Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 22, 2020

Squandering A Career And Disgracing A Namesake

What’s in a name? The question has been pondered for at least four centuries, since Shakespeare, through the voice of Juliet Capulet lamenting the family enmity that kept her apart from Romeo Montague, suggested “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Of course, her soliloquy is early in Act Two, and by the end of Act Five Ms. Capulet learns in the harshest possible way that a name can mean a very great deal indeed.

In part because it is a story without a happy ending, but mostly because of that famous speech, the “Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” as it was styled when first published, came to mind this week when news came of a star ballplayer being suspended after testing positive for performance enhancers. When the player who made headlines on Wednesday was born thirty-eight years ago in San Pedro de Macoris, a city on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic that has been the birthplace of scores of major leaguers, he was given the first name of Robinson to honor the man who battered down baseball’s color barrier when he took his position at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Robinson Cano’s father Jose was also a ballplayer, one who had made it to The Show, albeit ever so briefly, as a pitcher for the Astros after spending years in the farm systems of the Yankees and Atlanta. That experience left Jose with an understanding of the history of the Great Game and the importance of Jackie Robinson, and in choosing a first name for his new son he passed on both his aspirations and a heavy responsibility.

As detailed in this space two and a half years ago, 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 three year 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. He arrived in the Bronx early in 2005, and over nine seasons in pinstripes became a favorite of Yankee fans. He was runner-up in the American League Rookie of the Year voting that first season and went on to represent New York on five All-Star teams while winning five Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Gloves.

When he reached free agency after the 2013 campaign, the Yankees offered Cano $175 million over seven years, and sought to entice him with the prospect of being the first Dominican player to have a plaque in Monument Park. But it was widely believed at the time that Cano was interested in cash, not sentiment, and that was confirmed when he inked a ten-year, $240 million contract with the Mariners.

Cano found his way into On Sports and Life in May 2018 when after four-plus solid seasons with Seattle that included three more All-Star appearances, he was suspended for eighty games after testing positive for the diuretic Furosemide, which is used as a masking agent to make it harder to detect steroids. As is too often the case, the news was not entirely surprising. Despite his popularity while serving as one-half of the Yankees’ double play tandem, Cano’s work ethic often stood in sharp contrast to his teammate on the other side of second base, shortstop and team captain Derek Jeter. 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. When his 2018 suspension was announced those moments, along with close relationships with Melky Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez in the New York clubhouse, both of whom had by then been the subject of PEDS-related suspensions, could all be seen in retrospect as early indicators of a player willing to accept shortcuts.

In the thirty months since that suspension, Cano returned to the Mariners late in the 2018 season, and then was traded to the Mets during the ensuing winter. In Queens he appeared to be well into decline in 2019 before putting up significantly better numbers during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But then came this week’s news, of a positive test for Stanozolol – no masking agent this time, rather one of the most common and easily detected steroids – and, as mandated by baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, a suspension for the entirety of the 2021 season. Perhaps in keeping with his history of sometimes not even trying, this time Cano hasn’t even bothered with the ritual public apology.

At Citi Field this story is being treated as good news, since it frees up $24 million in new Mets owner Steve Cohen’s budget for the coming season. But before Mets fans get too excited, they should remember that a year from now, when a 39-year-old Cano returns with what little he then has to offer, he’ll still be due the same amount from Cohen’s very fat checkbook for two more years. On the other hand, an owner who recently proposed the brilliant idea of turning Bobby Bonilla Day, the Metropolitans’ long-running annual exercise in ignominy, into an actual day at the ballpark complete with an oversized check being handed to Bonilla at home plate, seems capable of absorbing those blows when they come.

As for Robinson Cano, he has secured his place in the long story of the Great Game. It is not in Cooperstown, where he once appeared to be headed, but in the dark chapter of the game’s transgressors, one more among far too many players who squandered the precious opportunity they were given. In that nether world Cano’s case is especially egregious, for in his shame he has sullied one of the Great Game’s most hallowed names. What’s in a name, Robinson? Everything.

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