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Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long rolls a protective screen to home plate, placing it so that it acts as a wall running along the third base side of the plate, and flips baseballs from 20 feet away to Robinson Cano, the Yankees' lefthanded-hitting second baseman. Long's drill is the equivalent of batting in a phone booth. Cano is blocked from hitting the ball to the opposite field, and he must eliminate the stride or "drift" into the pitch, the exaggerated swaying of his hips.
What happens next is, in the expert opinion of Long, "amazing." It is not just that Cano, given the constraints of the drill and the little stored energy from a baseball flipped from 20 feet, launches a ball into the rightfield seats at Yankee Stadium. It is that he does it repeatedly and with ease. "The number of times he hits it out, over and over again, and to hit it that far. ... There aren't many guys who can do that," Long says.
Devastation never looked so pretty as it does when Robinson Cano swings a bat. Cano's pass at the baseball is as smooth as the Glimmerglass of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Rarely in the history of second basemen has a swing been this magical.
At age 27, Cano has become one of the best players in the game and one of the greatest slugging second basemen since Hall of Fame legend Rogers Hornsby more than 80 years ago. Through Sunday, Cano led the major leagues by far in batting average (.367; nobody was within 27 points of him), led the American League in hits (97) and total bases (164) and ranked behind Miguel Cabrera and Justin Morneau in slugging (.614). Only Fred Dunlap (in 1884), Nap Lajoie (1901) and Hornsby (seven times in the '20s) slugged .600 as second basemen.
They're the kind of stats that call to mind not just Cooper's Glimmerglass but also the eponymous hometown of the author's family. "I just said to [Yankees scout] Vic Mata when Robbie's name came up, 'Maybe one day we'll be in Cooperstown,'" says Yankees special assistant Gordon Blakeley, who, with Mata, signed Cano out of the Dominican cradle of ballplayers, San Pedro de Macoris, in 2001.
The one element about Cano that is even more inspirational than his stroke is his story. Cano is a baseball anomaly: the elite player nobody saw coming, not even his own team and especially not the teams that turned him down in trades or chose not to sign him—even one team with a scout who was his next-door neighbor.
Cano was a slow-footed, free-swinging .278 hitter in the minor leagues. In the majors he is a career .312 hitter, one of 18 active .300 hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances, but a rare one who is far better as a big leaguer than a minor leaguer. Of those 18 active .300 hitters, all of them had minor league averages within 25 points of their big league average except for three outliers: Magglio Ordoñez (43 points better as a major leaguer), Matt Holliday (plus-40) and Cano (plus-34).
Said Blakeley, "If you asked people if they thought Robbie Cano was going to be an All-Star and maybe the best second baseman in the game, nobody would have told you that, including myself."
Jose Cano, Robinson's father, did not underestimate his son's potential, not even from birth, when the elder Cano named him after Jackie Robinson. Jose, who pitched professionally for more than a decade, including six games with the 1989 Astros, was so convinced of his son's talent that when Robinson was a teenager Jose scared off most major league teams, including Houston, with signing bonus demands in the low six figures. Julio Linares, an Astros scout, was the Canos' next-door neighbor in the Dominican Republic. "He said, 'Man, we don't give that kind of money here,'" Robinson recalls.
The Red Sox arranged a tryout for Cano, but scheduled it for the same day he happened to be taking a final exam in school. He missed the tryout. The Mets did give Cano a tryout and wanted to sign him, but their scout, Eddy Toledo, told Jose that the club could not meet his asking price. "I talked to his father and told him, 'Your son is going to be a good player in the major leagues, but I don't have that $250,000 you're asking for,'" recalls Toledo, now a Rays scout.