Cano at the heart of Yankees' repeat bid
Second baseman's best season yet makes him MVP candidate
Years before Robinson Cano would stand among the game's best all-around second basemen, a few skeptical opponents managed to accomplish what countless big league pitchers have since tried -- and failed -- to do. They wiped the smile off of his face.
Arriving in Newark, N.J., in the mid-1990s, Cano's skills were already well-honed from years of playing on the sun-drenched fields of the Dominican Republic. Some found it difficult to believe that such a sweet left-handed swing could belong to a 14-year-old, and they took baseball away from him.
"I think I made like two outs in 20 at-bats," Cano recalled. "They were just like, 'That's not your age.' And they didn't let me play. They thought that I was older.
"I came from a town where I played every year, the whole year -- that gave me a little advantage. When I came [to the United States], I was already prepared, but then they'd say, 'Oh, no, that's not his age. He's lying.' But I wasn't."
Born in San Pedro de Macoris, Cano spent three years growing up in New Jersey, living with his mother, Claribel, who had a sister based in Newark. Cano spent the seventh, eighth and ninth grades in Newark, attending Barringer High School for one year.
"Back then, that was one of the most dangerous cities," Cano said. "I think they were No. 1 in stolen cars across the country. It was a little bit scary. You couldn't even go out. I'd just go to school."
Cano was able to stay out of trouble by keeping quiet, crediting his mom and saying that he believes he was "raised the right way." Still, being quiet wasn't always the best course of action.
Far away from many family members -- including his father, former Major League pitcher Jose Cano -- Cano said he made some good friends during his time in Newark, but it was also a frustrating experience at times. Not having command of the English language made it even more difficult.
"I learned a little bit," Cano said. "It was easy when you learned the little words, but then when you have to go to high school and take English, it's tough. The first two weeks, I had detention every day.
"One teacher would talk to me, like, 'I don't understand.' I used to talk to my friends, but they'd speak Spanish. [The teacher] thought I was joking. One day he asked somebody and they told him, 'Oh, he doesn't know that much English.' That's when he realized and apologized for that."
Years after Cano returned to the Dominican Republic, only to be scouted and signed by the Yankees, Cano can chuckle about the trip down memory lane. There isn't much the two-time All-Star doesn't grin about these days.
As the Yankees prepare for the playoffs, Cano is at the heart of the team's chances of repeating as World Series champions. Cano finished play Wednesday tops among all Major League second basemen with 193 hits, 106 RBIs and a .524 slugging percentage. His .314 batting average ranks second.
It has been a banner year for the 27-year-old, who has set career highs in home runs (28) and RBIs, which could result in some serious hardware after the season's final pitches are delivered. Yankees manager Joe Girardi won't get a vote, but if he did, Cano would take home both the American League MVP award and the Gold Glove award for AL second basemen.
"He is [the MVP] for me, because of the combination of what you're putting together," Girardi said. "You're putting together an outstanding offensive candidate with a Gold Glove second baseman. There might be guys that have better offensive numbers than him, but I don't think they bring that same defense that he does. He is a complete, complete player. He is excellent on both sides of the ball."
Alex Rodriguez made a point of stressing a solid workout routine to Cano several years back, about the same time that former infield coach Larry Bowa was more than willing to deliver the motivating kicks in the rear he believed Cano needed.
Given time to develop, Rodriguez opined that the finished product was worth the work, saying that Cano has "the strongest and most accurate arm I've ever seen on a second baseman." He called Cano "very, very underrated defensively."
"He's growing up right in front of our eyes," Rodriguez said. "He's slowly but surely become one of the elite players in our league. Everyone talks about hitting, but what he's doing power-wise in big situations and defensively, there's no question he's the best second baseman in baseball."
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who has watched Cano from within the AL East, agrees.
"I think you'd pretty much have to go with Cano," Gaston said. "He's done a great job. I think when A-Rod went down, he stepped up there and hit in the four spot and did a great job. To me, that's what I see with that ballclub. They've got other guys, too, but he's a kid that really picked that club up when they needed some help."
Cano is careful not to place individual achievements over those of the team, a lesson drilled into him over years of service in the Yankees organization.
He had a taste of the ultimate accomplishment last Nov. 4, when Cano swiftly untucked his jersey and spun his cap backward before reaching the pile at the mound, swarming closer Mariano Rivera following the final out of the World Series.
That, instead of some glitzy award handed out at a banquet dinner, must be the motivating force the rest of the way. But some 14 years after Cano was sent home for being too good, there's no question that Cano would love to be honored for the same reason.
"As a player, you always want to win a Gold Glove or an MVP or a batting title," Cano said. "You work hard and you want to be one of the best in the game. That's one of the things that make you work harder every single day."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.