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SMILES TO GO BEFORE HE’S DONE ROBINSON CANO HAS
ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AS ONE OF BASEBALL’S BEST PLAYERS—AND IT WOULDN’T BE OUTRAGEOUS TO SAY HE’LL SOMEDAY BE MENTIONED AMONG THE YANKEES’ ALL-TIME GREATS. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS WITH HIS STATS, ONE THING IS FOR SURE— HE’LL PLAY OUT HIS DAYS WITH A GRIN ON HIS FACE. BY MATT CROSSMAN
Photos by Jay Drowns / SN 31
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He is the Yankee even Yankee haters like to watch. ROBINSON CANO CAN’T STOP SMILING. It’s a
Monday off for the Yankees, and Cano is spending the late afternoon partaking in one of his favorite pastimes, shopping, for his favorite item of clothing, shoes. He laughs when asked how many pairs he has. “You don’t want to know,” he says. Whatever that number is grows by six after a visit to the Nike store in Manhattan. It would be more, but the store doesn’t have several styles he wants in his size 13. As Cano gets off an escalator on his way to the register, a man in a Yankees jacket stops him. “You need to start hitting the ball harder,” the man says. Cano just smiles. Of course he does. Smiling is his singular characteristic, more important to his emerging stardom in the Bronx than the pinstripes he wears, the strong hands he rips through the strike zone or the bullets he zings from deep in the hole behind second base. “He’s always smiling, whether he’s in the clubhouse or on the field. He gets a hit or hits a home run, he looks like he’s never done it before,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter says. Sometimes that’s an insult. Not with Cano. “You look forward to seeing him so happy because it rubs off on everybody,” Jeter says. Maybe it will rub off on the schlub in the Yankees jacket. Or maybe not. “It’s early,” the man tells Cano as he fades down the escalator, “so I’ll give you a break.” When the man is gone, Cano says, with exasperation: “I’m hitting .324!” Which is reason enough to smile, no?
ROBINSON CANO CAN’T STOP SMILING. He is
in a photo shoot on the concourse at Yankee Stadium when a man named Juan Luis Morera appears from behind a glass door. Cano waves him in. Morera is better known as Wisin of the hugely popular Latin American musical duo Wisin Y Yandel. Cano bounds over to him, and they hug and talk, each smiling broadly. It goes almost unnoticed, but in the Dominican Republic or in Morera’s native Puerto Rico, this encounter would be the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen poking his head into a Reggie Jackson photo shoot in the 1970s. Cano returns to the shoot, holding a bat over his shoulder. Hanging from the wall behind
him are mammoth posters of Yankees greats. The way he has played during the first six-plus years of his career, it is likely his poster one day will hang there, too. Jeter is the captain and third baseman Alex Rodriguez is a threetime A.L. MVP, but Cano might be better than both. He is the best second baseman in baseball, arguably the best player in New York and a perennial MVP candidate. “He’s almost a six-tool guy. Speed, power, average, arm, whatever the fifth one is, and personality,” Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher says. (Forgive Swisher for his exuberance, but no pair of shoes in the world would make Cano a fast runner.) “He’s a great guy. He works his (expletive) off. You’re happy for the success he has because you see how hard he works.” The thing Cano has worked hardest at is not doing anything—that is, letting pitches go by. For most of his Yankees career, he has driven hitting coach Kevin Long crazy with his inability to not swing—a manifestation of an adage in Cano’s native Dominican Republic: You can hit your way off the island, but you can’t walk your way off it. In spring training several years ago, Long ordered Cano not to swing until he had two strikes. Cano was surprised that so many of what he thought were good pitches to hit were called balls. And the light went on in Cano’s head. He walked 57 times last season, 18 more times than his previous career high. “I thought I’d be buried before he got 50 walks in a year,” Long says. Cano is a better player because of it, but it is unfortunate that he swings less because his swing is gorgeous—a natural, fluid, violent, lefthanded slice through the air. The key is his hands. They’re as strong as a lumberjack’s, as precise as a watchmaker’s and as fast as a pickpocket’s. They allow him to drive inside pitches that most hitters would pop up. “Think about a snake getting ready to strike,” Long says. “He almost preys on the ball.” Because Cano’s hands are so good, Long and the Yankees always knew he would hit for average in the big leagues. It’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll win a batting title. Power has been more elusive. Cano showed it sporadically early in his career. Buck Showalter, now the Orioles’ manager, was managing the Rangers in 2006—Cano’s second season in the majors. Showalter says he asked then-Yankees hitting
It’s an ideal way for Cano to spend an off-day: making a shopping stop in Manhattan, where he can add a pair—or six—to his shoe collection.
coach Don Mattingly before a game whether Cano would ever hit for power. “Oh, yeah,” Mattingly said. “And he hit one about 500 feet against us that night in Texas. I looked over at Donnie ... ” and Showalter mimics the “told you” shrug that Mattingly gave him. Still, Cano’s power stroke showed up only intermittently; he didn’t surpass the 20-homer
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While spending the day with his cousin, it’s all smiles for Cano—but then again, it almost always is.
PEDROIA: WINSLOW TOWNSON / AP
plateau until 2009. As Cano’s legs and core have gotten stronger, he has driven the ball more consistently. His 29 homers in 2010 was a career high. For the record, the tool Swisher overlooked is defense. Cano has great hands, studies hitters’ tendencies in order to position himself precisely and has snap-quick instincts. Says Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira: “Best defensive second baseman I’ve ever seen. I’m not going out on a limb saying that. Range, arm, the way he turns the double play, he’s got it all.” Even a sense of humor. That light that went on when Cano learned how to take walks sometimes dims, and he hacks at pitches he shouldn’t. Which is why, when he reaches first base after taking a walk, he often looks into the dugout, finds Long and smiles at him.
After the shopping trip, Cano and his entourage pile into an SUV and drive out of Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge and into New Jersey. When he arrives at his favorite restaurant, The River Palm Terrace, near his apartment in Edgewater, N.J., Cano is greeted like Norm Peterson entering Cheers. He hugs the waitress and asks, “How’s the little one?” She reports that her baby is fine. Cano sits with his back to the window, through which the beckoning lights of Manhattan twinkle in the dark. Across the room in front and to the right of Cano is a television featuring a Rays-Red Sox game. Although Long says that watching baseball with Cano is like watching baseball alone because he becomes so
focused on the game, Cano remains engaged in the conversation ... while rarely taking his eyes off the television. Cano is flanked by his two constant companions, one a friend named Sandy Santana, the other a cousin named Burt Reynolds, a former Rays minor leaguer. They laugh at the antics of a man everyone calls Cache, who is Cano’s driver and a fellow Dominican. Cache is much older than the other three and set in his ways. Throughout dinner, he complains, like a crotchety uncle, that the sushi and salad and bread and everything else clutter the table. There is an inexplicably funny running joke here. A steak would calm Cache; his arrives, and it’s so big Cano could fold it in half and use it as a glove in the next day’s game. Cache eats ... and still plays to his crowd, just not as much. All the while, Cano watches the game, breaking it down. His attention to detail is precise and his expectations exacting, both of which are surprising considering he used to be accused of not taking the game seriously enough. Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist plays Red Sox slugger David Ortiz in short right field,
easily 10 feet into the grass. Cano nods approvingly, doubling back to an earlier conversation about learning to position himself where batters most often hit the ball. Ortiz smashes a one-hopper right at Zobrist, who grabs it and throws to first. When another player steps to the plate later in the game, Cano offers a scouting report. “He swings like he’s trying to hit it to the moon,” Cano says, and he mimics a swing that looks like a man throwing
a sack over his shoulder. He says the hitter pulls his head on every swing and demonstrates by exaggeratedly pulling his. On the next pitch, the batter swings like a man throwing a sack over his shoulder and pulls his head. Then Cache says something else, the three friends explode in laughter, and Cano’s face glows white, a smile that draws people in the same way as the lights of Manhattan behind him.
SCOUT’S VIEW: SECOND BESTS A major league scout ranks the majors’ four best second basemen—and lists a future star at the position: 1. ROBINSON CANO, YANKEES. “He’s the allaround guy.” 2. CHASE UTLEY, PHILLIES. “He doesn’t have quite the defensive ability Cano does. He’s a good allaround hitter and has a little more power.” 3. DUSTIN PEDROIA, RED SOX. The 2007 A.L. rookie of
the year and 2008 A.L. MVP also owns a Gold Glove. 4. BRIAN ROBERTS, ORIOLES. Because of injuries, his team’s lack of success and the overwhelming star power in the A.L. East, Roberts often is overlooked. And one to watch: DUSTIN ACKLEY, CLASS AAA TACOMA (MARINERS). “He’s an up-and-coming guy, but he’s not there yet.” — Matt Crossman
Pedroia is a career .303 hitter, but his glove has a lot to do with why he is so high on this list.
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Cano has been criticized at times for appearing too easygoing on the field, but he has worked to follow the example of Jeter (below).
not all Cano smiles are the same. He has three. One is the natural look on his face. It reflects Cano’s pleasant nature and makes it obvious that he is approachable, even to yutzes who bemoan his average, now .319. But it also can be misread as nonchalance, as he has learned by experience. Then there is his common smile, which he wears as he struts around Manhattan after buying six pairs of Nikes, when he shakes hands and when he chats with an opponent at second base. More teeth are visible, but the rest of his face remains relatively unchanged. Then there is the big one. When Cano smiles a big one, his face explodes, waves rippling up and down and out, with his nose as the point where the rock hit the pond. When his teeth appear, it is as if a blanket has been yanked off of a spotlight. They are big and bright, and they are visible for so long that close study of them is possible. Each half of his mouth is a mirror image of the other, as if his teeth were made the way kids make paper snowflakes—by folding a piece of white paper in half, cutting one side then unfolding it. Yet as marvelous as his teeth are, they are not what make his smile so captivating. His eyes do that. At the same time his teeth come out, his eyes pop like flashbulbs and then dim to a narrow squint. His eyebrows jump like they have been shot out of a jack-in-the-box. Lines forming an alligator’s mouth emerge from the corner of each eye. This is the smile that makes Cano so much fun to watch, the smile everybody in the Yankees clubhouse calls infectious, the smile friends miss when they don’t see him for years at a time. Jeff Segar, who played with Cano in the minors from 2001-03, now lives in Alabama and owns a training facility for young athletes. He has one directive to the hypercompetitive, too-serious, everything’s-life-or-death kids and, more often, to their parents from whom they learned those traits: Have fun. And he uses Cano as the primary example of how to do that. “Watch him play his game,” Segar tells them. “See how much fun he’s having. If you’re not having fun, why are you playing the game?”
What brings a man such joy that his smile sticks with people for so long? For Cano, there are two things: his relationship with his mom and dad and the fact he plays superstar baseball for the biggest, baddest baseball team on the planet. As a teenager, he briefly lived in New Jersey and attended Yankees games. He was mesmerized by center fielder Bernie Williams and boasted that one day he would turn double plays with the young shortstop named Derek Jeter. Baseball has tied Robinson Cano to his dad, Jose Cano, and his mom, Claribel Mercedes, since before he was born. During a softball game in the Dominican Republic a little more than 29 years ago, Mercedes ran from first base to second base. A sudden, sharp pain in her back caused her to pass out. She was rushed off the field and given medical attention ... and that was how she found out Robinson Cano would enter the world. When Cano was born 8½ months later, he was alive only a matter of minutes before Jose, who pitched professionally in Taiwan and Mexico and appeared in six games for the Astros in 1989, gave him his first baseball. Two days later, Jose took Robinson to his first game. “His eyes were still closed. I still remember that,” Jose Cano says. Between the ages of 10 and 13, Robinson traveled with his dad on the bus in the Mexican League. He says it was one of the most important periods of his life because of the time he spent with his father and the hours of baseball he watched. “You get in certain situations and you look back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve seen this before,’ ” Robinson says.
WHAT’S IN A NAME? FOR THESE ATHLETES, A LOT
Jackie Robinson Robinson Cano is named after Jackie Robinson, whom Cano’s father greatly admires. Cano didn’t know much about the former Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman before arriving in the United States but now shares his father’s fondness for the Hall of Famer. “That was hard, what he went through,” Cano says. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here right now.” Cano is one of several athletes named after a former star in his sport.
Baseball helps form part of the bond between Cano and his parents; in his youth he spent time traveling with his father, who played in the Mexican League.
Edson Buddle. A U.S. World Cup striker, formerly of the L.A. Galaxy and now with a German club, Buddle was named after Pele, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Buddle’s father also played professional soccer. Ahmard Hall. The Tennessee Titans fullback’s full name is Ahmard Rashad Hall, after Ahmad Rashad—the former Cardinals, Bills and Vikings wide receiver. Hall’s first name was recorded incorrectly on his birth certificate. Brooks Orpik. An alternate captain and defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Orpik was named after Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 gold medalwinning Miracle on Ice U.S. hockey team. Tony Stewart. With a fiery temperament and abundant skill, Stewart grew up to be a driver similar to the man his father named him after—A.J. (Anthony Joseph) Foyt. Isaiah Thomas. This Thomas spells his name like the Old Testament prophet; the Hall of Fame hoops great drops the first ‘a.’ The University of Washington point guard, who will skip his senior season and enter the NBA draft, got his name when his father lost a friendly wager on a Lakers-Pistons game. Like the other Thomas, this one has a beguiling smile that hides a killer instinct. — Matt Crossman
CANO DIVE: GREG FIUME / GETTY IMAGES; CANO, JETER: ELISE AMENDOLA / AP; FAMILY: COURTESY CANO FAMILY; ROBINSON: AP
ROBINSON CANO CAN’T STOP SMILING. But
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Before games, Jose often pitched to his son, who would set up a home plate in the outfield just behind second base. Jose sometimes promised to take Robinson out to dinner if he hit one over the fence. Jose was no softie; if Robinson didn’t hit one over the fence, they didn’t go out to dinner. “I liked that,” Robinson Cano says. “That’s the kind of thing that makes you work for what you get.” Mercedes lives with Cano during the season, and he never leaves for the stadium without getting her blessing—a tradition in Latin American culture comparable to an American mother praying aloud for her son in his presence. After every game, Robinson talks to Jose, to go over what he did right and what he did wrong and about what the pitcher in the next game will do. The night before the shoe-shopping trip, Robinson was on the team bus when the phone call came. When he answered, Jose was laughing. “What’d I tell you?” Jose said. Just as Jose had predicted, Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett had busted Robinson inside.
CANO: NICK TURCHIARO / ICON SMI; ALOMAR: RON FREHM / AP
ROBINSON CANO CAN’T STOP SMILING. But over
the years, people have tried to get him to smile less. “Even when his father would scold him, he would laugh,” his mom says through an interpreter. “His dad would say, ‘Don’t laugh.’ And he’d say, ‘I’m not laughing—this is just how I am.’ ” One of Cano and Segar’s minor league teammates put it this way: “Early on, he almost had too much fun, whether we were winning or losing. Like, ‘Hey, Robby, we’re getting our butts kicked. You might want to wipe the smile off your face.’ ” When Cano struggled throughout the 2008 season, he was criticized—and briefly benched—for not hustling. This irked Cano, but there was validity to it. He needed to play harder, play smarter, play with more urgency. He has improved in all of those areas. “He does dive now—I didn’t see him dive in the first four years I coached him,” Long says. The 2008 season humbled Cano. His name surfaced in trade rumors following that season. Cano had long admired Jeter and has adopted the Jeter credo of work hard, be on time and play the game the right way. Cano appears to have found the right balance between fun and games and being a Yankee and behaving accordingly. “I want to get everything out of my talent,” Cano says. “I don’t want to say I should’ve done this or I should’ve done that.” The results of his post-2008 commitment are as obvious as the smile on his face: In two-plus seasons, Cano has hit .320 with 62 homers and
‘Watch him play his game. See how much fun he’s having. If you’re not having fun, why are you playing the game?’
215 RBIs and won a Gold Glove award. Many athletes find joy only in success. Cano finds it in stepping on the field, in being a baseball player rather than solely being a winning baseball player. Which is not to say he lacks competitive fire. “While his confidence may make him appear lackadaisical, he’s anything but,” says Joe Torre, Cano’s manager in his first three major league seasons.
It’s Tuesday, the day after the shoe-shopping, Cache-laughing, steak-eating, nonstop-smiling off-day, and Cano is in the clubhouse before a Yankees-Orioles game. Perhaps envisioning feasting on Orioles pitching like Cache feasted on steak, Cano is smiling. In his career, he has pummeled the Orioles for a .351 average and 19 homers—both high marks against A.L. teams. Then again, with a 162-game average of a .309 batting average, 22 homers and 93 RBIs, he pummels everybody. The numbers suggest Cano is in the prime of a Hall of Fame career. But as impressive as his stats are, they fall into shadow when compared to the burst of sunshine that is his demeanor. He is the Yankee even Yankee haters like to watch. “He plays like he’s in the backyard, having fun,” Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia says. “The way he hits, the way he makes plays, everything is so smooth; it looks like it’s so natural.” Cano’s smile is great because it’s pretty, it makes his teammates happy and it pleases millions of fans. But the greatest thing about it is that it isn’t masking anything. He’s no smiling assassin. He’s not smiling on the outside and crying on the inside. He’s smiling because he’s happy. And because in his locker sit 10 pairs of shoes.
— Former minor league teammate Jeff Segar
IN HALL OF FAME COMPANY Robinson Cano often is compared to two all-time great second basemen: Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Roberto Alomar. Both comparisons work ... and both don’t. Cano has the same natural, fluid swing as Carew, but Carew never had Cano’s power or defensive ability. Like Alomar, Cano makes plays at second that few can. But Alomar won three Gold Gloves in the time Cano has won one. Plus, Alomar was a switch hitter. If it seems premature to compare Cano to Hall of Famers, consider this: Through his first six seasons, Cano’s numbers match up well against those of some of the all-time greats at his position. NAME ROBINSON CANO Roberto Alomar Ryne Sandberg Rod Carew Joe Morgan Jackie Robinson Rogers Hornsby* Eddie Collins** Cano draws comparisons to Alomar, who was elected to the Hall of Fame this year.
SEASONS 2005-10 1988-93 1981-86 1967-72 1963-68 1947-52 1915-20 1906-11
AB 3,481 3,551 3,146 2,736 1,602 3,333 2,592 2,013
H 1,075 1,054 902 845 438 1,060 838 666
AVG .309 .297 .287 .309 .273 .318 .323 .331
HR 116 56 74 23 25 92 36 10
RBIs 503 395 345 276 127 501 360 252
* Hornsby’s .358 career batting average is the best among Hall of Fame second basemen. ** Collins’ career total of 3,314 hits is the most among Hall of Fame second basemen. — Matt Crossman
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