Sports

Scott Stinson: Podcast revisits time in baseball history that seems even more odd in hindsight

When Jose Canseco’s book Juiced came out in 2005, the reaction
to its stories of widespread steroid abuse was a baseball-wide
eyeroll: you want us to believe this guy?

On one of the ESPN chat shows, back in the early days of the
shouty format, this assessment was representative of the wider
response: “I am not going to extend my benefit of the doubt to
Jose Canseco, who has been a loose cannon at times.” As was
this: “What’s the guy’s character about? Look at his track
record.”

Those comments are part of the 30 for 30 podcast on Juiced that
was released as part of the latest season of the audio series
that shares its name with ESPN’s television documentaries. The
episode revisits a time in baseball history that seems a whole
lot different 13 years later than it did at the time.

“It is certainly a weird chapter in baseball history, and Jose
Canseco’s part in that paragraph is particularly weird,” says
Jody Avrigan, the host of the 30 for 30 podcast, who is in
Toronto this weekend as part of the Hot Docs Podcast Festival.

“What do you do when you have, sort of, the world’s most
imperfect messenger, when the message is right and important?”
What you have, it turned out, was a lot of finger pointing, and
a lot of people — players, managers, executives and media —
rushing to note just how imperfect a messenger Canseco was. It
was “Fake News!” many years before the term became a favourite
hashtag for a certain U.S. President.

“When the book came out, people attacked him and not what was
in the book,” says Avrigan in an interview. “I think there are
a lot of lessons in that for now, and I think that helps us
rethink the steroid era. As is the case with a lot of big,
difficult things, we’re not good at reckoning. We’re good at
doing the minimum work to move on, and I think to some extent
that’s what baseball did.”

Eventually, there was a lot of fallout. There were
Congressional hearings, and Mark McGwire’s “I’m not here to
talk about the past” and Rafael Palmeiro’s infamous
finger-wagging. There was the Mitchell Report and much tougher
punishments for failed steroid tests and the unofficial ban
from sending steroid-era sluggers to Cooperstown. Some of that
came about as a result of parallel investigations into the
BALCO lab linked to Barry Bonds, but Canseco was out ahead of
all of it. He said steroids were rampant in baseball and, lo,
steroids were rampant in baseball.

What is fascinating about all this in the passage of time is
that it’s still not clear why Canseco did what he did. He cites
anger at baseball, which treated him like something of a
laughing stock by the time his major-league career ended in
2001, but he doesn’t sound like he was out for revenge against
former players, even as he was setting fire to their
reputations.

Avrigan says that as the podcast was being put together, they
realized they needed a part that explained Canseco’s
motivations. And then, as they went over his often random,
scattered answers to their questions, they determined they
weren’t going to get a tidy explanation. “There was not going
to be a coherent theory of everything that made us understand
this man,” he says.

This can be the problem with revisiting old stories. Sometimes
not all the answers are there, whether it is with Canseco, or
with other tales that 30 for 30 is examining this season: the
2003 poker boom, Hideo Nomo and associated mania, and the truly
curious end of Rickey Henderson’s career. (He was still playing
semi-pro ball at 46.)

Among the revelations in the Juiced episode of 30 for 30 is
that the book almost didn’t make it into print. The publisher
wasn’t a sports fan, and only the co-author understood the
significance of the bombshells that was Canseco was lobbing.
Not until he came up with the idea of a chapter on the
ballplayer’s sexual exploits, including a supporting role
played by the singer Madonna, was the publisher sold on the
book having wide enough appeal to make it viable.

All of which leads to an intriguing counterfactual. What if
Canseco had happily wound down his playing career and become an
analyst or a coach? What if he had refused to name names, or
had a boring sex life? If Juiced didn’t happen, would
baseball’s steroid era have continued apace? Would there be
dozens of players with 60-homer seasons to their credit,
instead of five of them? Would Aaron Judge have already had 80
home runs in a season?

“We realized we were never going to get a straight answer on
‘why are you doing this’,” Avrigan says of Canseco, the man who
changed baseball. “If he had never gotten pissed off in that
way at that time, would he have written this book? Who knows?”

Whatever his reasons, Jose Canseco got mad at his sport, and he
got back at it but good. No one believed him, but he was
eventually vindicated.

It was the title of his second book.

Jody Avrigan and ESPN’s 30 for 30 will appear at the Hot Docs
Podcast Festival at 4 p.m on Nov. 3.

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