NEW YORK -- Before the top of the second inning on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, Robinson Cano was leaning against the Mariners' dugout rail. He grabbed a new baseball and tossed it four rows back to a 10-year-old boy wearing a "WE ARE SEATTLE" T-shirt.In case you were thinking that
NEW YORK -- Before the top of the second inning on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, Robinson Cano was leaning against the Mariners' dugout rail. He grabbed a new baseball and tossed it four rows back to a 10-year-old boy wearing a "WE ARE SEATTLE" T-shirt.
In case you were thinking that last month's All-Star Game MVP is a quiet bystander so far during this Players Weekend series against the Yankees, due to a mild hamstring strain that kept him out of the starting lineup for a second straight day, that subtle act was one of many reminders that he has been a powerful presence to some people. In fact, some would argue that he has had perhaps the biggest impact of any Major League Baseball player this weekend.
Those people are Dieu Nguyen and her two sons, Davonn Abaga, 10, and Denzel Abaga, 9. Cano hosted an annual youth baseball clinic in Seattle last month, in association with the local Boys & Girls Club, and afterward, he wanted to do something special for two of the kids. He worked with BGCA to identify those two boys, who have endured hardships. With the help of Mariners mascot Moose and several of Cano's brand partners, Cano surprised the family with an all-expenses-paid trip to New York this weekend to see the Big Apple and attend the series.
Their journey included a tour of the MLB.com offices on Friday, along with a meet-and-greet with Cano before Saturday's game -- plus a close-up view from Legends Seats in Section 24 right behind him. The family sat right next to Cano's father, Jose. Robinson interacted with the boys at various points throughout the game, while potential postseason positioning ensued on the field. Ice cream and brilliant sunshine dripped upon them in the fifth inning, their cares far away.
"For me, it's really important because you made a dream come true," Cano said after spending time with the family before the game. "They [came] here all the way from Seattle to watch a game. To see the smiles on their faces was amazing. That's more impressive."
Cano tested out his ailing hamstring on the outfield grass before the meet-and-greet, under the watchful supervision of athletic trainer Rick Griffin -- as well as the two boys, who stood nearby. Cano went through agility drills and light running. He met with the family, then was summoned by Mariners manager Scott Servais for a meeting where they mutually agreed to hold him out of the lineup for at least another day. To the family he brought here, his impact was still massive.
• Teammate Segura pays tribute to Cano
Players Weekend is about letting the players' passions and personalities come out, with a special nod to youth baseball. This is how Cano does it. He has "DON'T YOU KNOW" on the back of his jersey because that is what Yankees broadcaster John Sterling would say when calling his home runs during his pre-Seattle days here. You want real passion? For Cano, it is not just being around baseball, but also about being a force in the community.
Sparkling Ice took the lead in organizing the event and provided spending money for the Nguyen family to enjoy New York (The boys loved the pizza). Additionally, Alaska Airlines provided round-trip airfare, while New Balance provided apparel. New Era sent hats, while Cano donated the game tickets ($750 face value apiece).
"This has been kind of a miracle maker for us, because it has been a rough two years," Dieu said as her two aspiring ballplayers breathed in the magic of a big league park. "It definitely means a lot for my boys. They're both baseball players, and they're in the [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] program. It means a lot to us that Robinson Cano is doing this for us. From one Major Leaguer to little baseball players like my boys, it speaks volumes.
"This is kind of like, all dreams are possible if you really just dream [them]. You really just have to send a signal that anything is possible."
Dieu never expected to need such a signal. She had her own American Family insurance agency until a couple of years ago, when, according to her, "Denzel was assaulted in school for being a biracial kid. So it's been tough for him. It has been challenging." That's why she calls this trip "the miracle maker." She has wound up dealing with childhood mental illness, which forced her to shut down her agency and fight through hard times. She used to take her boys on trips, enjoying what many people take for granted. This trip was something else entirely.
The Smilow Rainier Vista Club is part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County, and that has been a respite for her boys, as the clubs are for so many young people who need a place to grow safely. Dieu and her sons have been regulars at Cano's annual clinic for kids. She was the mom who shuttled around other children to the clinic and made sure they all jumped into photos with Cano. Now, here she was, prompting her boys to each get into a picture with Carsten Sabathia on the field, followed by Cano after he tested out his hamstring.
At those last four clinics, Dieu remembers, "Cano [gave] his lessons on hitting, and then he [gave] his little speech: 'Make sure you focus in school, [make] sure you do everything important. There's more important to life than baseball.' That's what he would tell them.'"
Her sons wanted to repay those words on Saturday. Dieu carried two pieces of notebook paper with her. Each one was a letter that her sons had written to Cano, so he would know what this trip meant. Davonn is a shortstop and catcher on his team, and he wanted to give Cano a suggestion on "following through" on his swing. Denzel is a first baseman and pitcher. He mentioned in his letter that "it's been a rough year," and he closed the letter by asking: "When you are done with your game, could I have your jersey please?"
Cano sees two young boys who could be in his position one day.
"For me, that's something I always loved -- to inspire someone, to know they're special kids," he said. "To know that a young kid looks up to you and you can inspire them, to get a chance to put a smile on his face.
"It means a lot to me, in a humble way, to be able [to know] that I get a chance to play in the big leagues and can share with other people -- especially kids. It's something I really take pride in myself, and [it] makes me work harder."
The game went on, and "DON'T YOU KNOW" leaned against the rail and looked back at Denzel and Davonn. They were in a state of bliss. The bullying, the shyness, any difficulties were far away, replaced by a new dream. "It's so cool," Denzel said.
Sometimes the biggest heroes in professional sports are away from the camera, doing the most, when you realize it the least.
"It speaks volumes of him, how he cares," Dieu said. "He's really passionate about baseball, about giving back -- and it shows."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com and a baseball writer since 1990. Follow him @Marathoner and read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com/blogs hub.