The Jose Special. You know what it is, right? It’s that thing where Jose Canseco comes up to you in the locker room waggling a big needle and offers to give you an injection you won’t ever forget. In his controversial memoir Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, Canseco talks about his own steroid use, and then starts naming names. It’s as predictable as a Mark McGwire home run circa 1998—that one handed backswing caught many a camera flash. Canseco claims he shot up teammates Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez with anabolic steroids. The Jose Special made baseball exciting for a new generation of fans. I remember following McGwire’s ’98 streak—as a second grader, the world of professional baseball seemed populated by mythical heroes, giants that rose above the ranks of mere mortals. When McGwire broke Roger Maris’s single season home run record with a steroid-powered blast that ricocheted off the upper deck, I probably sacrificed a bull to Zeus.
The Cardinal nation stretches into southern Illinois and Indiana, across the Great Plains into the Rockies. KMOX used to reach into those far corners of the baseball universe, back when AM radio ruled baseball broadcasts. But as I grew up, so did baseball. The Internet and special cable television channels revolutionized sports media, and the character of the Cardinals nation began to change. Although baseball is easier to follow in digitized form, the transcendental whine of a transistor radio added extra flavor, like a splash of dirty water on a foot long hot dog. Busch Stadium was torn down in 2005 and a new brick edifice arose in its hallowed place. Nevertheless, one thing stayed the same: McGwire’s pleas of innocence. Even after Juiced hit bookstore shelves, McGwire denied using steroids. Yet, after joining the Cardinals staff as a hitting coach, McGwire admitted to juicing up during the steroid era. St. Louis is not a forgiving city and a shadow has been cast over McGwire’s career—not just the penumbra of steroid use, but the stain of lying, too. Steroids made possible the magic of ’98, and they later stole it back. The man behind the curtain—Jose himself—tore down his own illusion. In a sentimental coming-of-age story, the fall of baseball might accompany a fall from innocence—the end of childhood’s ignorance and the beginning of corruption. Fortunately, life does not reduce into such easily digestible tropes.
At Hamdel, the Jose Special isn’t laden with muscle boosting drugs—unless hot Virginia ham, melted American cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a buttered hero build home run hitting biceps. There’s nothing particularly special about this sandwich. Just meat, cheese, a limp nod at vegetable-ness, and a walk across the griddle. Still, the sandwich tasted good after a torturous swim.
The summer before second grade, my family would go to the Jewish Community Center pool. Despite the mildewed cloud of sweat and chlorine that settled over the locker room, we savored the hours spent playing in the water. In August, the St. Louis heat throbs like a dulled sore, and that blue, chemical soup provided momentary relief from the sun. That pool got torn down too, and over the years I stopped swimming with such vigor. This August, I plan to complete a triathlon, and much to my chagrin, triathlons require a more than palatable dose of swimming. So it’s back into the pool for painful stroke after stroke. After a swim, chlorine lingers on my skin like an ill fitting perfume. Sitting on a bench in Morningside Park, eating the Jose Special and feeling the breeze blow fumes off my back, I felt immersed in authentic summer.
I would not order the Jose Special again. Further tastes might raise red flags about doping or other nefarious performance enhancing activities.
Next: the Gipper (hot roast beef, grilled onions, melted Provolone cheese, and brown gravy on a toasted hero).