The next crisis involved Jose Canseco, a great player and a five-tool guy in his prime. I used to say that managing Jose was like managing Elvis Presley. He was like a rock star. Even when he came out on deck the girls would walk down the aisles to the railing to get a closer look at him.
That spring, Jose came to my office and told me that he used to pitch in high school and volunteered to be an extra pitcher for an inning or so if I never needed him in a blowout game where I didn’t want to burn out anyone else on the staff. Other players had done it for an inning, including big stars like Ted Williams, Rocky Colavito, and Wade Boggs. He said it had always been a dream of his to throw an inning in the big leagues, something I understood completely but my first reaction was, “If I put you out there and you get hurt I’m done as a manager.”
I understood how he felt because I had actually pitched twice in Triple-A. But the big-money guys are the ones you really try to protect, for a variety of reasons. Not wanting to just spring the idea on everyone cold turkey, I went to the GM, Tom Grieve, and to George Bush, making them aware that Jose had volunteered to pitch and really wanted a chance to throw an inning. Basically, I was given the green light to make the call. I told them I’d have pitching coach Claude Osteen work with him just to make sure his technique was sound and that he didn’t hurt himself. That’s what we did, and Jose listened to everything Claude told him. Then in May, we had an off day but had to play our Triple-A club at Oklahoma City, a kind of goodwill thing. It gave us a chance to look at the Triple-A players and to use some of our guys who were usually on the bench. The regulars got one at bat and then came out of the game.
That’s when I gave Jose his first chance. We felt he was well prepared, and he came in, set them down one-two-three, had a strikeout and was throwing at about 95 miles per hour. We all thought. Hey he did it and he brought some real heat. He really looked comfortable out here. Then on the same road trip we began struggling a bit, suffering through some rough games. One day we were getting killed by the Red Sox at Fenway, a real blowout, and I had used up the pen the day before. Jose was DHing that game and I really needed a pitcher, the the perfect spot to let him throw his inning. He went down to the bullpen and in a minute I could hear the ball hitting the catchers mitt-hard. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Because there were all sorts of fans down there watching, I think he was trying to show how hard he could bring it. I told Claude Osteen to call the bullpen to sit him down. He had thrown enough. Unfortunately, he never sat down.
Then we called him in to pitch the ninth and right away I noticed that he was having trouble. Instead of 95-mph fastballs, he was throwing knuckleballs, almost lobbing them in. The Sox got a couple of hits and he was still not throwing a fastball. The next day he admitted he had felt some pain while throwing in the pen but hadn’t
said anything, and then he told us his arm was a little sore. The irony was that he continued to play for a couple more weeks, hit some homers, and seemed fine. Then in June we were in Seattle, and Jose made a throw from the outfield. As soon as he released the ball he clutched at his arm. That’s when we finally had him checked, sending him to Los Angeles to be examined by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe.
I was in Tom Grieve’s office when we got the news. Jose had a torn ligament in his elbow and would need Tommy John-type surgery. He was out for the year. To call this a crisis for a first-year manager defines understatement. One of the team’s best players was lost for the year with a severe elbow injury after I green-lighted him to pitch an inning. Sure, I needed an extra pitcher that day, but in truth I was simply allowing Jose to scratch an itch he had had for some time. The report from Dr. Jobe took some of the heat off.
He explained that this was a progressive injury, a tear that was becoming greater over time and probably had begun the year before. Jose’s full-fan performance in the bullpen might have enhanced it, and then the throw from the outfield finally blew out the elbow. When I heard that, the light went on. Dr. Jobe said a ligament problem affects everything the player does, including swinging the bat. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Jose hadn’t had quite his usual bat speed before the injury, and I also recalled him pushing the ball from the outfield on occasion, not throwing like I thought he should. He was always the kind of guy who played injured and didn’t ask out unless he was hurting very badly.
Nolan Ryan’s career ended in the Kingdome on September 22, 1993. Bob Sherwin of the Seattle Times reported that in the first inning of a game vs. the Seattle Mariners “a right-elbow ligament, 46 years, seven months and 24 days old, punished by more than 80,000 big-league pitches, had enough.
“Ryan, who was just 11 days short of finishing his record 27th and final big-league season, had his playing days ended abruptly in the first inning at the Kingdome.
“He suffered a torn ulnar lateral ligament while pitching to the Seattle Mariners’ Dave Magadan. Age caught up to Ryan before most big-league hitters had caught up to his fastball.
“The elbow was tight when he warmed up before the game and ached in the first, Ryan said.
‘There’s no way I’ll ever throw again,’ he said. ‘It’s just a hell of a way to end a career.’
“After throwing a 2-0 strike to Magadan, the Rangers’ right-hander said, ‘I knew I was done.’ He said he heard a pop and had a ‘burning sensation’ in the elbow after the pitch. He threw one more pitch, a final meager fastball, to confirm his diagnosis.”
Ryan left the game holding 53 major-league records, but also having given up a grand slam to Dann Howitt, the last batter Ryan faced, sort of: Ryan then went to a 3-1 count on Dave Magadan before leaving the mound. Magadan’s walk was charged to Ryan.
Sherwin added: “The night had a special atmosphere as most of the 40,184 fans anticipated Ryan’s final road start. He was given a standing ovation as he walked to the dugout before the game.
“Ryan was the last player out of the Ranger dugout in the bottom of the first, jogging to his position as the fans again stood and applauded during his warmup pitches.
“It was a late-arriving crowd. Ticket windows were reporting lines still five or six deep even when Ryan already was on the trainer’s table. The late-comers found Ranger reliever Steve Dreyer pitching.
“Flashbulbs popped with each Ryan pitch, especially when he faced Ken Griffey Jr. But it was clear this was not no-no-Nolan. His pitches were all around the plate, rarely over it. He threw 28 pitches, only 12 strikes.
“Ryan went 2-0 to Magadan, then threw his fateful pitch. He threw one more ball, walked down the mound and called for the trainer. It was just the third time in his career he exited a game without retiring a batter.”
Ryan said: “It’s been frustrating year. It’s been a combination of a number of different injuries that you couldn’t predict. [Ryan had arthroscopic surgery to remove torn cartilage from his right knee on April 15, and he missed 22 days. On May 7, he strained a left hip in a rundown play and missed 72 days. Then on August 23 he pulled a left rib-cage muscle fielding a ground ball and missed 20 days.]
“I was just trying to squeeze a few more innings out. It is sad from the standpoint I knew my career would end this year and . . I did not want to end it this way.
“I would have loved to finish with a strong performance in a pennant race and striking out the last hitter I ever faced. I haven’t done anything else in my adult life. I don’t know how I’ll adjust to that.”
And on the standing ovation the Kingdome fans gave him: “You get into a situation like that where you recognize it for what it is. They were saying how they appreciated my career, and coming out was the least I could do. There’s no way I’ll ever throw again. It’s just a hell of a way to end a career.”
Jay Buhner on Ryan’s stuff that night: “He had a good fastball. All the guys agreed he was throwing hard. He just couldn’t control it. He had to be hurt, but he’s too much of a competitor to come out.”
Dr. Larry Pedegana said that Ryan “told me on one final pitch he felt a pop. His arm spasmed and he couldn’t throw any more.”
Dann Howitt said of hitting his grand slam: “It has to be a thrill, but the way I’ve been struggling it would have been a thrill to get a homer off a rookie. You face him and you’re honored to strike out as much as get a hit. I may have had a couple of hits off him but from stories I’ve heard of Ryan’s aggressiveness, I’m glad they came when he was 46, not 26.
“He’s one of the incredible athletes we’ll ever see, maybe the best athlete of the second half of the century. I don’t think many people would be surprised if he said he’d come back next year.”
On the 24th, the Times’ Bob Finnigan added a postscript:
When Randy Johnson takes the mound Sunday against Oakland in the 1993 Kingdome finale, he might be a changed man.
The Seattle Mariner ace may ask the club for permission to wear No. 34 for one game, in honor of his friend and pitching mentor Nolan Ryan.
“I’d like to pay tribute to him,” said Johnson, who visited Ryan in the Texas trainer’s room after the Hall of Fame-bound pitcher suffered a career-ending tear of a ligament in his pitching elbow Wednesday night. “He’s done a lot for me and for the game. I think it would be a nice thing to do.”
Johnson had considered putting Ryan’s number on his hat. “But then I thought no one would see it,” the pitcher said. “And I’d like everyone to recognize what I’m trying to say.”
Needing two wins for a team-record 20, and 14 strikeouts to become the eighth American League pitcher to reach 300, Johnson hopes for a different outcome than the last time he switched numbers. In an effort to reverse his luck last July, the 6-foot-10 left-hander wore 15 instead of his usual 51 and lost 7-6 at Yankee Stadium after a flock of unearned runs.
Randy had said this after Ryan’s last game: “It felt strange to realize I’ll never get to see him pitch again. He taught me, taught all of us really, what it means to battle, to give the gallant effort.”
Before his final game, the Post-Intelligencer did a one-page tribute to him. It quoted Randy Johnson: “Nolan Ryan is the Babe Ruth of pitching. I don’t think anyone will break his records. The strikeout and no-hitter records are etched in stone. He’s not necessarily a spokesman for the game but a lot of people look up to him as a legend. And that he is.”
Ryan’s seven no-hitters were joined by 12 one-hitters, and his 773 starts were, and are, the second most in MLB history, behind only Cy Young. You can look here for some coverage of the most famous moment in his last season: getting in a fight of sorts with Robin Ventura about six weeks before his final start. And here for him and Rickey Henderson talking about Ryan’s 5000th strikeout. By the way, Ryan was 46 years, seven months and 24 days old for his last game, and Randy Johnson was 46 years and 24 days old, I believe, for his last game. If you’re interested, you can read my impressions of Randy’s last game in Seattle.
I’ve already reprinted the story of the homer that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head on May 26, 1993 in Cleveland. Here’s the partner story of how, on the same road trip, three days later, on May 29, 1993, Canseco pitched the eighth inning against the Red Sox in Fenway. The Boston Globe reported:
Most days, a 15-1 victory over the Texas Rangers would satisfy the appetites of the Fenway Faithful. Certainly, with the Upper Deck Heroes and a squad of Red Sox old-timers lingering among the 32,817 in attendance yesterday, there would be no reason to think anybody would go home unhappy.
But this was a day in which Fenway Park offered a tasty dessert. Would you believe slugger Jose Canseco pitching against the Red Sox? It happened in the eighth inning, as Canseco allowed three runs on two hits and three walks.
“I wasn’t all that surprised,” said Red Sox manager Butch Hobson. “I know they wanted to save their bullpen. Jose has pitched before.”
But never in the big show. Sure, Ted Williams did it long ago, and in an era when versatility went with the territory. But it could be decades before another slugger of Canseco’s caliber does the ultimate turnaround.
“I’d told my guys in bullpen that if the situation came up like it did today, I’d use Jose,” said Texas manager Kevin Kennedy. “Why not? He’s got a good arm. He was a pitcher in high school.”
Canseco entered with the Red Sox smoking, and they soon added to a 12-1 lead on two RBI singles and a sacrifice fly. It could have been worse. Hobson could have let Roger Clemens hit.
“I thought about it,” Hobson said. “But I like my job. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
Said Clemens, “Spring training, I might have asked to hit. But not during the regular season. I didn’t think there was any chance of that happening.”
The Canseco Caper capped a long day of baseball (3 hours 13 minutes just for the regular game) at Fenway Park. The crowd cheered loud and hard for the Negro leaguers who were honored in pregame ceremonies. Then the old-timers game looked like a lock for the Upper Deck Heroes until a two-run single in the final inning by Mike Easler tied it for good, 2-2.
Once the real game started, Boston got down to business by giving Danny Darwin (5-4) a 2-0 lead in the first inning. The Rangers got an unearned run on two errors in the third inning, but not to worry — Boston scored three times in the third, once in the fourth and five times in the sixth.
Mo Vaughn made three errors but had the second four-hit game of his career. His fourth came off Canseco on a 3-2 pitch.
“I was glad we scored all those runs,” said Vaughn. “Those errors didn’t wind up meaning much. You’re going to have those kind of games.
“Actually, I didn’t want to get up [against Canseco]. I’m swinging well, and it’s hard enough to concentrate in a game like that because you’re up a lot of runs. All these at-bats count, and I didn’t want to give away anything.”
In explaining why he put Canseco in, Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy said:
“Someone has to take the initiative and throw strikes. We’re constantly behind in the count. If that’s too much pressure, then you’re in the wrong business. I’m not going to accept mediocrity and I’m sick to death of leadoff walks in the first inning.
“We’ve been behind in about 80 percent of our games, and if that made some people mad today, I’m glad because that’s exactly why I did what I did. I’m not going to keep going to my bullpen in blowouts.
“We threw up on ourselves. I’m not frustrated, I’m numb. I think there are some guys in our room who haven’t responded. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call to them. I don’t think you can be any more embarrassed as a ball club than we were today.
“I’m not happy about it, but I’m not going to go to my bullpen every day in the sixth inning because I won’t have a bullpen left by August.”
And, Kennedy added something he might still be trying to forget:
“This is not a joke. I wouldn’t do that to one of my players and try to hurt one of my players. Jose’s pitched in high school.
“I said I would use him if I had to. I’m not going to keep going to my bullpen in blowouts because I won’t have a bullpen in August. I don’t think you can be any more embarrassed as a ballclub than with what we did (yesterday).”
Kennedy also gave a longer, more convoluted explanation in Twice Around the Bases, the book on baseball he later wrote. However, on June 7 came news of the blowback from Canseco’s 33 pitches:
He started just one time in the next seven games and didn’t hit the ball out of the infield in five at-bats. Canseco underwent a magnetic-resonance imaging test Friday to determine the cause of pain in his right forearm. The pain and stiffness arose after Canseco threw 33 pitches. Kennedy said he now regrets having used Canseco as a pitcher.
“I don’t feel good about it,” he said. “I’ll take any heat you want to throw my way.” General Manager Tom Grieve said Canseco’s pitching days are over.
On July 9, Jose had Tommy John surgery in Los Angeles: a tendon from his right forearm was grafted into his right elbow to reconstruct his torn ulnar collateral ligament.And this story doesn’t stop: here’s a quote from Jose before the surgery:
“I’m going to spend a day or two deciding whether or not to have the surgery. There has been a good recovery rate with this type of injury, but there is always the possibility that this is a career-ending injury.
“Anything can go wrong during an operation. I could die in the middle of it, or I could have a bad reaction to the anesthesia. These are all things that must be considered.”
Also, if you’re looking for inspiration, not just laughs, on this same May 29, 1993, a news service described a near no-hitter by the one-handed Jim Abbott:
Abbott (4-5) gave up two hits, walked four and struck out six in eight innings before Bobby Munoz got the last three outs in his major-league debut.
“I really wasn’t thinking about it too much,” Abbott said. “I was just trying to throw strikes.”
With one out in the eighth, Jackson lined a clean single to center field that landed on the outfield grass, well behind second base. Ron Karkovice then hit a 3-1 pitch into the left-field stands for his fifth homer.
Here’s how the Fort Worth Star-Telegram of Thursday, May 27, 1993, described a ball bouncing off Jose Canseco’s head:
The Rangers would like to quickly forget last night’s game, and most of it will pass into baseball obscurity before the weekend is over. But one play will live in infamy for as long as baseball blooper tapes are shown.
Canseco, the Rangers’ right fielder, had a ball hit off his head and bounce over the fence for a home run.
Hello This Week in Baseball, Hello DiamondVision, Hello Baseball Tonight.
“I’ll be on ESPN for a month,” Canseco said. “I guess I’m just an entertainer.”
Cleveland’s Carlos Martinez hit it, a fly ball to deep right to start the fourth. Canseco ran back to the wall, reached up with his glove but not far enough. The ball glanced off the glove, hit Canseco square in the head, then bounced over the fence.
The rules state that any fly ball deflected into the stands by a fielder is a home run.
“I really didn’t feel it,” Canseco said. “I really don’t know what happened other than I was looking for the wall and the ball nicked off my glove and hit my head.”
The play was as critical as it was comical. The Rangers held a 3-1 lead before Martinez came to the plate. After he crossed it, Rogers’ night made a definite turn for the worse.
“It bothers you,” Rogers said about Canseco’s head work. “You want everything to go right, and everything didn’t go right. But I can’t gripe about anything, I made my mistakes, too.”
He hit Reggie Jefferson with a 1-2 pitch, then walked Glenallen Hill, who’s hitting .143 in May. Alvaro Espinoza flied out to center, and Junior Ortiz, on a hit-and run, moved the runners up with a roller back to Rogers.
But Rogers then walked Thomas Howard and Felix Fermin punched a line drive into right field that scored two runs, giving the Indians a 4-3 lead.
Canseco had more misadventures in right field in the sixth after another key two-out single from Fermin scored Espinoza and gave Cleveland a 5-3 lead.
Carlos Baerga lifted a long fly ball down the right-field line that Canseco chased into the corner where the foul line meets the stands. As he crossed into foul territory, Canseco reached to make an over-the-shoulder catch and couldn’t.
But umpire John Shulock ruled Canseco touched the ball in fair territory, making it a fair ball. So while Canseco leisurely strolled after a ball he thought was foul, Baerga raced into third with a triple. He scored on Albert Belle’s double.
“He said I touched the ball in fair territory, but I didn’t touch it,” Canseco said. “The only ball I touched was the one that hit off my head.”