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The Salt Lake Tribune


Since retiring from Major League Baseball in 2002 and abandoning a comeback attempt in '04, former American League MVP and iconoclast slugger Jose Canseco has joined up with myriad lower-level teams, including the Golden Baseball League's San Diego Surf Dawgs, the United Baseball League's Laredo Broncos, the North American League's Yuma Scorpions, the Mexican League's Quintana Roo Tigres, the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball's Worcester Tornadoes, the United League's Fort Worth Cats, and the Pacific Association's Pittsburg Diamonds, among others.

But how did he come to be launching some longballs for the Herriman High Mustangs on Saturday?

"They needed my help," Canseco said in a phone interview from his home in Las Vegas. "It's really that simple."

And so from 4-7 p.m. Saturday night, he will serve as the star attraction of a fundraising event at the high school's ballpark. Parking is $5, a photo with the six-time All-Star will cost $10, and an autograph from the man with 462 career home runs on an attendee-provided item will set you back $40. Local businesses were recruited to pledge a fixed amount for every moonshot Canseco cranks in a home run derby. And, of course, there's a GoFundMe account.

And because the best-selling author of "Juiced" is not demanding an appearance fee, proceeds will go to the school's baseball and softball programs.

"This is 100 percent for the school," he confirmed. "I'm not taking anything."

Which is music to the ears of Herriman softball coach Heidi McKissick and baseball coach Jason DeHerrera, who are on a joint mission to stock the coffers like never before.

Inside pitch

With Utah's snowy winters forcing their teams' offseason activities into the gymnasium, those coaches felt their teams were getting insufficient practice time.

"There's a lot of other teams that have things going on," DeHerrera said, "so we fight a little bit for time in the gym."

"Every high school has its struggles with this," McKissick concurred. "… We're often there 'til 10 or 11 at night for open gym."

So they decided to pitch Principal Jim Birch on an indoor batting and pitching facility, an idea later expanded to a building also capable hosting Phys Ed classes.

McKissick, who in May coached Herriman to the Class 6A softball state championship, acknowledged while such a building is a luxury, it's becoming a necessity in an ever-escalating facilities race in high school athletics.

"Absolutely. You need to have some kind of edge," she said. "It's kind of a perk, an incentive for a kid to come to Herriman."

For example, last November, voters approved a $283 million bond for Canyons School District, which will include complete rebuilds for Brighton and Hillcrest high schools and an upgrade for Alta High. Included in those campuses will be brand-new indoor, turf-covered, multi-sport fieldhouses.

The argument resonated with Birch, who disliked the idea that "other teams are hitting five days a week, and ours two days a week." So he forwarded the request on to Jordan School District, asking for a contractor to provide a pricing analysis.

"They estimated it'd cost in neighborhood of $300,000, which is astronomical for a school," Birch recalled. "… I told [the two coaches] that if each of their teams could come up with $50,000 apiece, that would be a great start."

Cue the fundraising brainstorm session.

Hurricane Jose

Assistant baseball coach Blake Kener tossed out an unusual-if-intriguing tidbit His niece lives in Las Vegas and was dating Jose Canseco. Maybe he could ask her to ask him?

"I reached out to her about our fundraiser, and she texted me back and asked how I'd feel about Jose coming out," Kener recalled. "I said 'Hell yeah!'"

"Jason asked me, 'What do you think about this?' and I said, ' Do you think he will?'" DeHerrera added. "Next thing you know, Jose Canseco is coming."

While DeHerrera and Birch say they've received nothing but positive feedback about Canseco's appearance, McKissick conceded she could not report the same.

Some blowback was inevitable, considering Canseco not only became the living embodiment of MLB's steroids era, but also because between 1989 and 2008 he was found guilty of or pleaded guilty or no contest to reckless driving, weapons, assault, battery, probation, and drug charges. And last year, his contract as an analyst for NBC Sports California was not renewed after a series of since-deleted tweets in which he appeared to make light of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement.

"One woman said to me, 'Why are you letting Jose represent Herriman?' And I just thought, 'Can't you support something positive?' He's paying his own way to come out here and help us," McKissick said. "Yes, he's done some bad things. We've all done bad things. Here, he's doing a good thing. So let's just have something positive."

After the difficult year the school has had — with five students committing suicide, and the administration making national headlines for censoring a student newspaper report about a teacher fired for sending inappropriate texts a student — she maintains Canseco's visit ought to be seen as a "something positive."

Green monsters in the way

Even if his visit is a success, hurdles remain for Herriman to get its facility.

For one, there's that "astronomical" price tag. Worse still, Dave Rostrom, Jordan School District's Director of Facility Services, noted the number given to Birch "would substantially go up.

"They gave the school a ballpark number. But there's a lot of codes involved, and that number didn't include any fire alarms, sprinklers, restrooms, et cetera — none of that was even considered," Rostrom said. "It's really just an amount for a metal shell. … I would say it would at least double."

And they may be getting off cheap. By way of comparison, Canyons School District Director of Communications Jeff Haney confirmed the fully-furnished final cost of Alta's, Brighton's and Hillcrest's new fieldhouses — which will range between 18,000 and 22,000 square feet and each will feature full turf fields, lines for track, and netting for baseball, golf, and lacrosse — averages between $2.5-$3 million apiece.

Beyond that, however, comes the second issue — Birch's vow for the school to cover the balance once McKissick and DeHerrera come through with their share.

"I was planning on setting aside money for it. … There's a wrench in that now. I can't make that promise," Birch said. "I think you know why."

Namely, as of July 1, Birch will no longer be Herriman's principal, as he's being transferred to West Jordan High School. Copper Hills' Todd Quarnberg will be taking over at Herriman.

For his part, Quarnberg promised to give the subject due consideration once in charge.

"I will advocate for the community that we get the equipment and services we need to do well. I'm a competitor — not just with sports, but academically, with the performing arts. I will do everything I can to get us taken care of," he said. "… I'm about equity. Here at Copper Hills, we just spent $15,000 on a marimba — that's one band instrument that one student will play. We've got to see what other programs have and try to be equitable."

Digging deep, going deep

For now, the focus is on making Saturday's event a success.

Herriman's coaches admit there's work to do, especially considering most of their own players have little concept of the person they're bringing in.

"All the kids were like, 'Who's that?' I tell them, 'google him.' A few knew of him 'cause of their parents. And some were like, 'Wasn't he the steroids guy?'" Kener said. "This shows the goodness of him — that he would come out here to help us out, even though he's not getting anything out of it."

Meanwhile, the coaches acknowledge their inexperience with a fundraiser of this nature has led to a dearth of publicity. DeHerrera admitted, "We don't know if any people will show up at all."

Canseco said he will, even though his original reason for agreeing to come — his relationship with Kener's niece — ended when they broke up. "I made a commitment to the kids; I'm gonna do it!" he said.

Asked if he had any other ties to Utah, Canseco laughed.

"None — that's the funny part about it," he said. "But I'm 400 miles away, I have an RV, so me and some friends, we're gonna road trip, we're gonna head out there, we'll hit some homers and have some fun!"

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June 3, 2018


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