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Originally published December 14, 2013 at 6:13 PM | Page modified December 14, 2013 at 8:14 PM

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Robinson Cano’s journey to stardom was years in the making

Robinson Cano’s body of work earned him one of the richest contracts in baseball history from the Mariners. But there was a time when both his body and his work warranted an underwhelming response in the baseball world.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Robinson Cano by the numbers

1 First player in history with 25 HR and 40 doubles for 5 straight years

2 Gold Gloves

3 Home Run Derbies (winning in 2012)

4 Straight Silver Slugger awards (5 overall)

5 All-Star appearances (4 straight starts)

6 RBI in a game twice

7 Straight 40-double seasons

9 Career grand slams in 9 seasons

10 Years in contract for $240 million

14 Missed games over past seven seasons

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Robinson Cano’s body of work earned him one of the richest contracts in baseball history from the Mariners, commemorated in grand style at Safeco Field on Thursday.

But there was a time when both his body and his work warranted an underwhelming response in the baseball world. If Jay Z was in Cano’s future, it would have seemed most likely as a voice in his iPod.

As a teenager in the Dominican Republic, for instance, Cano was thick-legged and slow, with a skinny upper frame. Not a great combo, and most teams balked at the demands of his father, Jose, for a $250,000 signing bonus. The Yankees, with money to burn, liked Cano’s skill set, but even they wouldn’t go above a reported $150,000.

“Jose wasn’t happy. He said his son was worth a lot more,’’ recalled Gordon Blakeley, the long-time Yankees executive who, along with scout Vic Mata, signed Cano in 2001, “I said, ‘If he plays in the big leagues, he’ll get his money.’ ”

Assigned to the lowest rungs of the Yankees’ farm system, Cano caught the eye of a young manager, Bill Masse, now the Mariners’ Eastern supervisor in their scouting department. Masse and Cano were together at various stages of his development, in Tampa and Greensboro and Trenton, and while the youngster’s potential and personality were eye-catching, so were the potential blemishes.

Everyone agreed that baseball came easily to Cano. Too easily, perhaps.

“Put it this way: He wanted to show up at 6:55 and play at 7,’’ Masse said. “He wanted to perform. It took a lot of hard work to teach him how to practice correctly. I always said that once he learned how to work and learned how to get into his routine, he’d be a superstar. Sure enough ...’’

But the start of Cano’s career was pedestrian. He didn’t put up a .300 average at any level until his fourth year as a pro – and just barely at .301 in 74 games in Class AA. His power numbers were lackluster. Baseball America never ranked him among its Top 100 prospects.

“I don’t think anyone projected he’d ever be this good,’’ said Jim Callis, former editor of Baseball America. “He never had an .800 OPS in the minors, and there were questions whether his thick-legged frame would lead to a move away from second base. He could hit and he had a strong arm, but no one was projecting him to hit .310 with 25-plus homers per year and Gold Glove defense.’’

To be fair, Cano was ranked No. 2 by BA on its Yankee prospects list after his last full season in the minors (2004), and he was selected for the Futures Game that same year. But he also very nearly became an ex-Yankee that season – three times.

In April of 2004, as part of the whopper deal that brought Alex Rodriguez to New York for Alfonso Soriano, the Rangers were asking for a second player. The Yankees gave them a list of five minor-leaguers to choose from, including Cano.

Texas opted for shortstop Joaquin Arias. He’s played 327 major-league games and has a World Series ring with the Giants … but he’s no Cano.

“They could have taken him,’’ confirmed Blakeley. “But Robby hadn’t put up that big of numbers, and they shied away. Arias was a big tools guy. He could really run. Robby just kind of did OK. He was a guy they could have taken and they didn’t. I’ve always said, ‘Thank God they didn’t pick him.’ ”

In June of that same year, it was the Royals who made the same dubious decision to bypass Cano, this time as part of a package with catcher Dioner Navarro for Carlos Beltran. Instead, the Royals opted for an offer from the Astros that brought third baseman Mark Teahen, catcher John Buck and pitcher Mike Wood to Kansas City for Beltran.

The Yankees escaped future regret one last time in July, when they included Cano in an offer to the Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson. The Yankees acquired the Big Unit in the offseason, but gave up veteran pitcher Javier Vazquez, Navarro and pitcher Brad Halsey.

Masse said he “cringed” when the Yankees included Cano in the A-Rod offer and other potential trades.

“Working for the Yankees, I was very, very happy he wasn’t one of the ones taken in trade,’’ he said.

He believes Cano’s reputation for lackadaisical effort might have played a factor in the industry’s unenthusiastic perception of his ability

“He got the rap that he didn’t run balls out, was lazy at times, he’s a dog or whatever,’’ Masse said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Things came so easy for him it looked like he didn’t try. It’s just that his actions were so fluid. He was getting to balls no one else would have been within five feet of.”

Even after reaching stardom, Cano has continued to face those same raps – only heightened when Yankees manager Joe Girardi benched him for not hustling after a ground ball in September of 2008.

Cano has said he used the incident as a wake-up call. But former Mets GM Steve Phillips told The Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish last week in Orlando that Cano “has kind of a lackadaisical, sort of nonchalance about him sometimes that has grown to be accepted in New York. … He had people who stuck up for him. Derek Jeter said, ‘No, no, he’s fine.’

“But in a new place, when you don’t have that collateral relationship with the fans, if you don’t hit, then you go out there and look like you’re kind of going through it, it could affect the transition going into Seattle. It’s something to keep an eye on there.”

To allegations that Cano doesn’t hustle, Blakeley responds, “You know what that is? Garbage. You can quote that from me. Look at how many games he misses (just 14 total over the last seven years). The game is so easy to Robby, you think he’s lackadaisical. That’s a special thing of great players. Jeter for years made things look easy. There’s no lackadaisical in Robby.’’

In fact, examples abound of how Cano worked to accelerate his development into the player he is today. Much credit has gone to a drill developed by Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long dubbed “The Home Run Drill.” It involves a protective fielding screen being placed over the outside half of home plate while pitches are tossed underhand to the hitter. The screen forces him to shorten his swing while maximizing his power. Cano is the acknowledged master.

“He can go like 15 out of 20 just perfect and in the seats. It’s one of those swings where he gets it – and gets that explosion and gets that contact,’’ Long told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2010. “That’s the whole idea behind the drill: to stop forward movement, keep everything tight and be really explosive in your lower half.’’

When Larry Bowa was hired as the Yankees third base and infield coach in 2005, his phone rang the next day. It was Cano, telling him he was ready to work on his defense and report early to spring training.

“I’ve never had a player do that, in all my years as coach or manager,’’ Bowa told ESPN.

When Cano had a down season in 2008, he asked Long to fly to the Dominican Republic over the winter to work with him on his hitting mechanics, as well as improving the mental part of the game. Cano hit .320 in 2009 and has finished in the top 10 in the MVP balloting every year since.

“He never reacted negatively to wanting to work; it’s just that early on, he never had to,’’ said Masse, who gave Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik a glowing report on Cano. “I’ve always said this about Robinson Cano: He’s great about baseball. Great player, great person, great teammate. He’s a humble kid. If there’s a perfect position player to be a complement to Felix, it’s Robinson.”

Added Blakeley: “He’s wonderful off the field, just a really good person. He knows where he came from. He’s good to the people in the Dominican, good to a lot of kids in New York. A special guy. There’s no braggadocio about him.”

Cano donated so much time and resources to the Hackensack University Medical Center that the Robinson Cano Physical and Occupational Therapy Suite was dedicated in 2011.

Cano, who became a U.S. citizen in November of 2012, lived in New Jersey with his mother, Claribel, during most of his time with the Yankees.

Cano actually spent part of his childhood in Newark. His mother moved there to be near her sister when Jose, a former major-league pitcher, was playing in Taiwan. Robinson attended Dr. William Horton Junior High in Newark as a seventh and eighth grader, and started at Barringer High School as a freshman before Jose moved him back to their hometown of San Pedro de Macoris.

“He was having a lot of trouble,’’ Jose Cano told The New York Times in 2010 of his son’s time living in New Jersey as a schoolboy. “They had fights, turf wars, Dominican kids against black kids, and he started to have all kinds of trouble.”

Robinson moved back to San Pedro after his father asked him, “Do you want to play baseball every day in the Dominican or go to school up here?”

On Friday, the day after his Seattle news conference, the front page of the New York Daily News blared the headline, “$240M Dead Beat” next to a picture of Cano in his new Mariners jersey. The story detailed the efforts of Jackelin Castro, the mother of their son, Robinson Miguel Cano, who lives with her in the Dominican, to get more child support.

Such scrutiny will only intensify due to the magnitude of his Mariner contract. Those who have known Cano the ballplayer the longest, and the best, insist he’s ready for the glare of the spotlight in his new role in Seattle.

“Robinson was always better when the lights were brighter,’’ Masse said. “Even when he was 19, I’d watch him bat with no one on base, we were winning 8-0. He’d swing at three in the dirt. But with the bases loaded, game on the line, Robinson Cano was the best young hitter I’ve ever seen for that situation.

“If you ask me if the money is going to affect him – yeah, it’ll make him better, because the spotlight’s on him. He doesn’t feel pressure. It makes him play better.”

Largest sports contracts
The Mariners made one of the biggest deals in sports history and only the sixth for more than $200 million total.
MoneyPlayerTerm (start)
$275MAlex Rodriguez, Yankees10 years (2008)
$252MAlex Rodriguez, Rangers10 years (2001)
$240MRobinson Cano, Mariners10 years (2014)
$240MAlbert Pujols, Angels10 years (2012)
$225MJoey Votto, Reds10 years (2014)
$214MPrince Fielder, Tigers9 years (2012)

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