BIRMINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL, THE VALLEY – One thing that Angelinos become quickly jaded towards is the Celebrity Sighting. You live here for more than a month, you learn to roll your eyes and yawn when you sit near a Cameron Diaz at a hipster diner, donâ€™t look twice when you pass Tony Shaloub hiking with his dog up Bronson Canyon, stare straight ahead while riding a parking garage elevator with Wes Craven, or live next door to a documentarian who got nominated for an Oscar or around the corner from a cast member of CSI New York. Throw a rock in this town, youâ€™ll hit somebody youâ€™ve seen on screens big and small.
Which brings me to my anecdote. Last week was the first game of our adult league season, the LABL 35-and-over Federal Division. I showed up a little late to the field, quickly laced up my spikes in the dugout and raced out to second base for a little infieldâ€¦and thatâ€™s when I noticed that playing third was Jose Canseco. Yes, the same Jose Canseco who had a ball bounce off his head and over the fence; the same Jose Canseco who wrecked Ferraris and was romantically linked to Madonna; who bounced around from team to team, who became a poster-boy for the steroid controversy, a whistle-blower derided and besmirched as a kook who told tales out of school and was made a pariah for it; who lost an MMA match to a 7â€™2â€ Korean, and fought Danny Bonaducci to a draw in celebrity boxing; who appeared as himself on The Surreal Life. The same Jose Canseco who was the first 40-40 man (in the entire history of the game, the first, think about that!), who has an MVP award, a Comeback Player award, and a World Series ring. The same Jose Canseco who couldnâ€™t play for the Springfield Zephyrs because he was busy rescuing a womanâ€™s cat and all her furniture from a burning house the night before.
Now weâ€™re turning two and heâ€™s gathering up a grounder and throwing to me, and the ball is heavy, it smacks in my glove and hurts my palm. Before the game, he took a little soft toss against a fence, swinging with one hand and then the other, and itâ€™s ping, ping, ping. Itâ€™s our first game and Iâ€™m introducing myself to the new faces, â€œHi Iâ€™m Craig.â€ Iâ€™m of average to maybe a little above height, and Iâ€™m looking up. Heâ€™s 6â€™4â€ and hasnâ€™t gone soft. â€œHi, Iâ€™m Jose.â€ The guy is friendly. Thereâ€™s a little awkwardness as nobody wants to make any kind of a big deal of this, and having spent most of his life in and around a dugout he effortlessly fits in as one of the fellas. He mockingly yells at the umpires for being late. He offers anyone who hits a home run a forearm bash. He gets up to the plate, and he cuts an imposing figure, especially holding a metal bat, and yours trulyâ€”who was coaching third at the timeâ€”took a step back and wondered if Iâ€™d told my kids I love them before leaving this morning. Thereâ€™s no step back for the pitcher, but to his credit heâ€™s been around this league for a long time and, like a typical Angelino, isnâ€™t gobsmacked. On the first pitch, Canseco squares around to bunt. The umpire in the infield bursts out laughing. Later on, when one of our guys strikes out and angrily slams his bat in frustration, Canseco yells aloud â€œUh oh, roid rage!â€
Canseco hit a bloop single that first time up. Heâ€™s a ringer in appearance for sure, his presence on that high school field is probably enough to soil a few sliding shorts, but in his at-bats he gets a couple of bloops, reaches on an error, and apart from one foul ballâ€”off what looked like an effortless swing, a towering moon shot that hooked left before the foul pole and may still be goingâ€”really only got the one clean hit (in the video at the top, courtesy of my iPhone app, so it might as well be a sighting of Bigfoot as far as you can tell â€¦but I swear thatâ€™s him). He does pitch three whole innings though, and after facing our junk throwing fifty-something Bob, Joseâ€™s pitches in the 80s look good to the other team, along with his knuckle curves that tend to hang. He gets the job done, but heâ€™s by no means lights-out. Heâ€™s remarkably human out thereâ€¦he may not have been going 100%, and indeed baseball is difficult no matter where youâ€™re playing, but he treated the gameâ€”even at this levelâ€”with no lack of respect. After his fall-out from the big leagues, Canseco played in the Golden League for the Long Beach Armada, but didnâ€™t please the team by having it in his contract that he had to have Sundays off so he could play in our league, in one of the upper divisions (where former big leaguers arenâ€™t so uncommon), just because he liked it. Say what you will, I think thatâ€™s pretty cool.
Yes, say what you will (go on), but Iâ€™m not here to comment on any of the steroid stuff. Iâ€™ve only ever wished that these guys wouldâ€™ve just said â€œYeah, I did itâ€¦ Iâ€™m not proud about it, but there it is.â€ Canseco did that. He just happened to name other names as well, breaking the ultimate baseball taboo as a result. It doesnâ€™t matter to me. See, I hit a nice double, a pretty good shot deep in the gap, and when I eventually came around and scored and went back to the dugout to slap fives with my happy teammates, there was Jose Canseco right in the middle, saying â€œYou just missed the forearm bash!â€ I gladly settled for a fist bump.
Grote’s Gripes, now every Tuesday, starting tomorrow.