A deal at The Crossroads
The above story may have never taken place.
Rafael, sadly, has lost the credibility to deny anything. He infamously made an unequivocal denial before Congress, then tested positive.*
Juan’s never bothered to really address it firmly either way. But the evidence is there.
As Jim Reeves noted in 2012, “A piece of Juan’s luggage was also snared at the Cleveland airport after he left Texas because it contained PEDs and steroid paraphernalia. It was claimed by one of Gonzalez’s associates and Juan disavowed any knowledge of the contraband it contained. All of this meant Juan’s name was prominent in the Mitchell report.”
Pudge has unequivocally said it never happened, in writing, in his autobiography**:
“Let’s make that as crystal clear as possible – I never took steroids; If anyone says differently, they are lying. Here’s what I did do: I worked my ass off. I was a guy who played the game the right way. I was disciplined in my workouts and my diet. I worked as hard as I could to do the best that I could – every day for 20-plus years. I loved the game of baseball.” – Pudge Rodriguez in They Call Me Pudge”
If I have to choose who to believe, Canseco or Rodriguez, I go Pudge—but Canseco’s proven right often enough that we had to ask. And that’s sad.
A bargain at The Crossroads
What’s sadder still is this: we might never have to ask this of any of the three if not for one of the truly dramatic trades in Rangers history, 25 years ago this week:
“Jose Canseco gives us a fourth-place hitter who is going to the Hall of Fame. It was a trade that made sense for both sides.”– Tom Grieve, Texas Rangers General Manager, August 31, 1992
To call it a blockbuster was an understatement; it was monumental, as Jamey Newberg remembered a decade ago:
“No player had more than Canseco’s 230 home runs from his rookie year of 1986 through 1992, and in that same span the 26-year-old Sierra had 156 blasts himself, more than Barry Bonds had through his age 26 season. The names of Rogers Hornsby and Frankie Frisch were showing up in columns following the trade — not since those two were involved in a 1926 deal had two future Hall of Famers been traded for each other.” – Jamey Newberg, Swapping Stories (MLB.com)
Among those who disliked the trade was my 12-year-old self. I was a Sierra fan, but more importantly was not a Canseco one.
Moreover, I loved Russell, and I thought Witt was inches away from being Nolan Ryan, just waiting to find his command.
I was far wrong on Witt (whose potential we’ve covered before), and overselling on Russell and Sierra.
I was sadly right on Canseco, but my portents of poor tiding didn’t begin to scratch the surface.
“Jose, can you see?”
Among The Muscled One’s accomplishments in Texas:
- He blew out his UCL in an ill-fated attempt to pitch (he was no Shotei Otani, let’s be VERY clear, to begin with)
- He let a home run bounce OFF his head and over the wall for a homer in Cleveland
How did each do in their new digs?
Sierra hit .277 with 17 runs batted in and three homers. He led the A’s with seven runs batted in during their appearance in the American League Championship Series, where they fell to eventual champion Toronto..
Witt moved into the A’s rotation and went 1-1, with a 3.41 ERA – solid stuff, albeit in pitching-favorable Oakland.
Russell pitched eight times out of the Oakland bullpen without allowing a run in 9 2/3 innings of work.
Canseco struggled in Texas, hitting .233 with just four home runs in 22 games. Setting a trend that would continue on and off for his career, he missed a handful of games due to shoulder and back problems.
Here’s Sierra’s key stats for 4 years in Oakland stacked up against Canseco’s three injury-plagued seasons over the same time in Texas:
It’s clear who got the better player over the term (Texas), but it’s also clear who paid the most, especially thereafter (again, Texas).
The PED whisperer
Later in his career, Sierra was strongly suspected of being a steroid user, as his body between 1991 and 1994 underwent the telltale signs of use, in terms of incredible offseason strength gains, but also the small joint and micro-muscle injuries frequent to steroids’ dehydrating and flexibility-sapping tendencies.
He wasn’t close to a unique case.
“(Canseco) is the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids.” – renowned baseball writer Thomas Boswell
Steroids’ effects were clear in Canseco from his first days in Texas. As noted, as well as mediocre initial stats, he missed decent time that September of 1992 due to hamstring and back issues. For his three years, his main highlight was probably hitting the then-longest home run at the Ballpark in Arlington, a blast of around 480 feet that hit the back of the visitors bullpen in left center.
His lowlights were many, but nothing compared to introducing the steroid culture to a group of lithe, athletic Rangers sluggers—and, thus, muddling the desert between Rangers playoff appearances with syringe-scattered shards of doubt.
I know some will never believe Pudge’s denials, either.
But recall: we were also watching a 20-year-old exposed to conditioning for the first time ever, and a body always squat and muscled exposed to professional fitness and nutrition.
I firmly believe, had men like Rodriguez and fellow Texas legend and 2017 Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Bagwell used steroids, their careers would have been pockmarked. They would have been plagued with the shortened seasons and nagging injuries that dogged Mark McGwire, the elder Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa—not to mention Sierra, Canseco, and the late Ken Caminiti.
Instead, Pudge and Bags were bastions of day-in, day-out excellence until age and arthritis, respectively, ravaged their joints. Each were men with squat, muscled bodies at 20 who grew into themselves a half-decade later and stayed consistently squat and strong throughout.
Aside from Canseco, neither has ever been linked to steroids.
Then again, that isn’t much of an aside, when you consider it.
It’s like saying, “Aside from that NRA convention, I’ve never been linked to guns.” It’s as big a “but” as there is on the subject. It is, sadly, a measure of the span of this particular sin. By bringing in Canseco—who, if anyone was suspected of steroid use in 1992, was candidate #1—Ranger management polluted the franchise.
“There was also a man called Mercury, he was very crafty and deceitful in deed and trickeries, though his speech was fully plausible. The heathens made him a renowned god for themselves; at crossroads they offered sacrifices to him frequently and they often erringly brought praise-offerings to hilltops, all through the devil’s teaching. This false god was honored among the heathens in that day, and he is also called by the name Odin in the Danish manner.” – De Falsis Deis (On False Gods), Wulfstan II
True, if you mention steroids, certain other teams do also come to mind.
Oakland, for their linebacker lineups constant from the late 80s through the early 2000s. San Francisco, for ageless archetypes like Barry Bonds and Benito Santiago. And we can directly connect both franchises’ stars, of course, to BALCO and clubhouse chains of trainers and dealers.
But beyond that Northern California epicenter? Welcome to Arlington, Texas. Where everything’s bigger, including the baseball players.
We’re top three on a list we might never have made had it not been for a post-deadline deal in August 1992.
Is it likely Kansas City had as many steroid users as the Rangers? Yes.
San Diego? Yep.
Baltimore? You bet.
I could keep going.
But do those—or any but a few—teams carrying the same shame? No.
Because they didn’t employ Patient X at the heart of the largest outbreak of PEDs in baseball.
Paying across history
And for that, we’ll pay well beyond the 1990s. We’ll pay across history.
Two potential Hall of Famers (Sierra and Gonzalez) saw steroids destroy their health and careers—one once he left, one as he fell further into their grip.
One sure Hall of Famer (Palmeiro) slid below suspicion despite Canseco’s words—thanks largely to a “classic” vs. “new baseball” physique. Still, he would likely have never faced the Congressional Firing Line—the one that framed his career epitaph, finger wag and all—had he never been named in Juiced.
And who knows how many minor league players, in trying to emulate men whose jobs they sought, saw their careers torn apart by the nagging health woes of prolonged steroid abuse?
I won’t even mention the Pandora’s Box opened onto the true kids, the high school and college dreamers looking to heroes for inspiration and guidance—and finding a slow road to anger, depression, or even death.
That scourge might have gone another direction early on, and never so publicly driven a needle deep in the heart of Texas, if not for August 31, 1992.
But dreams die hard in the Texas sun.
*I personally don’t blame Raffy or others for their choices in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but those are my opinions and not those of SDI as an organization. As I see it, baseball was the Wild West, in terms of policing itself, and he was keeping up with the Jones’.
We have to come to a reckoning with the steroid era, just as we did spitballers like Gaylord Perry and amphetamine users from the 60s through the 80s—by acknowledging, admonishing, but not whitewashing.
But that’s another piece for another day.
**Before you jump to Pudge’s considerable weight loss between winter 2004 and the spring of 2005? He has a clear (and reasonable) explanation in his book. The ravages of age meant he couldn’t carry weight, even muscle, on his knees and spine, and the challenges to his personal life (he was fighting through a divorce) meant he needed to ‘get away’, so he took long bike rides—hundreds of miles worth. Per Evan Grant, “Rodriguez cites the workouts—particularly long bike rides from Key Biscayne to Key Largo in winter of 2004 – and depression after separating from first wife Maribel for the dramatic weight loss he experienced before the 2005 season.”