SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- To find Robinson Cano working out on a hideaway field here, you need a local driver and a vehicle with sturdy shock absorbers. You need a Dominican driver because you need someone who can adeptly steer through the streets that have no names. He needs a rugged ride, meanwhile, because the journey is as adventurous as bouncing around on a Tilt-a-Whirl.
After buzzing in and around helmetless drivers on motor scooters in the crowded downtown, our driver turned on to a narrow dirt road. The chaos of the streets was replaced by the sobering sights on this road. The houses, which in reality were closer to wooden shacks, were smaller than one-car garages. Some were dilapidated. Many kids wore no shoes. Some had no shirts, either.
When the road ended, a field could be seen, but seeing the field and actually getting there were separate issues. The last part of the drive involved slowly inching across a pockmarked pasture that was cluttered with potholes that only a city worker on overtime could love. If any driver accelerated beyond five miles per hour, his head would collide with the roof of his car.
Once we finally made it to the field, it was easy to spot Cano. He was standing beside the batting cage, talking and swinging a bat. The patchy grass on the field was filled with weeds, there were massive piles of dirt in foul territory and neither dugout bathroom was operational, but Cano was as content as if he were playing at a gleaming Yankee Stadium.
“It doesn’t matter where you practice,” Cano said. “It’s how hard you work to get better. I like this field because you're away from everybody. You get to do what you got to do. I feel really comfortable here.”
In this ever so humble setting, Cano works out five days a week in his quest to become a more complete player. There are other professional players at Cano’s workouts, including Francisco Cervelli and Eduardo Nunez, his Yankees teammates, but most of the kids shagging fly balls are amateur players who want to be the next Cano. Not long ago, a young Cano was on these same types of fields in hopes of getting signed. Now Cano is a superb player and a willing mentor, someone who sits behind the cage to dispense advice to the parade of hitters that follow him.
Watching the kids watch Cano is riveting. They study how Cano treats batting practice, first by casually spraying balls to left field, then center field and then right field. There is one concession made for Cano’s stardom: the amateurs take their BP hacks off soiled baseballs while Cano’s session features a batch of pearly white baseballs.
Once Cano is prepared to fully unleash his sweet swing, several kids climb the fence in right-center and position themselves about 350 feet from the plate. The outfielders can make more plays behind the fence and they will have a chance to retrieve more baseballs. These kids are on the same field with Cano and they study how diligent and disciplined he is. That has to help them.
“When you’re doing your job and you help your team win a game, that’s when you can enjoy the game,” Cano said. “Most of the kids here want to be professional players and they look at me as a role model. That’s what I’m trying to teach them.”
For Cano, September of 2008, the time when manager Joe Girardi benched him for “a lack of effort,” seems like a long, long time ago. Cano is more mature and much more serious about his game. He had the best season of his career in 2010 when he batted .319 with 29 homers, 109 runs batted in, a .381 on-base percentage and a .534 slugging percentage, but Cano envisions doing even more. When people discuss the premier players in the world, Cano wants to be mentioned early in the conversation.
While interviewing Cano on his home turf, I was intrigued by how candid he was about wanting to be a megastar. Cano wasn’t cocky, just confident. Cano wants the Yankees to win a title. That’s the most important goal. But the better Cano is, the easier it is for the Yankees to win. Cano’s hopeful words should be refreshing to the Yankees.
“I want to see how it feels to do everything,” Cano said. “I want to see how it feels to win an MVP [award]. I already had a World Series ring. I want more.” He added, “I want to have a Gold Glove, which I have right now, an MVP, a batting title. I always want to know how that feels, to be there. So that’s why I work hard every single day to try and get better.”
As Cano praised Roberto Alomar, who was recently elected to the Hall of Fame, I asked him if he ever thought about the Hall. It would have been an easy question to deflect; Derek Jeter does that all the time. But Cano didn’t deflect the question. He embraced it.
“It’s not something I think about, but I do want that,” Cano said. “I don’t want to finish my career and have people say, ‘Oh, he played second base.’ I want them to say more than that.”
Jose Cano, Robinson’s father and a former Major League pitcher, monitors the workouts in a steely way. He is all business. Jose has the stature and the mannerisms of Cito Gaston. When Jose told some players that he needed silence in the dugout so the YES Network could interview him, no one even breathed loudly for the next 15 minutes.
Like Robinson, Jose is almost always at the field. Cano’s name is painted on the blue dugouts. The Orioles used to call the field home for their Dominican academy, but they switched to a different location. Now Jose is rehabilitating the field and tutoring passionate players who are trying to emulate his son. Jose said he is “proud” of what Robinson has done and is trying to do.
"He’s so kind with everybody,” Jose said. “He never lets the money go to his head or nothing like that. I think he’s doing what I told him right now. In the Dominican, he helps a lot of kids.”
What Cano is trying to do is to leave an imprint, on the field and on the streets where he was raised. If Cano sees kids playing baseball when they are supposed to be in school, he scolds them and reminds them of the importance of education. Cano called the Dominican Republic “a poor country,” which motivates him to aid those people who have it tougher than he ever did.
In pursuit of that goal, Cano donated an ambulance to his hometown in 2007. Cano made the donation because one of his friends died from head injuries after tumbling off a motorcycle. Because no ambulance was available, it took over an hour for Cano’s friend to be driven to the hospital in Santo Domingo. Before Cano leaves for Spring Training in Tampa, Fla. next month, he will have donated four ambulances and four school buses to his town.
“We weren’t rich, but I had some things as a kid because my father played baseball,” Cano said. “I want to make a difference for other people.”
Cano usually returns home for lunch after his baseball workout, but on the day Bill Boland, YES Network's senior producer, and I visited him, Cano made a detour. Before Cano even showered, he drove his black Escalade to the C.A.E.S. school, a learning center for deaf children. When Cano pulled into the driveway, dozens of kids flocked to him. The students can’t speak, but they used sign language to communicate with their local hero.
I don’t think Cano knows sign language, but he easily bonded with the kids. He used hand signals and facial expressions to make his points. When Cano saw one boy wearing a 50 Cent t-shirt, he offered a thumbs-up. When a man described the aching story of a sick girl who was resting in her mother’s arms, Cano inched closer to the girl. After Cano hung out with the boys and girls, he gave each of them a toy.
Seeing Cano in these settings, on and off the field, was compelling. Anyone who wants to see some of these scenes with Cano should watch Yankees Hot Stove show on Thursday, January 20. We will also feature my visit with Cano in a future telecast on YES.
Cano was adamant about how much he wants to help Dominicans, stressing that this is where he’ll live after his career ends. His future plans include financing the building of a hospital and a school. We found Cano on a faraway field. Cano looked comfortable there and in every other place he traveled in the Dominican. That’s because he was. This is home.
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