Life as a Tornado

Jose Canseco's journey into the Heart of the Commonwealth
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With the hat to match.

It’s probably safe to assume that the home team picks the music played at the stadium before a game starts. Whether it’s the players, staff, or the stadium’s media department that compiles the list depends on the team, but it’s more than likely someone familiar with the home team’s roster. Someone working for the Worcester Tornadoes, 30 minutes before the club’s 2012 home opener, with new designated hitter Jose Canseco warming up on the field, decided to play Rick Ross’ breakthrough single/paean to drug dealing “Hustlin” through the sound system. The 2006 song, if you’re not familiar, has one particularly appropriate line:

Jose Canseco’s just snitchin’ because he’s finished.

No one seemed to get it. None of the players from either team capitalized on the opportunity to take jabs at the real-life Kenny Powers in their midst. Canseco, during one of not-very-many jogs from the left-field foul line to center, didn’t even break his gait when the lyric was broadcasted.

In the second inning, the 47-year-old former superstar would approach the plate for his first at bat at Fitton Field, on which the College of the Holy Cross baseball team allows the Tornadoes to play 50 times a year. His accompanying ovation was noticeably more welcoming than those greeting the three preceding Tornadoes batters, but could only really be described as mild. One woman leaned over the wall and into the protective netting directly behind home plate to get a photo with her phone. A young boy held up what appeared to be a 10”-by-12” manila folder with JOSE jotted across it in black magic marker. A minority choir chanted “juice” as Canseco awaited his first pitch, only for as long as they held the crowd’s attention.

“This guy was sittin’ on his couch, eatin’ chips and drinkin’ beer last summer,” a man standing behind me said to his friend. “Now he’s hittin’ for the Tornadoes.”

Four pitches later, Canseco struck out looking. Before Canseco finished arguing the call with the umpire, the jeers started, and they didn’t end until he was back in the dugout.

“He has made a lot of enemies,” the same guy surmised.

***

Driving through Worcester, Massachusetts, it’s hard to miss the bold red hearts printed onto some of the street signs. The city began adding the symbol to signage not long ago in an attempt to resurrect a geographically motivated nickname, “The Heart of the Commonwealth.” The new street signs are only put up when existing signs need to be replaced, which has left a confusing amount of heart-less signs scattered throughout the city, the explanation for which locals seek in desperate Yahoo! Answers forums. Before I ever knew the significance of the hearts, I was more familiar with Worcester’s other nickname, “Wormtown.”

Not very long ago, Worcester’s career as a city was described as “one of uniform and remarkable progress and prosperity” in the Elstner Publishing Company’s 1891 Inland Massachusetts Illustrated. In the next half century the city would keep progressing and prospering. Railroads connecting Worcester to nearby Fitchburg, Mass., and Nashua, New Hampshire, funneled workers into the city’s steel mills, where they made much of the barbed wire used to divvy up the post-Civil War American West. Worcester’s population grew from 17,000 in 1850 to 118,000 in 1900 and 203,000 in 1950. In that time, the city that hosted the country’s first National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850 would also birth the Royal Worcester Corset Factory, the largest employer of women in the United States as of 1908.

All that prospering and progressing would prove difficult to maintain for an inland steel city without access to a port. Worcester’s population has since dropped to about 180,000, even as the rest of the state has grown an average of 5.7 percent annually in recent years. As of 2009, Worcester’s rate of residents living below the poverty level stood at 19.5 percent, compared to 10.3 percent for the rest of the state, according to city-data.com. Of those living in poverty in Worcester, 79.2 percent were born there.

But Worcester presses on. It’s home to nine colleges and universities, including the notable College of the Holy Cross, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Clark University. Despite a few scares, it still calls the award-winning, New York Times-owned Worcester Telegram & Gazette its paper of record. Downtown, the DCU Center is home to San Jose’s AHL affiliate Worcester Sharks, and this summer will host, in between high school proms and graduation ceremonies, Phish, LMFAO, and a gathering of people interested in Magic: The Gathering.

There’s a pride to the place, even if it’s seen better days. But that pride is different than the played-out, Ben Affleck brand of chauvinism for which Massachusetts has become familiar. The unspoken bond between two people who have lived in Worcester is not born of blind loyalty, but of hyper-self-awareness. We mock Worcester when we’re amongst ourselves so we can feel better about it, but we don’t let outsiders get in on the fun because. When living in a city that’s known for decrepitude, you have no good choice but to rally around it. In South Boston they’re Irish, in Charlestown they’re bank robbers, and in Worcester, we’re just getting by.

***

Jose Canseco announced his decision to sign with the Tornadoes in an appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich morning show on April 20. Later that day, while Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz was maintaining a .392/.429/.647 line through the first three weeks of the season, Canseco tried to create his own window of opportunity:

Boston needs a dh I am ready ,just need a tryout .nobody loves playing the game more than I do—@josecanseco

Canseco did find his way back into Fenway Park, but only for a cameo at the stadium’s 100th anniversary celebration. That only kept him quiet for a few weeks. On May 2, he began a campaign to leverage his 470,000 Twitter followers into a write-in All-Star candidacy. But Canseco’s 140-character panhandling couldn’t land him a more high-profile gig than Tornadoes DH. At an introductory press conference, Canseco’s initial remarks seemed as though he would live up to his reputation as a clown not always in on his own jokes, when he claimed to have “the fastest bat speed in the world.” But before the press conference was over, Worcester would be introduced to a more humble Jose Canseco.

He reminded the assembled crowd, as so many athletes in all sports are so wont to do, that he is simply “a baseball player” (at least until Mark Zuckerberg goes halfsies on a franchise with him). He played up what an asset his experience will be to the team, not just in “the art of power hitting” but also with “life, marriages, divorce, finances, all of it.”

On a day when he tweeted his plea for votes to the MLB All Star game three times, Canseco in person seemed uncharacteristically satisfied with his current situation and physical capabilities at the center of a gathering of the public and media assembled just to see him act out the tension and self-consciousness that has made him such an entertainingly desperate entity on the internet.

“I think I have a better chance of winning the lottery than making it back to the big leagues. I played the lottery the other day and didn’t win it because it’s impossible. I have dreams. Sure, it would be a great dream, aspiration, luck for me to get back to the major leagues. I think I have a one-in-a-trillion chance. I just love playing the game.”

***

The last few rows of the section parallel with third base aren’t really far from home plate, but it’s the closest thing Fitton Field has to a nosebleed section. As Canseco made his way to the plate for his final appearance of the night, a group of twenty-somethings unveiled large posterboard signs. One, handwritten in glittery blue marker, simply read @JOSECANSECO #HUGFORU, in reference to Canseco’s so-far unfulfilled promise to hug each one of his haters. The steroid-related chants had ceased.

The group was rewarded with a routine pop up to the pitcher’s mound that ended the seventh inning. As Canseco made his way back to the dugout, one for four with two strikeouts and a groundball single that just made its way past the Quebec Capitales’ third baseman, he received appropriate feedback from his short-term home crowd.

“Jose, you’re still my All Star.”

Everybody who heard it laughed, and the heckler reveled in the moment. With the show over and the Tornadoes taking the field to defend a two-run lead in the eighth inning, we all shuffled home, barely noticing the street signs that passed us by.

{Photograph by the author}


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