The relationship formed by Ozzie Canseco and the Cardinals was based on mutual need rather than mutual affection. Neither expected it to last long.
Canseco, after flopping during a stint in Japan, was looking to revive his career in the United States in order to make himself appealing in the National League expansion draft.
The Cardinals were seeking a slugger to generate fan interest at their top farm club in Louisville.
Twenty-five years ago, in January 1992, the Cardinals signed Canseco, a free agent, to a minor-league contract. It was the start of a relationship that would take several twists and turns.
Ozzie and his twin brother Jose were born in Cuba on July 2, 1964. Jose became a standout on three pennant-winning Athletics teams managed by Tony La Russa. Ozzie entered the Yankees organization in 1983 as a pitcher.
“He had a good breaking ball and he could throw hard,” Bucky Dent, Ozzie’s manager with the Class A Fort Lauderdale Yankees, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We liked him a lot as a pitcher, but he was always wanting to switch over (to outfield).”
Said Ozzie: “I asked them every year, ‘Please let me make the transition from pitching to hitting.’ ”
In 1986, Ozzie got his wish. Released by the Yankees, he signed with the Athletics and became an outfielder. In 1990, Ozzie made his major-league debut with the Athletics as a teammate of Jose. Appearing in nine games, Ozzie batted .105.
Jose was one of baseball’s top players. In 1988, when he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, Jose became the first big-league player to have 40 home runs and 40 steals in a season.
“Jose cast a tremendous shadow over me because of who he is, because we’re identical twins,” Ozzie told Scripps Howard News Service. “… When I was trying to make the transition from pitcher to hitter, people expected me to hit like Jose did and I had a problem with that.”
Released by the Athletics after the 1990 season, Ozzie signed with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese Pacific League.
“I basically went over there to learn how to hit the breaking ball,” Ozzie told the Post-Dispatch. “The forkball, the slider _ that’s all you see over there if you’re a power hitter.”
However, Ozzie never made it to the majors in Japan. Instead, the Buffaloes assigned him to their minor-league club at Osaka. Ozzie left after 38 games and returned home to Miami.
When the NL announced plans to expand in 1993 to Miami and Denver, Ozzie saw opportunity. If he could have a strong season in 1992, he believed the Marlins, with a large fan base of Cuban-Americans, would select him in the expansion draft. First, though, he needed to find a team to play for in 1992.
Ted Simmons, Cardinals player development director, was seeking veterans to stock the Louisville roster. He offered Ozzie a contract.
“This is purely a ‘Come to spring training and show me what you got’ type of deal,” Simmons said.
Ozzie showed enough to make Louisville’s Opening Day roster. He started belting home runs, many prodigious.
In July 1992, the Post-Dispatch reported Ozzie “is drawing fans and drawing respect as one of the most feared power hitters in the American Association.”
Cardinals management took notice. Though Ozzie struck out 96 times in 98 games with Louisville, he slugged 22 home runs. When big-league rosters expanded on Sept. 1, Ozzie, 28, was one of the players the Cardinals promoted.
Ozzie got into nine games with the 1992 Cardinals. He hit .276 with no home runs and made several fielding mistakes before he injured his right shoulder.
Still, the Cardinals saw enough to view him as a potential contributor in 1993.
“He has raw power,” said Cardinals hitting coach Don Baylor.
In November 1992, Ozzie was one of 15 players the Cardinals protected from the expansion draft.
Ozzie’s hopes of sticking with the Cardinals got a boost in February 1993 when St. Louis traded starting right fielder Felix Jose to the Royals for first baseman Gregg Jefferies. The Cardinals declared Brian Jordan and Ozzie the candidates to compete in spring training for the starting right fielder job.
“I want to see them both play and see who wins it,” said manager Joe Torre. “I don’t think it’s Jordan’s job to lose.”
Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill said of Ozzie: “What we saw at the Triple-A level was that he could hit the ball out of any ballpark … We don’t have anybody with that kind of power and really haven’t had in the organization for a long time.”
Asked about Ozzie’s outfield skills, Maxvill replied, “He’s no Willie McGee or Willie Mays … but he did a very adequate job.”
“Mainly,” Maxvill concluded, “he needs to whack the ball for us.”
After hitting .192 in his first 10 spring training games, Ozzie finished as the 1993 Cardinals’ Grapefruit League leader in home runs (4) and RBI (14).
Neither he nor Jordan, though, won the job.
On March 31, the Cardinals traded pitcher Mark Clark to the Indians for Mark Whiten and named him their starter in right field.
Ozzie was demoted to Louisville.
“I thought I did well enough to make the team,” Ozzie said. “I’m disappointed.”
Farewell, St. Louis
Ozzie went on a tear at Louisville, hitting nine home runs. On May 5, he was brought back to the Cardinals.
He floundered in the field, however, and hit .176 with no home runs in six games. The Cardinals returned him to Louisville.
Ozzie continued to slug home runs for Louisville _ 13 in 44 games _ but he also struck out 59 times. On June 11, Ozzie informed the Cardinals he was quitting.
“It got to a point where I was miserable and it seemed like I was constantly fighting an uphill battle,” Ozzie said.
Said Maxvill: “He definitely had gone backwards in all aspects and complained the whole way. So I guess he needs a career change and, quite frankly, it’s probably a good idea.”
Ozzie sat out the rest of the season. On Dec. 14, 1993, the Cardinals traded him to the Brewers for minor-league outfielder Tony Diggs.
Ozzie played professional baseball for several more seasons, including a stint in the Mexican League, but he never returned to the majors after his trials with the 1992-93 Cardinals.