Jose Canseco’s Wax Shadow
The word “sincere” comes from two Latin words, sin and cere, that together mean “without wax.” Artisans working with stone could fix errors by binding cracks with melted paraffin, a tactic that created statues and bowls with beauty — but no staying power, no durability. A sin cere work of art was one that not only looked good, but would stand the test of time.
Though books are often termed works of literary art, Jose Canseco’s effort merits neither that term or the term “sincere.” As such, it will fade into obscurity as the ramblings of a deluded, greeded huckster. Ball Four? More like bollocks.
So why write about his prattlings? Because the developing party line in sports journalism appears to be “sure Canseco is unreliable, but we can’t really dismiss his allegations.” With reporters the calibre of Larry Stone taking this easy out, a one-and-done condemnation of the messenger and his message seems worthwhile.
First, Canseco has zero credibility. He’s broke, reduced to selling off his Rookie of the Year ring and AL MVP plaque (and selling out former teammates) in a desperate bid to raise cash. Worse, he can’t even keep basic ‘facts’ undergirding his stories straight. In the 60 minutes interview, we learn that Canseco either injected Mark McGwire with steroids “often,” “more times than [he] can count” or “twice,” depending on whether we believe the written or spoken versions of his lurid tales.
One could conclude that the timing of the book’s release, which comes as baseball implements a new steroid policy, is a coincidence. Of course, you would also have to conclude that Canseco said George W. Bush knew about the steroid abuse simply out of Canseco’s concern for the truth, rather than as a cynical book promotion strategy. If you conclude that way, though, I have a night in the Lincoln Bedroom to sell you.
The Romans had another two word phrase that they used to determine what was behind certain phenomena: cui bono (who benefits)? Indeed, who has the most to gain from inciting an opportunistic moral panic over a hot topic? Certainly not McGwire, or Bret Boone, or Major League Baseball. The list of beneficiaries seems to start and end with a list of Ozzie Canseco’s twin brothers.
Some try to put the burden of proof on the victims. Assuming the allegations are untrue, it is said, we should expect McGwire, Boone or others at whom Canseco has directed mud to sue for libel. If they do not, the argument goes, that tells us something.
Maybe players implicated will choose a legal remedy. There are two very strict legal standards, though, that have made it very tricky to win libel cases. First, you have to prove that something is false, and it’s extremely difficult to prove a negative. Could you prove you have never done steroids?
A public figure defamed by the book would also have to prove that Canseco acted with “actual malice,” showing a “reckless disregard for the truth.” That’s tough to prove, too, because it’s tough to see inside someone’s mind.
Finally, to win a libel suit is also difficult and time-consuming. Even if a party was confident they would prevail, it would take years, and would have the counterproductive effect of keeping the allegations in above-the-fold headlines. If you’re Rafael Palmeiro, a four-year court battle might look much less enticing than allowing dismissiveness and derision of Canseco win the day.
It’s possible that someone will sue. But we shouldn’t draw any conclusions based on whether someone files a libel suit, and to think in this manner reverses the necessary presumption of innocence.
Let me state the obvious: of course there are steroid users in baseball. No one doubts that. But it is unwise and unfair to let that truism kick critical analysis out the window. Legitimate concern over drugs in sports should lead one to investigate how best to curb abuse, something that crass opportunism undermines. Information is never completely separate from its source.
Reporters know that. It’s their business. To acknowledge that Canseco may be less accurate than a stopped clock — but to implicitly endorse the line he pushes — is disingenuous.
If drug abuse is anywhere near as widespread as Canseco claims, then there are numerous other witnesses — ones without book deals and disasteful histories. Ones that might hold some semblance of sincerity.
Jose Canseco does not, and neither does his book. He might be riding high on attention from the 60 Minutes interview, but there’s an old story about flying with wings made of wax.
It ends badly.