UPDATE: Please see this post for some additional thoughts on the "Jose Canseco milkshake", including evidence that Boswell first mentioned it in 1988.
PBS finally aired the first part of "Ken Burns' Baseball: The Tenth Inning" earlier tonight. If you don't think I watched it, you're crazy. I enjoyed it for the most part. It seemed more fair and straightforward than I thought it might be when it came to the more controversial topics, especially steroids. But there was one moment that stood out to me more than any other.
During the steroids segment, Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell – who, if you don't already know, was the first person to connect steroids to Jose Canseco, if even in the most superficial ways – gave this quote:
"There was another player now in the Hall of Fame who literally stood with me and mixed something and I said "What's that?" and he said "it's a Jose Canseco milkshake". And that year that Hall of Famer hit more home runs than ever hit any other year.
So it wasn't just Canseco, and so one of the reasons that I thought that it was an important subject was that it was spreading. It was already spreading by 1988."
Thomas Boswell seems to be telling us that he has first-hand knowledge of a current Hall of Famer using steroids. Who might that Hall of Famer be?
Well, if we take Boswell at his literal word, this is what we need to look for: someone who is already inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and who hit more home runs than he ever had before after Jose Canseco arrived in the league. Canseco won Rookie of the Year in 1986, so we'll start there even if it makes more sense to use 1988 as the starting point.
The second part of the statement confuses me some. I can't tell if he's trying to say that the milkshake story comes from the 1988 season, or if he's adding the 1988 date as more of a clarifying detail (in effect, saying "Here's a story of how it was spreading – which it started doing in 1988"). Let's keep the search as wide as possible, but keep the 1988 year in mind.
With those criteria, we get a short list of eight Hall of Famers (assuming pitchers like Goose Gossage and Nolan Ryan don't count). Here they are, in increasing order of who I think is most likely to be Boswell's milkshake-drinker:
(Click "Read More" to continue reading."
8. Tony Gwynn, 1997, 17 HRs – Not only is 17 not a lot of home runs to be someone's career high, but 1997 is way too late on the timeline for anyone to be drinking a "Jose Canseco cocktail".
7. Kirby Puckett, 1986, 31 HRs – Puckett hit 31 home runs in 1986 and 28 in 1987. He's low on my list because I just don't see how Canseco could have affected the league already in his rookie year.
6. Wade Boggs, 1987, 24 HRs – The 1987 season is the infamous "rabbit ball" year, when it seems like everyone had their career year in home runs. Boggs never hit more than 11 home runs in any other season. I know the 1987 season is right around the time that Canseco started experimenting (and Boswell's 1988 detail), but I'd still call this highly unlikely since the total isn't all that high to begin with and there's already a pretty good reason for the spike.
5. Paul Molitor, 1993, 22 HRs – The year is pretty suspect: 1993 is certainly close enough to Canseco's prime that it would make sense for someone around the league to be making a Canseco milkshake, even if it's later than Boswell implies. He was also 36 years old at the time. But Molitor only hit 22 home runs in his career year and he did it in a city (Toronto) nowhere near Canseco.
4. Ryne Sandberg, 1990, 40 HRs – Sandberg spent his Hall of Fame speech in 2005 railing against the Steroid Era, even if he never said the S-word out loud. Because of that, he seems like a pretty unlikely suspect. I have him this high on the list, though, for two reasons: his steroid speech could certainly be a "methinks doth Lady protests too much"-moment and his career high of 40 home runs is a big number and is 10 more than his next best. Again, though, he does seem pretty sincere in his dislike for steroids. Plus, he played in Chicago, far away from Canseco's Oakland.
3. Andre Dawson, 1987, 49 HRs – On the face of it, Dawson seems like a prime candidate. Newly signed free agent with an injury history trying to make good. But it's 1987 and it's Wrigley Field. And Dawson, having just left the Expos, had spent his career even farther from Oakland than Sandberg. I don't buy it with Dawson, but, because the home run total is so high and because this sticks so closely to the 1988 timeline Boswell seems to be implying, he has to go near the top.
2. Cal Ripken, Jr., 1991, 34 HRs – Full disclosure: Cal was my favorite player throughout my entire childhood… There are a couple of good reasons to suspect Cal here: He's already nine years into his consecutive games streak and, at 30 years old, seems a bit old for such a spike in home runs. The total of 34 home runs is only six more than his next best season, but it was 13 more than he had hit in 1990. Also, Boswell worked in Washington, D.C., making a Baltimore player a reasonable suspect. And 1991 is still close enough to 1988 that the "spreading" feeling Boswell had is reasonable. The main reason I put Cal as the second-most likely candidate, though, is that, in Canseco's book, he makes it very clear just how much he hates Cal Ripken. He seemed to picture Cal as the great white devil, the embodiment of everything and everyone that he thought was keeping him down. With that kind of animosity, I find it hard believing that Cal would be drinking a 'Jose Canseco milkshake'. Of course, there's always the possibility that Canseco hates Cal because he knows that Cal got away with cheating.
1. Rickey Henderson, 1990, 28 HRs – This may stretch Boswell's definition a bit, but it technically fits. Rickey's 28 home runs in 1990 is indeed his career best, but he also hit the same number in 1986. Even so, I think the Rickey 1990 season fits Boswell's claim the best. After all, Rickey is the only one on this list who was an actual teammate of Canseco at the time he hit the home runs, and 1990 is really the height of the Bash Brothers and that Oakland squad. It'd also make some sense for Boswell, who had made Canseco and the A's a special subject of his, to be close enough to an Oakland player to be able to witness something like that.
I hope I don't need to say that I'm not actually accusing Rickey or Cal or Sandberg or anyone else of using steroids. I have no clue just how accurate or precise Boswell's claim was in the documentary. It's very possible that a more nuanced statement from Boswell would make this investigation completely worthless by the addition of just one key detail.
As it is, though, there are only eight possible players who he could be talking about. Of those eight, the three most likely candidates are Andre Dawson in his 1987 MVP season, Cal Ripken, Jr., in his 1991 MVP season or Rickey Henderson in his 1990 MVP season. Ryne Sandberg's 40 home run season in 1990 could also raise some eyebrows. It'd certainly be nice to hear Boswell, who has been investigating steroids in baseball longer than anyone and who obviously has some important inside knowledge, be a little more specific about what he knows, but that's probably not going to happen for a number of years still. In the meantime, all we can do is speculate over the hints that he drops.