Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 17, 2018

One More Hero With Feet Of Clay

From the very beginning Robinson Cano was meant to not just play the Great Game, but to be one of its stars. His father Jose was signed as an amateur free agent by the New York Yankees in 1980, two years before Robinson was born. The elder Cano spent time in the minor league organizations of both New York and Atlanta, before finally making it to the big time, ever so briefly. In 1989 Jose Cano, a right-handed pitcher, appeared in six games for the Houston Astros, three as a starter and three in relief. His major league record was 1-1, with the sole win a complete game victory in his last time on a big league mound. After that Jose spent another season in the minors and a few years pitching in Taiwan.

By that time he had already transferred his big league ambitions to his son, to whom he had given the name Robinson in honor of the Brooklyn Dodger great who tore down baseball’s color barrier. Some children might have staggered under the weight of the lofty expectations conveyed by that name, perhaps even renouncing any interest in the sport, but the young Cano met them head on. Growing up mostly in his native Dominican Republic, with a brief interlude in New Jersey, Cano played both baseball and basketball. Early in 2001 he followed in his father’s footsteps, signing an amateur free agent contract with the Yankees, for which he received a $100,000 bonus.

Cano was assigned to the Yankees’ affiliate in the rookie Gulf Coast League, from where he began a steady march towards the Bronx. From Tampa to Staten Island, where the New York Penn League team would eventually retire his number, on to Greensboro, Trenton and Columbus over the next four seasons, until he got the call every minor leaguer dreams of early in the 2005 campaign. The 22-year-old rookie batted .297 that year, finishing second in the balloting for AL Rookie of the Year. The following season Cano put up monster numbers, batting .342 with 41 doubles while gaining the first of what would eventually be eight All-Star Game selections. Cano complemented his plate presence with solid and occasionally spectacular defensive play at second base, filling the hole left by the departure of Alfonso Soriano in the trade that brought Alex Rodriguez to New York.

Over time Cano also improved his power stroke. He managed 14 home runs in his rookie year, and first topped 20 homers in the Yankees’ 2009 championship season, when he hit 25. His high while in pinstripes was 33 in 2012, by which time New York’s radio play-by-play announcer had long since perfected his Cano home run call. As the Yankees’ star second baseman glided around the bases after putting one in the seats, John Sterling would cry “Robbie Cano, don’t you know!”

But Cano was not a perfect hero. While blessed with enormous natural talent, he did not always match it with an equal measure of effort. When an at-bat produced a routine grounder hit right at an opposing infielder, Cano would sometimes barely nod in the direction of first base. And while he had good range and was capable of dramatic plays in the field, on occasion he was content to simply wave his glove at a ball that looked to be within reach to the fans in the stands. If the opposing fielder bobbled the sure out or the lackadaisical defense opened the door to a big inning, Yankee fans were happy to let their All-Star second baseman know what they thought of his casual approach. In retrospect, perhaps those moments were warning signs, early indicators of a player willing to accept shortcuts.

Still when Cano became a free agent after the 2013 season, most of the Yankees’ faithful wanted him to stay in the fold. New York offered seven years and $175 million and dangled the prospect of Cano becoming the first Dominican-born player with a plaque in Monument Park if he chose to be a Yankee for life. But Cano wanted as many years and as much money as he could get, and so headed to Seattle when the Mariners offered a decade-long contract valued at $240 million.

Through four years and the first quarter of the fifth, Cano provided a decent return on Seattle’s huge investment. While playing from age 30 to 35, his numbers were down only slightly from those he posted as a twenty-something in the Bronx. And while he hadn’t been able to end the longest postseason drought among all teams in the four major North American professional sports leagues all by himself, this year the Mariners, fortified by the additions of Nelson Cruz in 2015, Jean Segura in 2016, and most recently Dee Gordon, were hanging close to the Angels and Astros in the AL West, and as of Monday were just outside of a Wild Card spot.

Then on Tuesday came word that Cano had been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for furosemide, a diuretic better known by the brand name Lasix that is on MLB’s banned substances list. The chemicals in Lasix do nothing to improve an athlete’s performance. Rather the drug is seen as a masking agent, taken to flush out the system and expunge evidence of performance enhancers. Because of that a positive test for furosemide does not by itself trigger a suspension. Rather it leads to an investigation by the independent administrator into why the drug was taken. Only if it’s determined that it was being used as a masking agent to hide use of a PED does the suspension, in this case the mandated 80 games for a first-time offender, follow. While fans will never know what evidence the administrator found, his conclusion is clear.

In addition to the occasionally casual play, when Cano was with the Yankees his best friends on the team were Melky Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez. Cabrera was suspended for 50 games while with the San Francisco Giants in 2012, and Rodriguez, well, what more need be said? Guilt by association is never entirely fair, but it’s what led former teammate Mark Teixeira to say he wasn’t surprised by the news of Cano’s suspension, and prompted Yankees GM Brian Cashman to state that while he had no knowledge of PEDs use by Cano, “knowledge is one thing, suspicion is another.”

For his part Cano issued a statement through the Players Association, the elements of which are by now utterly familiar. The player shifts responsibility. “This substance was given to me by a licensed doctor in the Dominican Republic to treat a medical ailment.” He expresses remorse, but is it for using a banned substance or for getting caught? “I obviously now wish that I had been more careful.” Finally, he apologizes to family, friends, fans and his team. One wonders if there is a preprinted stack of these at the Association’s headquarters, only requiring that blanks for the name of the player and the team be filled in prior to their release.

When he returns later this season, Cano and the Mariners will still be wed to each other for another five years, until he is 40. Fans in Seattle will be able to watch him in decline, and wonder what might have been. A viable candidate for the 3,000-hit club and the Hall of Fame as recently as Monday, Cano has likely decimated his chances for either of those honors. Meanwhile without a key member of their lineup, the Mariners will try to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001. To paraphrase John Sterling’s old cry, Robbie Cano, now we know.

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