ.com tabloids? Meanwhile, we’ve had Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Pedro Martinez and a host of others provide hits, wins and fodder for an evolving media landscape that is changing even as you read this.
But who was the one person in the past decade who touched baseball, whose influence spanned beyond the diamond and reached into the clubhouse, the various executive offices of the game, both baseball and mainstream media, and into the consiousness of more than just baseball fans. Who was the one person most responsible for creating change over the past 10 years? You could argue it was George Mitchell, whose name adorns the cover page of MLB’s Mitchell Report, Major League Baseball’s attempt to investigate the full depth steroid and PED use had seeped into the game. But Mitchell worked under the orders of Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball since 1992. Selig has done his part to change the game, at times working in concert with Donald Fehr, now the outgoing executive director of the MLB Players Association. But when it came to arguably the biggest scandal in baseball history, there was one man who was there in the scandal’s early days and who was there in the decade of the 2000s. This man is directly and indirectly the most influential “player” of the past 10 years. His name is Jose Canseco.
Jose Canseco only played 174 games in the decade of the oughts. In 2000 and 2001, his last year in the game, he hit a combined 21 home runs and drove in 98 runs. His on base percentage those two years averaged out to a strong .371. But you can sense something was a little off when he played for 3 teams and only managed one plate appearance in the 2000 World Series for the champion New York Yankees. By the fall of 2001, Canseco had become a baseball castoff.
For years, Canseco had been alleged to be a user of performance enhancing drugs. As far back as 1988, fans had chanted “STEROIDS!” at him while he took his position in the outfield. But you would bet even Canseco himself, the man who hit 462 career home runs, never would have thought that his influence on Major League Baseball would be most felt after his playing career had ended.
Tom Verducci wrote a famous article published by Sports Illustrated in June, 2002 titled Totally Juiced. It was a damning and groundbreaking article for two reasons. First, it confronted a topic in the mainstream that, until previously, had been largely denied by players, management and the mass media, the topic being the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball. Second, it started a new game of players guessing what the percentage was of their counterparts who used PEDs. Ken Caminiti, who admitted to steroid use for the first time publicy in Verducci’s article, said the number was 50% (Caminiti would later be one of a number of high-profile MLB deaths in the 2000s). Chad Curtis estimated 40-50% of MLB players used steroids in the same article.
But it is Canseco’s quote that showed 2002 was just the start of what was to come in the very near future. Read this short excerpt from Verducci’s article:
“Upon retiring last month after failing to catch on with a major league team, Canseco, while not admitting steroid use himself, said that steroids have ‘revolutionized’ the game and that he would write a tell-all book blowing the lid off drug use in the majors. Canseco estimated that 85% of major leaguers use steroids.”
Three years later, Juiced came out (think his book title was any relation to Verducci’s SI article?). It was Canseco’s promised tell-all book. At first it was treated with derision. As the years passed, people began to reluctantly consider it a true first-hand account. The Mitchell Report, which came out in 2007 during the winter of our steroidal discontent, was filled with names of players and circumstances for their obtaining PEDs. Canseco’s book was a major influence on the reason why MLB commissioner Bud Selig charged former senator George Mitchell to investigate how pervasive steroids were in the culture of baseball. Canseco’s book also led to a culture change within the game that led the Players Association to twice open up the collective bargaining agreement with the owners and agree to harsher penalties for those who failed tests.
Did the Association, Selig, Mitchell and others directly state Canseco was a reason for all of this? No. He’d been subtly – and not so subtly – labeled by the media as a buffoon. Players thought he was a Benedict Arnold for ratting them out; worse than Jim Bouton in Ball Four. Because his motives for writing the book were largely for revenge, attention and money, its revelations were received more as unsubstantiated gossip than facts as a result of real investigative reporting. It took The Mitchell Report’s release for people to slowly give Canseco credit for telling the truth.
Canseco took on his original accusers, those who criticized Juiced, in 2008’s Vindicated. He also dropped another bomb. He stated that he introduced Alex Rodriguez to a source to obtain steroids (and Magglio Ordonez as well). Just like last time, the baseball world took on Canseco. He was called a liar, a showboat; someone who would say and write anything to sell a book.
One year later, A-Rod admitted it was true. Of course, it was not because of Vindicated. It was because of Selena Roberts and David Epstein, Sports Illustrated (again) writers whose sources leaked Alex Rodriguez was on a list of 104 MLB players who had tested positive for steroids back in 2003. The story that most of the media seemed to forget was that Jose Canseco was, once again, vindicated.
Take a look at THIS CHART, which you can see on the website called Baseball’s Steroid Era. Scroll to the bottom of the chart. Whose name was there in the beginning? That’s right. It’s Jose Canseco. Then scroll up to the 2005 era and see his name again, this time with links to other players. The Canseco link ties him to the most and the biggest players named in The Steroid Era, from Mark McGwire to Roger Clemens to Alex Rodriguez. His own use may have started in the 1980s, but his influence was most felt in the 2000s.
That is why Jose Canseco is the most influential player of the decade.
Jimmy Scott is probably the greatest pitcher you’ve never heard of. Visit Jimmy Scott’s High & Tight to read more from Jimmy and guests Desi Relaford, Eric Valent & Real Baseball Wife Cassidy Dover. You’ll also hear a new interview every Monday morning with former MLB players, agents, wives and others; giving new outlooks on this great game we call Baseball. Go there now to hear Jimmy’s latest interviews with Rollie Fingers, Mike Vaccaro, Natalie Niekro and Lary Sorensen. You can follow Jimmy on Twitter or Facebook.