Cano embracing role as elder statesman
SEATTLE -- The young player sat in his chair by his locker at Tropicana Field, keeping most of his thoughts to himself while observing everything going on around him.
No matter which way Robinson Cano looked, an established star was in plain sight.
The lineup in his big league debut was so stacked, the Nos. 5-6-7-8 hitters were Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada and Tino Martinez, who already had a combined 19 All-Star selections between them.
Cano, who hit ninth in that game, was a rookie in a room filled with some of the best players in the game. If he couldn't learn about being a big leaguer in here, he was doing something wrong.
"When I came up, I had guys like [Derek] Jeter, A-Rod, Posada, guys like Giambi and [Gary] Sheffield, [Hideki] Matsui; all of them were great hitters," Cano said. "That motivates you as a player; dreaming of being like them one day."
Now he's the guy the kids look to for that type of inspiration.
Robinson Cano: Me in Real Life
At 34, Cano still looks like the fresh-faced 22-year-old who finished second in the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year Award voting and earned his first All-Star selection the following season. The smile is just as big, maybe even bigger.
When he signed his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Mariners after the 2013 season, he heard all the critics.
They said he would regret leaving the Yankees.
They said he would hate Seattle, which was as far away from his home in the Dominican Republic as any city in the Majors.
They said he would fade away into oblivion in the Pacific Northwest, far from the bright lights of New York that had shined on him for nearly a decade.
It took a year for Cano to feel comfortable with his new surroundings on both a personal and professional level. Once that adjustment period was over, Seattle began to feel like home for Cano, who has become not just the leader of his team, but an integral part of the entire community.
"Everybody embraced me right away," Cano said. "I feel like I'm at home right now."
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Cano's locker sits in a corner of the Mariners' clubhouse, allowing him to see the entire room with ease. Nelson Cruz, another veteran with a lengthy track record, is only a few stalls away, while Felix Hernandez resides on the other side of the room.
Hernandez and Cano both debuted in 2005, and although King Felix has spent his entire career in Seattle, it's Cano who is considered by most to be the leader of the club.
"What he does on the field speaks for itself, but the presence he brings into the clubhouse is huge," Cruz said. "He has experience, he's been around big-name players like Jeter and Alex, so he knows about chemistry and what you need to do to succeed at this level.
"He's a big influence for the young players -- the ones that need it the most. They see him as a role model because of what he does on the field, but also what he does off the field with his foundation and in the community. He's a big name in every aspect of the game and as a person."
During his time in the Bronx, Cano tried to take note of the little things his veteran teammates were doing. Whether it was the way Jeter handled his captain duties, the way A-Rod worked tirelessly in the batting cage or the way Mariano Rivera handled himself with grace wherever he went, Cano knew that following their lead would be an ideal road map to a long, productive career.
"The thing I learned most from them is how to be the same guy -- not only in the game, but off the field, how they handled themselves," Cano said. "I took a little bit from each one. You put it together and be able to help the young kids here by being a leader. You have to lead by example."
Cano also remembers every kind thing any veteran ever did for him when he first broke into the league, so he's taken a pay-it-forward approach when it comes to helping young teammates first arriving in Seattle. Whether it's answering questions about big league life or taking them to buy a few new suits for their first road trip, he's there from the start.
"It's really important, because guys like A-Rod, Jeter, Mariano and Posada did the same thing for me," Cano said. "I never got treated as a rookie there. That's the same thing I try to do here."
While Cano spent his formative years in the Majors playing with a dozen or so established All-Stars, the Mariners are a team filled with players still finding their way. That makes Cano, Cruz, Hernandez and Kyle Seager crucial to the development process, especially as Seattle works toward its October goal.
"You come up and you're going to look to the veteran guys," said Seager, whose breakout season came during Cano's first year in Seattle. "There's not an infielder alive that doesn't know what Robbie has done or isn't in awe of what he can do. You watch and pay extra attention. To see the way he works, the way he relates to everybody, he has unbelievable influence on this team."
When Scott Servais took the Mariners' managing job before the 2015 season, he looked to Cano and Cruz to step up and make it their team.
"I'm a big believer in the players having to lead," Servais said. "Robbie was certainly brought up in a great culture with what the Yankees had going on. He played with marquee players. Coming here to a different environment, you get tied to being a World Series winner with the Yankees. His legacy here is really tied to getting us to that position; getting to the playoffs, getting deep into the playoffs, taking the next step to get to the World Series.
"I think that means a lot to him. I think he's up to the challenge. He wants to win -- and he knows he needs the help of all these young guys for us to get where we want to go."
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In his fourth season with Seattle, Cano has made two All-Star teams, and he continues to be one of the more durable stars in the game, even playing through a sports hernia injury during the final two months of 2015.
What he hasn't been able to do is get the Mariners back to the postseason, a place every team in baseball has been at least once since Seattle's last playoff appearance in 2001.
The Mariners are not only one of eight franchises that have never won a World Series, they're one of only two that have never even played in the Fall Classic. The seven-time All-Star was brought in with an eye toward changing that ignominious piece of trivia, and while Cano's Mariners have come close -- they finished one game out of an AL Wild Card spot in 2014 and only three games back last season -- that postseason drought is now up to 15 years and counting.
If Cano hopes to be viewed by Mariners fans in the same light as Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez or Ichiro Suzuki, he's going to have to win. If he can actually take Seattle to a place it has never been before -- the World Series -- it would cement his status in the city and quiet the doubters that questioned his motives when he signed with the Mariners.
"A lot of people make it seem like I came here for the money, but I love to win and I love the game," Cano said. "I have so much passion for the game. One of the best things is to be able to go to the playoffs and win a championship. After you taste the first one, you want to go back every year."
Cano went to the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons with the Yankees, winning it all in 2009. Cruz has played in a pair of World Series, but Hernandez has never pitched a single postseason game, providing extra incentive for Cano to help end Seattle's lengthy drought.
"I always tell him, 'I want to make the playoffs so you can experience that. You'll see how that's going to change your life,'" Cano said. "You you don't know how good it feels until you're there."
With nearly 2,300 hits, 300 home runs and more than 1,100 RBIs already in the books, Cano knows there might be a chance for him to reach some magic numbers before all is said and done. He's already hit more homers than any second baseman in AL history, and Jeff Kent's mark of 351 (he hit 26 more while playing other positions) is well within reach.
The only number he's concerned with, however, is two.
"I want that second World Series ring," Cano said. "I want to win again. But first we have to make the playoffs and see where we can go from there."