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.'