Jos'e Canseco hitting for average, power in big all-around year

Jos'e Canseco looks like a home run waiting to happen! The power-hitting Oakland outfielder has this menacing stance where pitchers are sure they can see him squeezing the bat so hard that sawdust is beginning to trickle out of the handle. And when he swings, the ball frequently lands where no one can find it. Already leading the American League in home runs heading into last weekend, Canseco exploded against the Seattle Mariners with one circuit clout Friday, another Saturday, and two on Sunday - giving him a major league-leading total of 30, and also pushing him close to the top in RBIs with 83. His slugging is clearly a big reason the A's have moved out to a commanding lead in the West Division race.

Canseco is listed in Oakland's media guide at 6 ft., 3 in. and 230 pounds. You have to wonder, though, if the guy who put in those figures didn't shortchange Jos'e, who actually looks larger. Talking with this man who is big enough to point out directions with a railroad tie isn't what you'd expect, either.

Instead of the vocal growl that is sometimes associated with such physically imposing men, Canseco's voice comes across like that of an accountant reciting his social security number.

Success hasn't spoiled Jos'e. Money hasn't spoiled Jos'e. And while he might not be kind to opposing pitchers, he doesn't ever embarrass them by taking forever and a day to round the bases after hitting a home run.

When the A's brought Canseco up at the tail end of the 1985 season after 3 years in the minors, their decision was based primarily on his power bat. It had already produced a combined total of 39 home runs earlier that year at Huntsville and Tacoma.

Oakland was willing to live with his fielding, which at the time suffered from a lack of experience, a lack of intensity, and a lack of knowing where to throw the ball after he caught it. But since then, through coaching and applying himself, Jos'e has made a 180-degree turn in the field.

``Even when he was a rookie, There was never anything defensive about Canseco as a hitter,'' Jim LeFebvre, the A's batting coach, told me. ``He was a little undisciplined, the way most young hitters are. Occasionally he'd get fooled and swing at a bad pitch. But he got his hits because he never backed off and because a nothing day at the plate only made him tougher the next day.

``Almost everybody who talks to me about Canseco seems to think that he's a free-swinger who is always going to strike out a lot,'' LeFebvre continued. ``They automatically assume that anyone who has had back-to-back 30 home run seasons is like that. But while Jos'e does have tremendous power, he's learned to stay within himself and he's also learned the strike zone. Actually he doesn't strike out much at all.''

Indeed, while slugging at a pace that should enable him to far surpass his previous major-league high of 33 homers (in 1986), this lifetime .253 hitter has also improved his batting eye enough to be up around the .290 mark. Asked about this dual improvement, Canseco replied:

``As a hitter, I'm not a complicated person. I don't think a lot when I'm at the plate. With me, it's mostly reaction. I look for a pitch I think I can hit and then I swing. If I don't like the pitch, I wait for the next one. I call it being simple. If you clutter your head up with too many things, it breaks your concentration as a hitter.''

Added LeFebvre: ``Even though Canseco is big, powerful, and has an extremely quick bat, we work with him all the time. The idea is to generate good hitting habits in a kid like this and then make sure that he doesn't get away from his mechanics. Slumps usually occur when hitters get careless and start to stride differently or drop an elbow or do something foreign with their head.

``About the biggest thing we've done with Jos'e since we got him was to urge him to stay back in the batter's box and wait a little longer on certain pitches,'' Jim continued. ``He can do this because his bat is so quick.

``As far as Canseco's fielding is concerned, I think Tony La Russa [the A's manager] did a very smart thing when he shifted Jos'e from left field, which is the easiest of the three outfield positions to play, to right field. In effect what La Russa did was to create a challenge for Jos'e that he has the talent to meet. Along with everything else, Canseco is smart.''

One of the reasons so many fans go to a major league park two hours before game time is to watch batting practice. It's something like watching a symphony orchestra tune up for a performance later that evening. While the musicians use this time to get a feel for their instruments, a hitter uses it to establish his rhythm and build his confidence.

Canseco, who has the power to hit home runs out of any part of the ballpark, puts on one of the best batting practice shows in the majors. Some of his BP home runs are towering drives that seem as if they are never going to come down. Others are bulletlike line drives hit with such velocity that you half expect them to stick in the outfield wall.

Of all the people who have marveled over Canseco's power, former home run king Reggie Jackson may have come up with the most knowing remark. Explained the left-handed hitting Jackson: ``Jos'e hits them where I used to hit them, except that he's right-handed!

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