A day in the Dominican with Robinson Cano before his new life begins
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- The bus carried a contingent from the Seattle Mariners, and it rumbled along the highway, past ramshackle houses and auto body shops and whole families (father, mother, toddler) crammed onto the same motorbike.
The ocean, dark blue in the distance, turquoise near the shore, spread out to the right. The bus turned left, into the city, then into the countryside, past compounds lined with barbed wire fences and endless fields of sugarcane, then onto a dirt road. The Mariners would celebrate the grand opening of their $7-million baseball academy here Thursday.
But this day, as with most days moving forward, was largely about Robinson Cano.
Cano is the Mariners' new second baseman, one extricated from the New York Yankees for $240 million to be paid over the next decade. He is, along with one of the game's most dominant pitchers in Felix Hernandez, the face of a franchise defined for years by mediocrity or worse.
Starting next week with his arrival at Seattle's spring training facility in Arizona, Cano will be asked in the months ahead to smack doubles and snag grounders and film advertisements and sign autographs and reverse attendance figures that have plummeted in recent seasons. He will be tasked with no less than making baseball in Seattle relevant again, cool again, and this after the NFL's Seahawks won the franchise's first Super Bowl earlier this month to further cement their status atop the city's sports hierarchy.
The bus parked. The executives filed off, toward the three-and-a-half neatly groomed practice fields, toward the dormitories that resembled those chic nouveau hotel chains, painted in Mariners colors, navy blue and something called northwest green and metallic silver. Someone handed out posters for the occasion. "Hello, Cano," they read, and there was his picture, that smile, the beard trimmed just so.
They found the real-life Cano inside the clubhouse, the pictures of Mariners' legends past and present on the walls. There was Hernandez, Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr. Retired catcher and fan favorite Dave Valle walked by and saw Cano and his face lit up.
Cano settled into the batting cage, the swing familiar, so smooth, so consistent, recognizable by the sound alone. Worth, the Mariners believe, every penny of that $240 million. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
A crowd gathered. There were men in suits, front office types in polo shirts, players clad in the same jerseys (navy blue tops, white pants) as Cano. Cell phones trained on this unremarkable batting practice session. Pictures were snapped. Selfies taken. Signatures penned. As Cano moved through the complex, he could take only a few steps at a time before someone else stopped him.
Cano inched toward the field, where he and a handful of others took batting practice underneath the oppressive mid-morning sun. A new era -- for Cano, for the Mariners, perhaps even for Major League Baseball, or at least that is the hope -- had started.
For Cano, everything was different and nothing was, and if it does not make sense to hear him explain his brave new world that way, it makes perfect sense to him.
Everything is different: new team, new teammates, new contract, new city, new assistant, new house, new site for spring training, new sports agency, new famous hip hop mogul friend turned potential sports kingpin. Speaking of that friend, before Cano hosted SI.com at his off-season abode here Thursday, he entertained Jay Z -- yes, that Jay Z -- at a local discotheque earlier in the week. This after Cano signed with Roc Nation's growing sports arm before he inked the contract with the Mariners.
Nothing is different: Cano is, by nature, habitual. His mother, Claribel Mercedes, cooks most of his meals. His father, Jose, who pitched six games in the majors for the 1989 Houston Astros, remains his primary hitting coach. They practice most mornings in San Pedro de Macoris, a 15-minute drive from the Mariners' new academy, where Jose lives and where Cano grew up for the most part
The infield there is pocked with pebbles, the grass trimmed but also worn. Dozens of little leaguers practiced there on Thursday. They wore caps from the Rockies, Red Sox, Rays, Dodgers, Mets and, yes, from the Yankees. There were no Mariners hats, not yet anyway. Cano paid for the little yellow school bus that transports them to the field, though who knows how so many of them fit inside. The dugouts read "Cano and Sloan" and are painted blue.
The players stretched and ran until some bent over in exhaustion. Perhaps the next Cano was out there somewhere. The first Cano was out on that same field the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that.
If crazy money and iconic status and the affiliation with Jay Z do not change Robinson Cano, you can start at that field, with that father, to find out why.
Jose Cano invited SI.com to his office Thursday afternoon. It is the hub for a little league system that he said contains about 5,000 children who play in 58 leagues. As motorbikes buzzed by outside, the elder Cano said he kept a particularly close eye on Robinson this off-season. He looked for any signs of change, a flashy purchase, new friends, another car added to his son's burgeoning collection.
"Sometimes when you get a big contract like that, people wait for the big change," Jose said. "He didn't change nothing. He's already got the money. He already had the contracts. He's crazy about cars, but he already has too many.
"Now, we're looking for something else. Win baseball games in Seattle. Be a Hall of Famer. The numbers. There is much for him to play for."
Not that the contract, tied for the fourth-largest in baseball history, hurt matters. Cano and his father both said Thursday they wanted a 10-year deal, not the seven years the Yankees offered.
In previous interviews, Cano said he felt the Yankees did not show him enough respect, did not give enough effort in negotiations. But while Cano said Thursday he had always expected he would retire in pinstripes, with any questions about the Yankees, he pushed the conversation forward.
"It feels a little bit different," Cano said. "But, I mean, I'm in the Dominican. It's not that different yet. It will feel more different in Arizona, then in Seattle. I understand this is a business. Let's move on."
Added Jose: "Imagine, you're born in this house, your whole life is in this house, and then you've got to move. It feels strange. You don't want to move. You want to stay in the same place. You feel comfortable. You belong there. And then one day you don't."
Cano lives in a gated community in Juan Dolio, right near a golf course, although he does not play. In his living room, there hangs a painting. In the painting, Cano is smiling, and Cano is turning on a pitch, and the old Yankees Stadium looms in the background, all lit up.
For nine seasons, that was Cano's life. He hit 375 doubles and 204 home runs and anchored many fearsome Yankee lineups. He made five All-Star teams. He finished fifth last season in voting for the American League MVP award.
Success, he believes, comes from routine, and to that end, Cano's mother and good friend will accompany him to Seattle. He would have brought more people, he said, but there were visa issues. His mother will cook him two meals a day, same as she did in New Jersey, and he will request chicken and rice and beans, his favorite.
That is all Cano said he requires to be happy: a baseball bat and his mother's cooking.
At the academy Thursday, Cano's new life intersected at this place, where kids who are just like he used to be can dream. As we drove to his house in a convoy, children walked down the streets in full baseball gear, headed toward another February practice. They played catch on small streets choked with traffic, lobbing tosses over cars.
Even now, Cano in his spare time will gather a group of friends and play softball at his field. He manages one team. He wears his Mariners gear. He is the designated hitter. He bats third.
"Here baseball is everything," he said. "I'm made in the Dominican. I'm from baseball country."
He sat on his couch, nearby the vase of decorative pinecones and a television the size of a Ping-Pong table hung from the wall. He was asked if when he grew up here, he ever hoped to carry a franchise, to be more than a player, more than a star player, to be a public face of an organization in a faraway place.
"Never," he said, as his chef handed out fresh-squeezed fruit juice. "You just want a shot in Game 6 of the World series, Game 7, bottom of the ninth, tie game, home run."
He leaned backward and yawned and said "then one day you end up here."