T.R.'s Memoirs: The rock star, the mercurial manager and two eventful Texas Rangers seasons
Jose Canseco and manager Kevin Kennedy got along just fine, but they didn't always make everyone around them happy.
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Rangers for 32 years and is sharing his memoirs exclusively with readers of this newsletter. This week: Jose Canseco, Kevin Kennedy and the famous afternoon on the mound.
George W. Bush had a one-word reaction when the Texas Rangers traded for Jose Canseco.
“Yippee,” said the Rangers general partner and future President of the United States.
Bush had reason to be excited about acquiring a marquee superstar.
“He puts fannies in the seats,” Bush said.
That certainly had appeal for the Rangers as they staggered to the finish line in the dreary late summer of 1992. The Rangers had fired manager Bobby Valentine on July 9 out of fear of falling from the pennant race.
By the end of August, they had done just that with Toby Harrah as manager. Nolan Ryan’s start Aug. 27, a Thursday, drew 18,993 fans. The following Sunday, 16,275 came out to see a 10-4 win over the White Sox. The Rangers headed for Kansas City with a record of 65-68 and 15 1/2 games behind the Athletics in the American League West.
The Rangers knew Canseco was one of the most exciting players in the game. They also had to know he could be just as entertaining and uncomfortably newsworthy off the field.
The Rangers didn’t know Canseco would eventually co-author his best-selling memoirs after he retired and pronounce himself the “Godfather of Steroids.” Canseco also claimed he introduced steroids into the Rangers’ clubhouse and personally instructed their best players on how to use the stuff. The book was widely denounced and denied throughout baseball.
Suffice to say, the Canseco trade to the Rangers was a true “blockbuster,” sending shockwaves throughout the game. As Leigh Montville wrote in Sports Illustrated, “This was the kind of deal – the bolt of lightning trade – that just wasn’t supposed to happen anymore.”
Blockbuster in the works
As the Aug. 31 trade deadline approached in 1992, it became obvious the Rangers were eager to deal and had pitching available. Right-handed starter Jose Guzman and reliever Jeff Russell were both eligible for free agency after the season.
The Rangers were more eager to talk about Bobby Witt, who had signed a three-year contract extension after winning 17 games in 1990, then missed three months of the 1991 season with a partial tear of his right rotator cuff. Witt, in 1992, was 9-13 with a 4.46 ERA in 25 starts and the Rangers wanted to shed his $3 million contract.
Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson wanted to talk. The Athletics were in first, but Alderson wanted more pitching and called Rangers GM Tom Grieve.
The conversations started small and grew as the two continued to talk in the week leading up to the deadline. Canseco’s name surfaced late and so did the Rangers’ interest. The Athletics were willing to discuss Canseco for Ruben Sierra, the All-Star right fielder who was also a free agent after the season.
The Rangers were willing to let Sierra, Russell and Guzman leave as free agents and take the compensation draft picks. But — instead of trading for prospects — the Rangers were smitten with the idea of getting Canseco, who was signed for the next three seasons for a total of $13.6 million. By trading some combination of Sierra, Witt, Guzman and Russell, the Rangers could take on Canseco’s contract and acquire a marquee offensive talent.
Canseco and Sierra were never mentioned in any trade rumors leading up to the deadline. There was not one newspaper, radio or TV outlet — in Texas, Oakland or nationally — that broke a story suggesting a deal was coming. The conversations involved only the two general managers and the respective owners.
The Rangers were playing the Royals in Kansas City on the night of Aug. 31. I called a couple of sources in the Rangers’ front office early in the evening, and both said they knew of nothing going on. I believed them then and, 29 years later, still feel they weren’t lying. From the Rangers‘ standpoint, Grieve and club president Tom Schieffer kept it all to themselves.
During the game, I got a call from Ron Kroichick, one of the Athletics beat writers in Oakland. He was in a tizzy because Canseco had been pulled from the Athletics’ game against the Orioles in the bottom of the first. Canseco had been in the on-deck circle waiting to hit when he was called back by manager Tony LaRussa and told to go see Alderson in the clubhouse.
The deal was announced that night. Canseco for Sierra, Witt and Russell, plus cash considerations. The final hang-up had been Sierra. He had come down with chicken pox, was back recovering in Arlington and wouldn’t be ready for 7-10 days. The Athletics were willing to wait.
The Rangers had Canseco, a premier home-run hitter who could fit in the middle of a lineup along with Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Julio Franco, Ivan Rodriguez, Dean Palmer and others. They just needed to understand Canseco had the potential for creating off-field distractions.
At that point of his career, his rap sheet included separate incidents for reckless driving, carrying a loaded semi-automatic pistol, and aggravated battery for ramming his Porsche into a BMW driven by ex-wife Esther.
"Names like that can shock you," Grieve said after the deal. "To be honest, the first thing that comes into your mind is, `Why do they want to trade him?' But I could tell what Sandy was trying to do. He's trying his best to win this year. He could get Ruben to replace Canseco; Russ, who was a key guy in the deal, to solidify his bullpen ahead of [Dennis] Eckersley; and Witt to help his rotation."
Canseco’s off-field issues and escapades could fill a book. Actually, he wrote two books. Some of his transgressions were indefensible, including another arrest in 1997 for assault on his second wife. Today, there would have been holy hell to pay. Other stuff was just Canseco, like his relationship with Madonna that generated tabloid headlines.
His one month with the Rangers in 1992 was relatively quiet. The only big news he made was calling into a local sports-talk show one night and saying the Rangers should bring back Harrah as the manager.
The Rangers didn’t take his advice.
Kennedy comes to Texas
Kevin Kennedy never played in the majors. He was drafted by the Orioles in 1976 out of San Diego State and spent eight seasons in the minor leagues, including the last two with the Dodgers in 1982-83. Kennedy then stopped playing and took a job as a manager in the Dodgers’ farm system.
His record was outstanding. Kennedy never had a losing season in eight years as a minor-league manager. The last three were at Triple A Albuquerque with a combined record of 251-171 for a .595 winning percentage and one league championship.
Expos general manager Dan Duquette hired him as a coach in 1992 to serve under manager Tom Runnells. When Runnells was fired in May, Felipe Alou was promoted to manager and Kennedy was made the bench coach.
Rangers scouting director Sandy Johnson really liked Kennedy and recommended him to Grieve. Kennedy was one of four candidates interviewed along with Harrah, Rene Lachemann and Jerry Royster.
Lachemann had previous managing experience with four losing seasons with the Mariners and Brewers. He was a candidate for the Rangers because he had spent the past six seasons as a coach for the Athletics. The Rangers knew their new manager had to be able to handle Canseco and thought Lachemann could be that guy.
The Rangers hired Kennedy.
It was the right move on many levels.
Just not on every level.
Kennedy knew baseball and how to run a game, was a strong communicator and an excellent judge of talent. At 6-foot-2, he had the ability to carry a commanding presence in the clubhouse. His minor-league record was excellent.
Palmeiro met him for the first time and said, “This is the right guy for us.”
Kennedy did have his quirks. All managers do. He was a bachelor from Los Angeles who enjoyed the spotlight, the big names and all the trappings of the major-league life. After just one year with the Expos, there was still a little bit of the “little kid in the candy store” about him, except for the occasional expletive-laden clubhouse tirade after a particularly tough loss.
Kennedy could erupt with the best of them.
He was also dealt a pretty tough hand as far as the personalities in the clubhouse. In addition to Canseco, there was Gonzalez, Franco, Palmeiro and Rodriguez. The pitching staff included Kevin Brown and Kenny Rogers. Ryan was in his 27th and final season.
Welcome to the Show.
But Kennedy also had first-base coach Mickey Hatcher. The best way to describe Hatcher was his No. 1 job was to be the Morale Coach and manager confidante.
Understand, Hatcher had an excellent 12-year playing career with the Dodgers and Twins. He played a huge role in the Dodgers upsetting the Athletics in the 1988 World Series, hitting .368 with two home runs in five games. He also had an excellent 12-year run as the Angels’ hitting coach under Mike Scioscia.
The problem for the Rangers is they could only hire six coaches, including pitching coach Claude Osteen, hitting coach Willie Upshaw, bench coach Jackie Moore and third-base coach Dave Oliver. Perry Hill, a defensive guru, was hired as infield coach. Hill could have also coached first base, but that job went to Hatcher.
That left the Rangers without a bullpen coach and that hurt Kennedy badly. Much of the dissension that materialized during Kennedy’s regime came out of the bullpen.
Another role for Hatcher was Kennedy’s designated chauffeur. That proved memorable on a Thursday in spring training when the Rangers were scheduled to play the Blue Jays in Dunedin, a 2 1/2 hour bus ride north from Port Charlotte on Florida’s west coast.
Canseco, Franco, Rodriguez and Gonzalez did not ride the bus. They rode together in a car, not an unusual privilege. The four players were not scheduled to play the full game, so the arrangement allowed them to escape Dunedin ahead of the brutal Tampa-St. Pete rush hour. Similar arrangements were used by other teams all over Florida.
Hatcher and Kennedy also drove up in their own vehicle with the players following them. The problem was Hatcher didn’t know Florida. While Kennedy slept in the right front seat, Hatcher got to St. Petersburg and missed the left turn to head west for Dunedin. He stayed on the interstate traveling through both St. Petersburg and Tampa, and didn’t realize his mistake until they were well into central Florida.
The players knew Florida. Certainly, Franco did and he was driving. They thoroughly enjoyed the amusing side trip, and they all made it back barely in time for the game.
The manager and the rock star
Kennedy and Canseco hit it off from the beginning.
Kennedy knew he was dealing with a rock star as much as a baseball player. Special attention was required, and Kennedy didn’t flinch when Canseco walked into his office in spring training to volunteer his services as an emergency pitcher if the situation came up. Canseco had pitched in high school and still felt he could do it.
The Rangers let Canseco throw in the bullpen in spring training, under the supervision of Osteen. They also let him throw “live batting practice” to hitters. Canseco did so not realizing second baseman Billy Ripken was standing behind the mound relaying signs to the hitters.
The idea of Canseco pitching still seemed far-fetched, but Kennedy let him pitch an inning in an exhibition game against the Rangers’ Triple A team April 15 in Oklahoma City. Canseco set the side down in order throwing 95 mph.
Kennedy, pressed about letting his star player pitch, also caused a bit of a stir by saying Canseco’s previous managers may have been afraid to let him pitch but he wasn’t. LaRussa was Canseco’s only previous manager. Kennedy had to relay an apology to Oakland, but LaRussa, with Canseco gone, didn’t seem to mind. As far as he was concerned, Canseco was Kennedy’s problem.
The one inning in Oklahoma City should have been enough. Then, there was Robb Nen.
Road trip from hell
Nen was a 23-year-old rookie in his seventh season in the Rangers’ organization. He made the team in spring training because he he was out of options and could throw 100 mph. But Nen was always hurt, throwing in just 82 games over his first pro six seasons. He could throw hard, but didn’t always know where the ball was going.
The Rangers didn’t want to lose Nen on outright waivers, so he was kept as the last pitcher on the staff. He pitched in just seven of the Rangers’ first 42 games, posting a 5.40 ERA with 23 walks and nine strikeouts in 20 innings.
Kennedy was getting tired of having him around as the Rangers prepared for a nine-game road trip to Cleveland, Boston and Minnesota.
The Rangers split the first two games against the Indians at Municipal Stadium, then took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the fourth in the finale. Kenny Rogers was pitching for the Rangers when Carlos Martinez hit a long fly ball to right field.
Canseco tracked what should have been a routine fly ball to the warning track and was there to make the catch. But he lost the ball in the lights, and it hit squarely off his head and went over the fence for a home run.
Both Canseco and center fielder David Hulse immediately broke into a laugh. The Indians scored three runs that inning and went on to a 7-6 win.
“I’ll be on ESPN for a month,” Canseco said. “I guess I’m just an entertainer.”
Canseco was wrong. The play was nothing more than a fluke but continues to be shown on almost every blooper highlight reel for the past 30 years. There is no end in sight.
The Rangers went on to Fenway Park in Boston and dropped the opener on a Friday night, 4-1, to Red Sox starter Roger Clemens. Next was a Saturday afternoon game with right-hander Todd Burns pitching for the Rangers.
Burns struggled, allowing six runs in 3 2/3 innings. With the Rangers trailing 6-1, Nen was brought in with two outs in the fourth and retired Andre Dawson on a fly to center. Nen also pitched a scoreless fifth.
The sixth was a disaster. Nen faced eight batters and seven reached base on four singles and three walks. Kennedy punctuated the inning by going to the mound and bawling out Nen something fierce in front of 32,817 fans. Brian Bohanon finished the inning.
Bohanon pitched the seventh, allowing one more run, and the Rangers now trailed 12-1. Kennedy had his blowout. Canseco, who was being used at designated hitter that day, went to the bullpen to warm up.
"I overthrew too many pitches in the bullpen," Canseco said later. "Too many pitches and too many innings in the bullpen. I ran out of gas on the mound."
Canseco, pitching the eighth, threw 33 pitches during his one inning, allowing three runs on three hits and two walks. The Rangers lost 15-1, and some players weren’t happy about it.
"If I made some people mad, then I hope I did," Kennedy said. "That's exactly what I was trying to do."
"It's a circus," one player told me in the clubhouse.
"That was a joke," said a second player. "That was embarrassing."
Kennedy said he wanted to stay away from the back end of his bullpen. But there is no doubt he infuriated with Nen, who would soon be traded to the Marlins and mature into an All-Star closer.
Trouble with the elbow
Canseco did not start Sunday. He pinch-hit and struck out in a 6-5 loss, completing a three-game sweep by the Red Sox. Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News wrote a prescient article saying there was a possibility Canseco had hurt the elbow pitching. Canseco and Kennedy insisted that was not the case.
The Rangers then went to Minnesota. Canseco started Monday, May 31, and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Rangers’ 1-0 win. Canseco did not the start the next two games but insisted it was not physical.
“I just need a mental break,” Canseco said.
The Rangers lost both games. Tuesday’s 7-5 loss was especially memorable. Kennedy went absolutely berserk in the visiting clubhouse.
The Rangers took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning with right-handed setup reliever Matt Whiteside on the mound. Whiteside gave up a leadoff single to Gene Larkin and a one-out double to Shane Mack, putting runners on second and third.
That brought up weak-hitting backup catcher Lenny Webster, but Twins manager Tom Kelly pinch-hit left-handed hitter Randy Bush, who was hitting .152 at the time. Kennedy then made a mistake. Instead of letting Whiteside face Bush, he brought in Bohanon for a lefty-vs.-lefty matchup.
Kelly responded with Brian Harper, the Twins’ first-string catcher and a right-handed hitter who was getting a night off with a .308 batting average. With first base open and No. 9 hitter Pat Meares on deck, the Rangers pitched to Harper.
He hit a three-run home run off a 1-0 pitch to put the Twins ahead for good.
Now, understand that the visiting clubhouse at the Metrodome was two levels down but directly underneath the press box. You just walked down two flights and you were standing in the service tunnel right outside the clubhouse. Also know that the clubhouse was relatively cramped for a major-league ballpark.
I got down there first, and Kennedy’s screams could be heard loud and clear. The clubhouse was not yet open, but we could hear Kennedy easily in the tunnel. Fraley came down and we stood there writing down everything he said.
Most of it is not printable …
“[F-bomb!] Little League!!” Kennedy screamed. “[F-bomb!] stupid! [F-bomb!] ridiculous. [F-bomb] stupid pitch!””
Over and over. And over.
What was funny was the high school-aged batboys and clubhouse assistants were hauling equipment up from the field and taking it into the clubhouse. They had to prop open the door, and that only made it easier to hear Kennedy.
That set off John Blake, the Rangers’ vice president for public relations.
“Shut the [expletive deleted] door!” Blake screamed.
Kennedy’s torrent finally ceased. After a few moments of silence, we heard a loud crash of glass from the clubhouse. They cleaned it up quickly. We didn’t find out until the next day Kennedy had grabbed a hot baked potato wrapped in foil and fired it at a mirror in the coaches dressing room.
There was nothing wrong with the manager’s elbow.
Canseco’s “mental break” lasted until June 10. He pinch-hit in that game, then started nine straight at either right field or designated hitter. His last game in right field was on a Sunday, June 19, against the Mariners in the Kingdome.
In the third inning, Canseco tried to throw out a runner trying to score from second on a single. That was his final throw. Canseco was limited to DH duty during a three-game series in Chicago.
The Rangers, after beginning a 10-game road trip by splitting four with the Angels, were swept in three-game series by the Mariners and White Sox. That left them 2-8 on a grueling 10-game road trip to Anaheim, Seattle and Chicago.
When the Rangers returned home, Canseco was supposed to start June 25, a Friday, against the Athletics, but the game was rained out. While the Rangers waited out the thunderstorm, a meeting was held in Kennedy’s office. Canseco was there along with Grieve, Schieffer, the Rangers’ medical staff and Canseco’s agent, Dennis Gilbert.
They were all in agreement. Canseco needed to go on the disabled list and fly to Los Angeles to be examined by Angels orthopedist Dr. Frank Jobe. A few days later the Rangers got the news.
Canseco had a torn ligament in the elbow and would need Tommy John surgery. His season was over, and the Rangers organization had to be totally embarrassed. The home-run hitter who was supposed to put fannies in the seats was out for the season because the Rangers let him pitch.
Kennedy, to his great credit, did not shy away from the intense criticism and ridicule.
"I made the final decision," Kennedy said. "I'm the manager. I'm not going to shy away from the final responsibility. But we had a plan. I felt we were well-prepared. I said I'd do it in the next blowout. I feel bad, but we had a plan."
Rangers management did not throw Kennedy under the bus. They didn’t have the right to do so. Kennedy had Grieve’s approval to let Canseco pitch, but anybody could have put a stop to it after the Oklahoma City exhibition.
"It's easy to second-guess a manager,” George W. Bush said. “Hindsight is perfect. I don't intend to second-guess the manager. Kevin Kennedy has our full support and confidence."
The Rangers were 31-39 on the night Canseco went on the disabled list. What happened next?
Kennedy did a superb job managing the team the rest of the summer. The Rangers won 49 of their next 78 games and were 3 1/2 games behind the White Sox at 80-68. But then Gonzalez hurt his back in a 9-8 loss to the White Sox on Sept. 19 and was sidelined for 10 days. The Rangers finished in second place at 86-76, and Kennedy finished fourth in the Manager of the Year voting.
They weren’t laughing at the Rangers’ manager anymore.
And then came the strike
Canseco recovered from his surgery and came back strong in 1994. Canseco played in 111 games, all at designated hitter, and was batting .282 with 31 home runs and 90 RBIs when the season came to a premature end because of the 1994-95 players strike. The Sporting News named him Comeback Player of the Year, and he was the Rangers’ Player of the Year.
For Kennedy and others …1994 was not so good.
That was the year the Rangers opened the Ballpark in Arlington and signed first baseman Will Clark to replace Palmeiro at first base. It was the year that Grieve made his bold prediction in spring training about winning a division title.
“We should win it, it’s important for us to win it, and we will win it,” Grieve said.
The Rangers did not win it. Their pitching staff was hit hard by injuries and finished with the second worst ERA in the American League. Kevin Brown, after winning a combined 36 games in 1992-93, went 7-9 with a 4.82 ERA.
More than anything, the clubhouse was torn apart by the impending strike. Brown was in the middle of it, serving on the Players Association executive board. Clark was another union firebrand. Canseco and Gonzalez were not.
The season ended with a seven-game losing streak, leaving the Rangers 52-62. Strangely enough, they were in first place in a horribly weak division.
It didn’t help. Grieve was fired once the season was called off and replaced by Doug Melvin on Oct. 10, 1994. Two days later, Melvin fired Kennedy and replaced him with Johnny Oates.
Kennedy got a second chance when he was hired by Duquette — now in Boston — to manage the Red Sox. Duquette also traded for Canseco, sending outfielder Otis Nixon and third baseman Luis Ortiz to Texas.
The Red Sox won the AL East in 1995.