How Should History Remember Jose Canseco?

Ira LiemanContributor IApril 13, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 3:  Jose Canseco #33 of the Oakland Athletics watches the flight of the ball as he follows through on a swing during a game against the Cleveland Indians at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on April 3, 1997 in Oakland, California.  The Athletics won 5-4.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

There are many images that come to mind when I think of Jose Canseco: Bash Brother on the Oakland A's in the late '80s, outfielder who assisted a home run with his head, and clown prince of the Steroid Era.

Yes, he took PEDs. So did many other players during the second half of his 17-year major league career. Hold that thought for a minute.

Think back to before you heard of steroids. Canseco, for all his faults and foibles, was a solid major league player and played at a high level into his mid-30s. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1986, yet that OPS (.775) was the lowest of any full season in his career.

Canseco was the first player to hit 40 HR and steal 40 bases in a season, and was rewarded with a unanimous vote for the AL MVP in 1988. He also won four Silver Slugger awards and garnered a fourth place MVP finish in 1991.

He played on six all-star games and for seven franchises in his career, and won two World Series rings (with Oakland in 1989, and as a member of the 2000 Yankees). He amassed 462 HR (32nd all-time), 1407 RBI, and a career OPS of .867. His OPS was higher than Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Orlando Cepeda, and Roberto Clemente, and he had eight 30-HR and six 100-RBI seasons.

Sure, he struck out a lot (fifth all-time in that category) but that's what power hitters do.

On the field, Canseco was a borderline hall-of-fame candidate. Since his career ended in 2001, Canseco has been a different story altogether. In his book, Juiced, he has admitted to taking steroids, and named former teammates as having done so as well. This was to the detriment of his post-baseball career earning potential.

At the outset, Canseco looked like a laughingstock. Yet he has been spot on with much of the information he has provided.

Canseco cashed in on his baseball fame via the reality show circuit and a few celebrity boxing matches. He also had some financial problems that he attributes to his two divorces.
Fast-forwarding 50 years, how should things play out for Jose Canseco's legacy?

I expect that future sportswriters will consider the 1995-2005 "Steroid Era" a phase in baseball history, similar to the "Dead Ball Era" of the early 20th century and the "Pitchers Era" of 1968. Statistics that were amassed during this time will be viewed under the proper lens, and comparisons to others will be made in that context. I think time away from baseball will allow most of the "Steroid Era" players to populate their rightful place in baseball history.

Whether Barry Bonds took steroids or not, his 120 intentional walks in 2004 is representative of how feared he was as a hitter (and how un-feared the rest of his lineup was).

For comparison, Orlando Cepeda made the Hall Of Fame via a Veteran's Committee vote after his drug possession arrest and subsequent imprisonment. It took a number of years for the baseball community to recognize Cepeda's contribution after these difficult personal and legal problems had surfaced.

Hall Of Famers Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were each banned from baseball for a time because of ties to a casino. This was under the rule that any affiliation with gambling would put an individual on the "Permanently Ineligible" list.

They were both reinstated, but that episode is a footnote and has been brushed under the rug. It does not seem to affect the legacies of those two all-time greats.

Of course, all-time hit leader Pete Rose gambled on baseball during his career and was banned permanently by Commissioner Bart Giamatti in the early 1990s. As such, he is not eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Yet, his on-field efforts did not seem to be affected by his off-field activities. It is possible that even Rose gets a second look by a future commissioner. He must be reinstated before he can be eligible for election to Cooperstown.

And for Jose Canseco?

I'm not suggesting Canseco is a Hall Of Famer, but using great players as illustrations proves my point. Time heals wounds.

For his on the field success, Canseco will be viewed as a productive slugging outfielder that contributed to the success of the Oakland A's and their World Series victory in 1989. His historic 40-40 season should probably enter into the discussion as well. And he was one of the premier power hitters in the game for a full seven years, from 1986 through 1992.

Of course, people will talk about his troubles off the field, but I think the passage of time will bring a new appreciation to Canseco's game.