Monday, May 28, 2012

Sharpie Scribbles – Chapter I, Jose Canseco

-- by Josh Suchon

Note to readers: The feedback on the “You Were Lucky, Hershiser” story was so positive, and triggered so many memories from a childhood where my playground was the Oakland Coliseum, I’ve decided to share more of these stories. I’m blatantly stealing this idea from “Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker, who used his baseball card collection to tell the story of his childhood in the 1970s. Wilker gave me his blessing, so I’m going to use my autograph collection to tell the story of my childhood in the 1980s.
The last time I asked for an autograph was the spring of 1991, a couple months before I graduated from high school. In the 21 years that have passed, I’ve often wondered what the hell to do with all these Sharpie Scribbles.

When I made the switch from poorly-paid Major League Baseball newspaper reporter to barely-above-minimum-wage Minor League Baseball play-by-play announcer, in 2007, I briefly looked into selling the autograph collection because I needed money.

The biggest problem with selling these Sharpie Scribbles is that none are authenticated. The autographs were obtained in person inside ballparks, outside in the players parking lots, in hotel lobbies, by writing players in the mail, and from waiting in lines at baseball card shows.

There’s nothing I can do to prove they’re real, except explain the following:
·           *  Who would bother to forge Storm Davis’ autograph that many times?
·           *  Who else would try to get every card from the 1987 Topps Opening Day series autographed?
·           * There’s very little rhyme or reason for what I got signed, and why I chose that object.
·           * I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school.

Look at the Jose Canseco autographs in this post. An appraiser would see three different signatures and question the validity. I look at them, and reflect on the love-hate relationship that I experienced with my favorite athlete.

Canseco was a God in the late 1980s. He hit titanic bombs, dated the hottest chicks, and drove super fast in super expensive sports cars. What was not to worship as a teen-ager?

Well, even though I denied it and defended him constantly, it was pretty obvious that Canseco used steroids. If you went to my high school and liked the Giants, you dismissed Canseco’s exploits by saying it was all due to steroids, especially if you were tired of hearing me brag about Canseco.

One friend wrote the following in my junior yearbook, referring to the effects of steroids: “Although Canseco has no penis, he can hit the ball. He just looks stupid trotting around the bases.”

In 1987, during my first year of serious Sharpie Scribble collecting, some girl in the Coliseum bleachers threw a baseball onto the field at Canseco. It was picked up by Stan Javier. He read what was written on the ball, laughed, and threw it into the stands. My friend Todd caught it.

Can’t remember the exact words written, but I know the girls made it clear they were ready to get naked with Canseco, and they included a phone number.

After the game, when we were back at my home, Todd called the number. Don’t ask me our game plan. I was too scared to call. My heart raced when he dialed the numbers. Todd did all the talking. I sat there and listened, worried that we’d get in trouble.

A girl answered the phone. I remember there was at least one more girl in the room, maybe a third. My guess is the girls were in their early-to-mid 20s. We had no idea what they looked like. All we knew is they had the hots for Jose Canseco, and it seemed like a good idea to call the number.

Todd tried pretending that he was Ozzie Canseco, the twin brother of Jose. The girls didn’t buy it. Shocker, huh?

Once it was clear the gig was up, Todd made some comment about their loose inhibitions. They responded by mocking us for being little boys who can’t handle it, or something like that. They were right. I was 13, going on 14 years old, and didn’t know what to think of women who wrote sexually suggestive things on a baseball and threw it onto the field for a player to read.

Even though that phone call was an unmitigated disaster, it still added to the legend of Canseco in my mind. It made me worship him even more. Girls threw baseballs at him with a phone number on it, and somehow my friend was calling these girls.

The hate in my one-way relationship with Canseco was based on how difficult it was getting his autograph. He was the most popular player, mobbed everywhere he went, and full of ego. It didn’t help that my friends and I were in the player’s parking lot practically every day. I’m sure we annoyed every player, including Canseco.

The sprint from parking lot left to parking lot right. 
One time, I remember seeing Canseco’s fancy car avoiding the regular players’ parking lot and guessed that he was going to park on the other side of the Coliseum. Todd and I climbed up the ice plant embankment, sprinted across the mezzanine level that separates the Arena and the Coliseum, and rushed down another ice plant embankment to get in position for an autograph.

We were the only two kids there. No mob of people. Just us and Jose. I figured there was no way he wouldn’t sign for us.

Wrong. He blew us off.

That night, I ripped the two Canseco posters off my bedroom walls. My dad calmed me down, and said some reassuring words that I don’t recall now. The next day, I put the posters back up on the wall. The only damage was a few tears and bends.

During the early stages of my autograph collecting, I’d send my best cards in the mail to players. That was a colossal mistake. I once wrote Canseco in the mail, and like an idiot, sent a couple of his rookie cards in the mail. Never saw those cards again. So stupid.

As the photos indicate, I was eventually successful in getting Canseco’s autograph. I found four in a cursory check through the autograph trunk today. I’m pretty sure there were a few more Sharpie Scribbles that I traded, or sold, or are buried deeper inside that trunk.

I vividly remember one time Canseco stopped to sign. Those days were rare. You’d be so nervous and excited, a nerdy kid would become even more nerdy. Can’t remember if it was one of my friends or somebody else, but a pen was dropped.

“You eat with those hands?” Canseco said.

It was a pretty mean thing to say, but I thought it was hilarious. Any joke by Canseco was hilarious. For the next few weeks, if somebody dropped anything around me, I’d say, “you eat with those hands?”

As for the different types of Canseco autographs, here’s the explanation:

If you paid the five or ten bucks -- or whatever the cost was back then -- for the right to stand in line at a baseball card show and get Canseco’s autograph, he wrote his entire last name. The one time I forked over the money, I chose an 8x10 photo, and Jose wrote his uniform number too. (Why he signed across his crotch still annoys me to this day.)

If you obtained Canseco’s autograph at the ballpark, you got “Jo-Cans” scribbled. You see that version in the autographs on my 1988 Mother’s Cookies card, my 1986 Donruss Highlights card, and my 1985 Huntsville Stars card. The minor league card is my favorite Canseco autograph, mostly because I recall sensing he was impressed I’d have such a rare card in my collection.

As for the third version, which goes up the side of the 1987 Donruss Diamond Kings, that signature is Jose’s dad. His name was also Jose. He was waiting for his son in the parking lot after a game. I didn’t want to waste getting an autograph of Jose’s dad on a good Jose card, but who cared about a Diamond Kings card that was barely worth a dollar? You're probably wondering why I'd want Jose's dad to autograph his own kid's baseball card. I have no explanation. It was a weird time in my life. The more Sharpie Scribbles, the better. 

Canseco autographs were discussed for their type – was it a Jo-Cans or a Jose Canseco? The full name autographs were more impressive, but you knew they were obtained at a card show and cost money.
August 20, 1990 issue of Sports Illustrated, page 51

In the summer of 1990, Canseco came to my high school for a fundraiser. The event was put together at the last minute. I can’t remember hearing any publicity for it. Word just traveled by mouth. Canseco came to sign autographs for a student named J.O. Splitstoser, who was badly injured in a car accident that left him paralyzed for life in a wheelchair.

Canseco didn’t charge any money for his appearance. It was five or ten bucks a person, and all that money went to buying a special van for J.O.’s parents to help get him from place to place. People lined up around the school for hours. It was supposed to be an hour or two. Canseco ended up signing for 4 ½ hours.

Rick Reilly even mentioned the signing in a 1990 Sports Illustrated cover story about Canseco. That sealed it. Canseco wasn't perfect, but he came to my school for a good cause. He was good people and worthy of my support. 


The first time I covered an Oakland A’s game as an Oakland Tribune reporter was on July 19, 1997. It was about two months after I was hired as a full-time reporter to cover high school sports. The beat writer took that day off, and with all the other usual backups busy or on vacation, I was given a one-day perk to cover the A’s.

I remember walking into the clubhouse and thought, “the last time I was in here, I wasn’t supposed to be in here.”

Those years run together in my mind, but pretty sure it was 1989. My friend and I, whose name won’t be mentioned because of what he did, were at the ballpark extremely early, even by our standards. It was around 11 am. The game didn’t start until 7 pm. Can’t remember why we were there so early, but we roamed everywhere at the empty Coliseum.

We found a back door to the press box unlocked and poked our noses around in there for awhile. Then we saw an elevator, pressed the bottom button, and figured that would take us back to the concourse. We walked outside the elevator and didn’t know where we were. We turned right and realized it was the A’s clubhouse. Nobody was in there. Not even security.

My friend went to Canseco’s locker, grabbed two brand-new bats from the boxes above, and we ran out of there as fast as possible. I thought for sure we’d get caught, and I’d get arrested, even though I didn’t do anything except watch. I’ve never been more terrified in all my years at the Coliseum.

Now, it was eight years later, and I was in the clubhouse as a member of the media.

Canseco, back in his second tour with the A’s, went 3-for-5 with a double, home run, stolen base and four RBIs in the first Major League Baseball game I ever covered. In the seventh inning, Canseco hit a laser beam to straight away center. It clanked off the suites that were built for football and sit empty for baseball. Of all the home runs I’d ever seen Canseco hit, that was the most impressive.

The 15-year-old myopic kid inside me felt there was something cosmic going on, that Canseco put on that performance just for me, and this was all related to my childhood obsession with him. The 23-year-old who was trying to prove himself as an objective reporter played it cool. Well, tried to play it cool.

After the game, I followed the other reporters into the clubhouse. I was way too intimidated to ask a question. I listened and took notes. The first stop was manager Art Howe’s office and I remember Howe saying Canseco doesn’t need to pull the ball to hit home runs. (Duhhh, that’s what I told my childhood friends back in the 1980s.)

The next stop was the player’s area. The first player I saw was Jose Canseco.

All those years of chasing him, writing letters to him, defending him to classmates at school, cheering him at games and on TV, tearing down his poster and putting it back up, and now he was right in front of me – and it was my job to get quotes from him for the next day’s paper.

The veteran reporters asked the questions in the group interview, which only lasted a few minutes. I tried not to let anybody know just how geeked up I was at the whole thing. What I remember was that Canseco was eager to leave, he wanted to play golf, his back was still hurting him, yet he was about to golf, and he wasn’t impressed by the distance of his home run.

It was less than two weeks before the trading deadline. Canseco’s name was in the rumor mill. The A’s were awful that year. They lost that game, were 19 games under .500, and 15 games behind the first-place Mariners at day’s end.

Maybe it was just me, but I could have sworn the 14,763 fans at the Coliseum that day gave Canseco a standing ovation because they wanted to tell him goodbye this time. When Canseco was traded in 1992, he was in the on-deck circle, pulled off the field, and the fans had no idea what was happening.

Canseco downplayed that it was his final hurrah with the A’s. So did Howe. As I’d learn as a more seasoned reporter years later, that’s what major league players and managers do. They downplay everything. They’re such buzz-kills.

Eleven days later, Mark McGwire would get traded to the Cardinals. That didn’t faze the teen-age kid in me, or the reporter. McGwire was always “Marco Solo” to me. He wasn’t even in my Top-10 of favorite A’s players. Canseco was different. Canseco was at the top.

Canseco didn’t get traded. His back got worse and he went on the disabled list on the trading deadline. He returned two weeks later, played a few more games and hit a few more home runs, before the back acted up again.

The last game Canseco ever played for the A’s was August 26, 1997. The next day, I turned 24 years old.

In 1998, Canseco signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and had a monster bounce-back season. I was given a few more opportunities as the fill-in A’s reporter that summer. My confidence grew with each assignment. My nervousness went away.

One of my fill-in games was August 18, 1998 against the BlueJays. I went up to Canseco after batting practice, without the safety net of the pack of reporters, and did a 1-on-1 interview with him. The lead item in my notebook was about Canseco. That night, Canseco hit a home run.

I remember thinking to myself, “again? You can stop showing off Jose. I’m not a kid anymore.”

The home run was down the left-field line. Just barely over the 330 sign. After the game, I said to Jose, “you’ve hit a lot of tape-measure home runs in this ballpark. Was this the shortest?”

Canseco laughed, and said, “It went, what, 331 feet?”


That was the last time I ever stood next to Jose Canseco, interviewed him, or covered a baseball game that he was in. The only other time that I wrote about him, before now, is when I did a review in The Trib of his infamous book that he now regrets writing.

If you’ve read the first 2,625 words of this story, you probably know what’s become of Canseco since 1998. It’s sad and pathetic, and every time Canseco is in the news for the wrong reasons, I feel like a fool for worshiping this guy as a teen-ager.
Still, my memories are fabulous. Those days weren't perfect, but life isn't perfect. We came. We tried to get Sharpie Scribbles. We tried again the next day.

The Oakland Coliseum was my playground during those formative teen-age years. Jose Canseco was larger than life in those years, and when I returned as a professional journalist a decade later, he homered both times that he was on the field and I was in the press box.

Cheers to you, Jo. Cans, and sorry my friend stole your bats.

1 comment:

  1. I too was a regular at the players' parking lot after games. No matter how many holes in the fence were patched up, we always found a way in. McGwire was always cool. He would never sign, but he would almost always throw a piece or two of game used, autographed equipment to us. (I still have his batting glove to this day.) Canseco would never sign. One night, after a night game, he and his wife Esther emerged together. His white Porche was parked by the fence, so he was right by us. We were all begging him to sign our cards, and he stood there for a few seconds watching and laughing, like he was going to do it. Then he went to get in his car. I yelled "Thanks for making us beg!" He got out of his car and said, "Who said that?" Everyone pointed to me. He said, "I'll sign if he leaves." So everyone pushed me away and he began signing cards while I stood there on the side. His wife got out of the car, came to me and said, "What did you say to him?" I told her, and she said "Give me your card." She went to Jose and said "Jose, don't be mean, sign it for him." He did, and she even gave me her autograph too. Thanks Mrs. Canseco, wherever you are.