"Man, you know what? I wish people could see how I work."
Still, Cano knew that his disappointing 2008 season, in which he mostly batted seventh, called for change. Long flew to the Dominican Republic that December to work with him on his hitting mechanics—pulling the ball, pitch selection and cutting down his trademark glide in the box—and conditioning. "He was kind of soft, kind of big—not lean," Long says. "At that time the kid was a little down and out and not feeling good about himself. And there was a concern among baseball people, you know, 'This guy's got to turn the corner.'"
Cano bounced back in 2009 with a .320 season that included a career-best 25 home runs, 13 of which he pulled, though he hit just .207 with runners in scoring position. "This year's focus is keeping everything we had and now adding to the package: driving in runs," Long says. "We need him more than ever. If anybody is important to our lineup this year, it's Robinson Cano. He's Number 1. We lost Johnny [Damon] and Hideki [Matsui]. We brought in some new pieces, but we had a very big chess piece we could now put in the checkmate position: Cano."
The Yankees moved Cano into the fifth spot in the order, behind Rodriguez. He has hit .386 with runners in scoring position.
"I talked to A-Rod, and I listened," Cano says. "He said, 'Don't go up there and change your mind-set just because there are men in scoring position. If you try just to get any hit, you might get lazy, and you'll see what it does to your swing. Just go up there the same as if you had no one on base: Wait for a pitch you can drive.'
"You know what? It works. If they don't want to pitch to you, just go to first base. You keep your average up, your OBP goes up, everything is going to be better."
On June 8, for instance, Cano batted against Kevin Millwood of Baltimore with a runner at second and one out in the fifth inning of a game the Yankees led 6--2. Millwood threw him four straight changeups. Cano took them all for balls. "That's the kind of thing where I said, 'Wow, A-Rod was right,'" Cano says. "They were going to pitch to [Jorge] Posada after me."
Says Millwood, "The toughest part about Cano is that he hits the ball in, he hits the ball out, he hits the ball up, he hits the ball down. There's nowhere to go with him. He has no holes. You have to pitch to the guys in front of him—and that's [Mark] Teixeira and A-Rod. He's always been a good hitter. He's just gotten better."
After Cano hit .400 in April, he told Long, "April was no fluke." After he hit .336 in May, he told him, "May was no fluke." He is hitting .377 in June. He is delivering the message month by month, hit by hit, drill by drill, beautiful swing by beautiful swing, not just to his coach, but also to himself: This Robinson Cano is far better than the one who often went unwanted, and yet not as good as the one yet to come.
"I don't want people to say, 'Oh, Robbie Cano. He made it to the big leagues,'" he says. "I want to be a great player. I want to follow these guys. A-Rod is already a Hall of Famer, and he works hard. Jeter's already a Hall of Famer, and he works hard. Teixeira has seven great years. Posada puts up great numbers as a catcher.