Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, the son of the former Houston Astros pitcher Jose Cano, had a .420 average during an 11-game hitting streak before Saturday's game.
ANAHEIM, Calif., July 23 - Robinson Cano is distracted. He is sitting at his locker earlier this week in Arlington, Tex., talking with a reporter while the Baltimore Orioles' Sammy Sosa is batting in a game on TV.
"He's from my hometown," Cano explains. The Minnesota Twins' catcher sets a target, low and away. "Slider," Cano predicts. "Don't swing!" Sosa strikes out on a slider.
Cano, the Yankees' rookie second baseman, is making baseball seem easy. He is 22 years old, but his baseball intellect and acumen are surprisingly refined. The Yankees would not have signed Tony Womack to a two-year contract over the winter had they known Cano would be this good this soon.
"You knew in spring training he was going to be a special player," Manager Joe Torre said. "But you could never imagine him coming up here and being able to seize the opportunity the way he has."
Cano, who is from the baseball cradle of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, displaced Womack a month into the season. Soon after that, General Manager Brian Cashman declared him off limits in potential trades. Torre has batted him second, between Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield, every game this month.
Entering Saturday night's game against the Angels, Cano was batting .309 with 7 homers and 36 runs batted in. He has more extra-base hits, 29, than Jeter, Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada. He has also been slick in the field; Luis Sojo, the infield coach, called Cano one of the three best second basemen in the league.
None of it surprises Cano, the son of a former major leaguer, who acts and plays as if he belongs.
"It's the same game," he said. "I play the way I used to play. I don't try to put pressure on myself."
Cano's father, Jose, pitched in six games for the Houston Astros at the end of the 1989 season. He also pitched for several years in Taiwan and Mexico, where Robinson watched him play a few times.
On the trip to Texas, a Japanese reporter gave Cano two photographs of his father pitching for the Astros. Cano excitedly showed them to Alex Rodriguez, and also to Vernon Wells Sr., an artist whose son is a star outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Cano commissioned Wells to paint a portrait of him with three people: his father and two Hall of Famers, Jackie Robinson and Rod Carew. Cano is named after Jackie Robinson, and Torre has compared Cano's hitting style to Carew's.
"There aren't as many left-handed hitters that can get on the high ball," Torre said. Like Carew, Torre went on to explain, Cano keeps his swing level, even on high pitches.
The comparison is not perfect. Carew was a singles hitter, and Cano has more power. Torre predicted that Cano could hit 20 to 30 home runs a season.
"He's sneaky right now, but he's going to get stronger," Torre said. "He's just 22 years old, so he's going to fill out."
When Cano signed with the Yankees in 2001 for a $150,000 bonus, it was a dream come true. Cano had spent his first three years of high school in Newark, and the Yankees were his favorite team. He went to one game at Yankee Stadium, sitting in the upper deck behind home plate.
Darryl Strawberry hit two home runs that day, Cano remembered, but his favorite player was Bernie Williams.
Cano wore Williams's No. 51 in the minor leagues, and the glove he uses in games still has "#51" stitched on the outside.
"First of all, it makes me feel old, but nonetheless flattered," Williams said. "You get to play for a number of years, and you don't realize how much of an impact you have on young players until you're confronted with something like this."
Cano said he had other influences. Alfonso Soriano, who is also from San Pedro de Macoris, sought out Cano at the Yankees' minor league complex after he signed with the team and took him to dinner. Soriano was traded to the Rangers last year, but the two chatted amiably at second base during the Rangers series. Soriano sensed that Cano was comfortable.
"My first time in New York, it was unbelievable for me," Soriano said. "I think it's the same for him. There's not too many people that can play in New York like him. I think he's very happy. He's enjoying the moment right now."
When Soriano played for the Yankees, the infield coach Willie Randolph worked with him constantly to improve his defense. Cano had 11 errors entering Saturday's game, the most on the team - Jeter and Rodriguez each have 10 - but his basic defensive skills are more polished.
"There's not much to work on with this kid," Sojo said. "He's got everything. Maybe his concentration. He's got to concentrate and be focused, but I'm not saying he's not. He makes the plays."
The Yankees shifted Cano to third base in June 2004, when the Kansas City Royals were trying to trade Carlos Beltran and wanted a third baseman in return. Cano did not understand the move until a coach told him the reason.
Cano said that he generally ignored trade rumors, but that he did notice when the Yankees signed Womack in December.
Asked how he reacted, Cano laughed and said: "I always say, 'God, he's the one who knows better.' I was going to keep working hard like I always do, and you never know what's going to happen."
The Yankees lost 15 of their first 26 games, and they decided that Womack had become a defensive liability. Cano was batting .333 at Class AAA Columbus, and the Yankees promoted him to be a starter.
Cano made a costly error in his second game and was 2 for 23 after a week. The Yankees stuck with him because he did not seem overmatched.
"It was the attitude of the kid," Sojo said. "I was a rookie before, and you get frustrated. But instead of getting frustrated, he said, 'O.K., I'm going to hit.' "
The hits have come more often lately. Cano had a .420 average during an 11-game hitting streak he carried into Saturday's game.
"He knows he has the talent," Williams said. "It seems like he just goes out there and has fun."
- TYLER KEPNER
July 24, 2005
New York Times