OAKLAND -- The way it looks from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, only two things can keep Jose Canseco out of baseball's Hall of Fame: his heavy accelerator foot and his weak back.

The Athletics' concern of the moment -- and they usually have some concern about Canseco -- is his back. Opening a weekend series tonight in Baltimore, the world champions are 11-3 in August and threatening a runaway in the American League West. But Canseco has missed the last five games with a bulged disc in his lower back and his day-to-day status has left A's fans asking, 'Have you seen Jose?'

They're also talking about his new car:

"Did you hear, Jose got a Testarosa?" a man asked.

More dangerous behind the wheel than at the plate, Canseco has added a fabulous Ferrari to his fast fleet.

"What about the white Porsche?" another man asked.

"He still has it."

"I saw his wife driving it."

"No, that one just looks like a Porsche. . . . You know, he gave the red one to {his twin brother} Ozzie."

"The Jaguar?"

"No, he got rid of that. He gave Ozzie the Corvette."

"He's always been very good to his family."

Canseco gives people plenty to talk about: Canseco and his unprecedented five-year $23.5 million contract and what he's going to do with all the money; Canseco and possible back surgery after the season (he said this week an operation would be a "last resort"); Canseco and his cars.

He's always loved cars, but they've always cost him. He pleaded no contest last year to a misdemeanor for having a loaded handgun in the candy-apple red Jaguar and was placed on three years' informal probation. He's had his problems with highway patrols while driving the Jaguar and the Porsche.

Although he could use a chauffeur, he's talked lately of hiring a bodyguard. He moved recently with his wife, the former Esther Haddad, once Miss Miami, from one community in the hills above Oakland to another in search of better security to keep away intruders.

Now Canseco's back is a topic of discussion. One reason he wants to play as soon as possible is because he covets the American League's most valuable player award, which he won in 1988 when he became baseball's first 40-40 man -- 42 home runs and 40 stolen bases. He's confident he can win it again over such threats as teammate Rickey Henderson and Detroit's Cecil Fielder.

"All I have to do is play," Canseco said between trips to the trainer's room. "As long as I play, I have a great chance."

Among the A's, it goes without saying that they're going to win the West -- and more. Being terrific and knowing it, they have a certain swagger. "No doubt about it, we do a good job of coming to the park every day to work," said Bob Welch, who tonight against the Orioles tries for his first 20-win season. Second baseman Willie Randolph added: "Our approach is that every day we're going to win."

Canseco usually has that swagger too. But this week he's been prowling the clubhouse and stadium hallways gingerly. His routine has required a patience he's not known for: daily therapy at his back doctor's office, a date with the trainer, watching the games from the bench.

"He's frustrated," said shortstop Walt Weiss, a friend of the man who is pretty much a loner.

"He's bothered because he sets such tremendous goals for himself," said Merv Rettenmund, the A's hitting coach. "He's a very selfish player but he doesn't let that offset his team play. He wants MVP. Sixty homers. But if a game situation calls for it, he'll bunt."

He's also an improving defensive right fielder. He throws well. He runs the bases well. But one only needs a glance at his huge frame -- 6 feet 3, 230 pounds -- to know what he likes to do best with a baseball (the fact that he was squeezing the handle of a 35-inch, 35-ounce bat was another clue).

He wants to swing for the fences again, but he hasn't been able to.

"My back's weak," he said. "It doesn't hurt when I swing. It's just weak. Afterward, I get the pain."

He hurt his back last Friday simply by swinging. Everyone likes to talk about Canseco's mighty swing, including Canseco. "It's a combination," he said, "of speed and power."

His shots have soared over light towers, down bleacher exit ramps, against the Toronto Skydome's restaurant, onto rooftops, out of stadiums and past fielders before they can react. "In Baltimore, Craig Worthington jumped for a line drive," Rettenmund said, "and about the same time the ball hit the left field wall."

This season had the makings of 1988 (he missed the first half of last season with a broken bone in his wrist). But in June Canseco was hospitalized and in traction, missing 14 games. Even with this second setback, he has 34 home runs, 82 runs batted in, a .296 average, 15 stolen bases.

What could he do with an injury-free season?

"He talks about 50-50," Rettenmund said. "But I don't think it's realistic to say he's going to steal 50 bases. There's no sense to that. Fifty home runs -- that's no problem."

"If I have to sacrifice, it's not going to be from the offensive part -- the hitting part -- of my game," Canseco said.

Clearly, Canseco's back is taking some of the luster from his game; he can't afford to be the running threat he once was.

Out of the lineup and unable to hit the ball harder and farther than anyone, he's almost docile. "I'm trying not to think about this all that much," he said, a far cry from when he feels right.

"When he's sound," Rettenmund said, "he has a mechanically perfect swing. He really gets 'inside' a baseball."

"He has brashness, cockiness, arrogance -- whatever you want to call it," Randolph said. "He reminds me of Reggie {Jackson}. He can tell you what he's going to do, and do it."

With a shrug, Canseco returned to the trainer's room. Natural Progression

The game itself has always been the easy part. Considering what he's done in a relatively short time, Canseco has to be "The Natural" come to life. He turned 26 on July 2. He really hasn't been playing that long.

Havana-born, two minutes ahead of Ozzie, Canseco grew up in Miami. By the time Jose Sr. introduced his sons to baseball, taking them to a field to play, they were 12.

Canseco remembered twice being his high school team's best offensive player -- while on the junior varsity.

He didn't make the Coral Park High varsity until his senior year. Only one scout cared seriously about him. It was Camilo Pascual, former curveballing right-hander of the Washington Senators. His son played on Canseco's high school team.

Pascual couldn't help noticing the kid hitting .400. (He was about 6 feet then, about 165 pounds). Even with that batting average, Pascual had to do a sales job; the A's didn't pick Canseco until the 15th round in 1982. In the Instructional League he took up weight training.

Canseco said this week he's never again heard from Pascual, now a Dodgers' scout, but that a minor league manager and a coach, little known and since departed from the A's organization, gave him "confidence." As for batting techniques, he's basically self-taught.

"Most people think his power comes from his upper body," Rettenmund said, "but it's mostly from his legs and his leverage. He learned it by himself."

Canseco was still deep in the minors when his mother died, in 1984. That was a blow, but it taught Canseco that baseball wasn't everything and he took a more relaxed approach to his career. "I like to come to the park, have some fun, keep things simple," he said this week.

By 1984 Canseco also was demonstrating an uncanny ability to block everything from his mind during a game. He hit .276 that year at Class A Modesto, and in 1985 did even better: .318 at Class AA Huntsville, .348 at Class AAA Tacoma (where he cleared a light tower in batting practice) and .302 in a brief stay with the A's.

After '88, he said, he'd gained the confidence he has now, which is as good as it gets and made it hard for him to sit and watch as Roger Clemens shut out the A's Tuesday, saving Boston from being swept in three games. "I like the challenge," Canseco said. "I've done well against Clemens."

Most others too. "He can be better than a .300 hitter," said his manager, Tony La Russa. "He proved that in '88 (.307), and you just have to look at his average this season when he puts the ball in play." An awesome figure it is; when Canseco doesn't strike out (which he has 108 times), he's hitting .426. 'Madonna-Type Personality'

He's a Ruthian figure even if he sees himself more as . . . Madonna.

"I consider myself a Madonna-type personality," he said earlier this year when he was feeling better.

He seems to relish the spotlight even though it sometimes blinds him.

Even if he sometimes feels like "the gorilla in the zoo," with everyone looking at him, he can't resist calling attention to himself.

Besides the fast cars, he sometimes has a fast lip.

"He speaks his mind," Randolph said. And then with a smile: "He speaks it too well."

A recent Canseco verbal blast was directed at the A's during contract negotiations. He suggested a racial bias but later said he meant society in general, not the team in particular. (The team pointed out that Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart, who had been at the top of the payroll, are black.)

All was well when the signing was announced in June. Displaying a boyish smile, Canseco said: "I don't think that's what I'm worth, but that's what the market holds. . . . I hope I can help bring the A's two, three, who knows, maybe four more world championships."

Now, Canseco has started the talk of possible surgery, mentioning it in the midst of his frustration last weekend. That sent reporters scurrying to talk with A's Vice President Sandy Alderson, who signed Canseco despite his ailments for what Alderson has described as "not quite the S & L bailout, but it's close."

Surrounded by writers in the A's clubhouse, Alderson -- a Harvard law school graduate -- deftly downplayed Canseco's surgery talk. "I think the media coverage," he said, looking at the crowd about him, "is ahead of the event."

So he hopes. The A's always have their hopes for Canseco: They hope he doesn't drive too fast, that he doesn't say something to embarrass them, that his back won't ruin his career.

"I've got to play golf," he said, excusing himself. Just a small joke; he was heading again to the trainer's table. That's another A's hope: They hope Canseco keeps up his back exercises even when he's feeling good.

Randolph, a veteran in his first season with the A's, said he doesn't know Canseco well enough yet to say whether he has the "drive" to be great -- like Reggie Jackson had. "Reggie knew he could go down in history -- that's what drove him," Randolph said.

"If Jose stays healthy and keeps his focus, he can too. But you have to do it over a period of time before throwing out superlatives. It remains to be seen. It's really up to him."