Second To None

June 27, 2010

Unwanted by many in baseball—even his own Yankees—Robinson Cano has become one of the best hitters in the game

Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long rolls a protective screen to home plate, placing it so that it acts as a wall running along the third base side of the plate, and flips baseballs from 20 feet away to Robinson Cano, the Yankees' lefthanded-hitting second baseman. Long's drill is the equivalent of batting in a phone booth. Cano is blocked from hitting the ball to the opposite field, and he must eliminate the stride or "drift" into the pitch, the exaggerated swaying of his hips.

What happens next is, in the expert opinion of Long, "amazing." It is not just that Cano, given the constraints of the drill and the little stored energy from a baseball flipped from 20 feet, launches a ball into the rightfield seats at Yankee Stadium. It is that he does it repeatedly and with ease. "The number of times he hits it out, over and over again, and to hit it that far. ... There aren't many guys who can do that," Long says.

Devastation never looked so pretty as it does when Robinson Cano swings a bat. Cano's pass at the baseball is as smooth as the Glimmerglass of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Rarely in the history of second basemen has a swing been this magical.

At age 27, Cano has become one of the best players in the game and one of the greatest slugging second basemen since Hall of Fame legend Rogers Hornsby more than 80 years ago. Through Sunday, Cano led the major leagues by far in batting average (.367; nobody was within 27 points of him), led the American League in hits (97) and total bases (164) and ranked behind Miguel Cabrera and Justin Morneau in slugging (.614). Only Fred Dunlap (in 1884), Nap Lajoie (1901) and Hornsby (seven times in the '20s) slugged .600 as second basemen.

They're the kind of stats that call to mind not just Cooper's Glimmerglass but also the eponymous hometown of the author's family. "I just said to [Yankees scout] Vic Mata when Robbie's name came up, 'Maybe one day we'll be in Cooperstown,'" says Yankees special assistant Gordon Blakeley, who, with Mata, signed Cano out of the Dominican cradle of ballplayers, San Pedro de Macoris, in 2001.

The one element about Cano that is even more inspirational than his stroke is his story. Cano is a baseball anomaly: the elite player nobody saw coming, not even his own team and especially not the teams that turned him down in trades or chose not to sign him—even one team with a scout who was his next-door neighbor.

Cano was a slow-footed, free-swinging .278 hitter in the minor leagues. In the majors he is a career .312 hitter, one of 18 active .300 hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances, but a rare one who is far better as a big leaguer than a minor leaguer. Of those 18 active .300 hitters, all of them had minor league averages within 25 points of their big league average except for three outliers: Magglio Ordoñez (43 points better as a major leaguer), Matt Holliday (plus-40) and Cano (plus-34).

Said Blakeley, "If you asked people if they thought Robbie Cano was going to be an All-Star and maybe the best second baseman in the game, nobody would have told you that, including myself."

Jose Cano, Robinson's father, did not underestimate his son's potential, not even from birth, when the elder Cano named him after Jackie Robinson. Jose, who pitched professionally for more than a decade, including six games with the 1989 Astros, was so convinced of his son's talent that when Robinson was a teenager Jose scared off most major league teams, including Houston, with signing bonus demands in the low six figures. Julio Linares, an Astros scout, was the Canos' next-door neighbor in the Dominican Republic. "He said, 'Man, we don't give that kind of money here,'" Robinson recalls.

The Red Sox arranged a tryout for Cano, but scheduled it for the same day he happened to be taking a final exam in school. He missed the tryout. The Mets did give Cano a tryout and wanted to sign him, but their scout, Eddy Toledo, told Jose that the club could not meet his asking price. "I talked to his father and told him, 'Your son is going to be a good player in the major leagues, but I don't have that $250,000 you're asking for,'" recalls Toledo, now a Rays scout.

The Yankees, in the early years of their modern-day oligarchy, didn't blink. They had just won the 2000 World Series, their third straight world championship and fourth in five years, and were about to launch their own groundbreaking regional television network. Their attendance had jumped by about a million in the championship run, with another million still to come.

Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' director of scouting, was in the Dominican Republic that winter when Blakeley called him and said, "I've got a guy who's going to be at the field today who I think can really hit. He doesn't run well, so a lot of teams may not be on him."

Cano ran 60 yards in about 7.3 seconds; most teams prefer a middle infielder cover the distance in under seven seconds. "I wasn't going to pay attention to [the time]," Oppenheimer says. "Gordon was right—he could really hit. Gordon said, 'It's going to take some money, but I'd do it.' I said, 'Yeah, we need to sign him.'"

On Jan. 2, 2001, the Astros signed 35-year-old third baseman Charlie Hayes for $500,000; Hayes would hit .200 with no home runs in what was his last year in baseball. Three days later, the Mets signed 25-year-old utility infielder Jorge Velandia, a career .143 hitter, for $200,000; Velandia would go hitless that season and bat .149 in his 47-game career with the Mets. And on the same day, the Yankees signed 18-year-old Robinson Cano for $150,000. "My dad stayed up from seven until two in the morning just to do my contract," Cano recalls. "Teams just wanted to give me like 20 [thousand dollars], and my dad was like, 'Come on.' That was the one thing about my dad. He would say, 'I know your talent. I know you. I've been in this game a long time. I'm not going to give you away for free.'"

Cano made such little impact, however, over his first three years in the Yankees' minor league system, hitting .261, that he was nearly traded three times in three months in 2004. First, the Yankees offered him to the Rangers in April as the player to be named later in the trade that sent Alfonso Soriano to Texas and brought Alex Rodriguez to New York. Texas said, "No thanks," to Cano and instead took shortstop Joaquin Arias, who has played 72 career games with Texas.

In June, while he was in Double A, the Yankees moved Cano to third base to display him there for a possible trade with Kansas City. The Yankees offered Cano and catcher Dioner Navarro for centerfielder Carlos Beltran. The Royals declined and instead traded Beltran to Houston for third baseman Mark Teahen, catcher John Buck and pitcher Mike Wood.

One month after that, New York offered Cano to the Diamondbacks in an attempt to get Randy Johnson. The Diamondbacks passed. Six months later Arizona did trade Johnson to the Yankees, but instead of taking Cano the D-Backs took veteran pitcher Javier Vazquez, pitcher Brad Halsey and Navarro. Meanwhile, the Yankees, not sold on Cano themselves, signed Tony Womack to a two-year contract to play second base.

Womack promptly flopped. One month into the 2005 season the Yankees decided to give Cano a shot as their second baseman. After his first 23 at bats he had two hits and no walks. "[Manager] Joe Torre called me into his office," Cano recalls. "I thought I got sent down. He said, 'Robbie, don't worry. Keep swinging. The hits are going to fall for you one day.' The next game I had two hits, and a week later I was hitting over .300."

Cano alternately astounded and confounded the Yankees. In 2006, for instance, he hit .342, won a Silver Slugger as the league's top-hitting second baseman and was named an All-Star. But over the next two years his batting average dropped to .306 and then .271. In '08, the same year New York signed him to a four-year, $30 million contract, manager Joe Girardi benched Cano for failing to hustle after a groundball that bounced off the glove of Jason Giambi. The episode confirmed the long-held suspicion of some critics that Cano's smooth style of play lacked proper effort.

"I talk to Derek Jeter all the time," Cano says. "Three or four years ago, in Anaheim during batting practice, he told me, 'Listen, I know you work hard because I know you. And you come to play every day. But you know what? Don't let these people label you as a lazy guy. Because I know you're not lazy. But if you let them put that label on you, you can work hard but you'll still have that label.'

"Man, you know what? I wish people could see how I work."

Still, Cano knew that his disappointing 2008 season, in which he mostly batted seventh, called for change. Long flew to the Dominican Republic that December to work with him on his hitting mechanics—pulling the ball, pitch selection and cutting down his trademark glide in the box—and conditioning. "He was kind of soft, kind of big—not lean," Long says. "At that time the kid was a little down and out and not feeling good about himself. And there was a concern among baseball people, you know, 'This guy's got to turn the corner.'"

Cano bounced back in 2009 with a .320 season that included a career-best 25 home runs, 13 of which he pulled, though he hit just .207 with runners in scoring position. "This year's focus is keeping everything we had and now adding to the package: driving in runs," Long says. "We need him more than ever. If anybody is important to our lineup this year, it's Robinson Cano. He's Number 1. We lost Johnny [Damon] and Hideki [Matsui]. We brought in some new pieces, but we had a very big chess piece we could now put in the checkmate position: Cano."

The Yankees moved Cano into the fifth spot in the order, behind Rodriguez. He has hit .386 with runners in scoring position.

"I talked to A-Rod, and I listened," Cano says. "He said, 'Don't go up there and change your mind-set just because there are men in scoring position. If you try just to get any hit, you might get lazy, and you'll see what it does to your swing. Just go up there the same as if you had no one on base: Wait for a pitch you can drive.'

"You know what? It works. If they don't want to pitch to you, just go to first base. You keep your average up, your OBP goes up, everything is going to be better."

On June 8, for instance, Cano batted against Kevin Millwood of Baltimore with a runner at second and one out in the fifth inning of a game the Yankees led 6--2. Millwood threw him four straight changeups. Cano took them all for balls. "That's the kind of thing where I said, 'Wow, A-Rod was right,'" Cano says. "They were going to pitch to [Jorge] Posada after me."

Says Millwood, "The toughest part about Cano is that he hits the ball in, he hits the ball out, he hits the ball up, he hits the ball down. There's nowhere to go with him. He has no holes. You have to pitch to the guys in front of him—and that's [Mark] Teixeira and A-Rod. He's always been a good hitter. He's just gotten better."

After Cano hit .400 in April, he told Long, "April was no fluke." After he hit .336 in May, he told him, "May was no fluke." He is hitting .377 in June. He is delivering the message month by month, hit by hit, drill by drill, beautiful swing by beautiful swing, not just to his coach, but also to himself: This Robinson Cano is far better than the one who often went unwanted, and yet not as good as the one yet to come.

"I don't want people to say, 'Oh, Robbie Cano. He made it to the big leagues,'" he says. "I want to be a great player. I want to follow these guys. A-Rod is already a Hall of Famer, and he works hard. Jeter's already a Hall of Famer, and he works hard. Teixeira has seven great years. Posada puts up great numbers as a catcher.

"So I don't want to be just another guy who played with Teixeira, A-Rod, Jeter. No, I play with them, and because of them I work hard to be like them—or even better than them."

Now on SI.com

Find out where Cano ranks in the MVP race in Cliff Corcoran's awards watch at SI.com/mlb

Cano is a rare hitter who is far better as a big leaguer than a minor leaguer.

"If anybody is important to our lineup this year," Long says, "it's Robinson Cano."

PHOTOPhotograph by RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERSYANKEE RIPPER Cano leads the AL in average, hits and total bases, and at age 27, he has numbers comparable with Hornsby's. PHOTOERICK W. RASCONO TAKERS The Yankees tried to unload Cano, then a minor leaguer, to the Rangers, Royals and D-Backs with no success. PHOTOWINSLOW TOWNSON

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