By Todd Dybas
PEORIA, Ariz. -- There is no cape among the items in Robinson Cano's three-locker spread. His usual baseball tools -- bats, gloves, new wristbands with "22" pressed into them -- fill the cubby holes in his triangular corner of the Seattle Mariners spring training clubhouse. Though he is being paid staggering figures to do superhero work, these baseline items will have to suffice.
Cano is sitting for his umpteenth interview of the spring. His previously outlawed beard -- no such facial hair was allowed with the New York Yankees -- is yet to be manicured. A white T-shirt with "RC" intertwined in the center covers his shoulders, which will bear responsibility for resuscitating the Mariners' organization. A hunk of that job also falls to Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. The Mariners' reclamation effort is hitched to the two, a duo being paid $415,000,000.
In among Cano's equipment are four bats. Each is two-toned, 34 inches long and weighs 32 ounces. Cano applied the taped looped around their handles and the splotches of pine tar midway up. As eloquent as Cano can appear in the field, where he has won two Gold Gloves, his precision with those bats is the reason the Mariners will pay him 10 equal installments of $24 million.
When these final 10 years in baseball are over, he wants to spend time with his family. He'll have an almost unfathomable amount of money. This year alone, he'll be paid enough to give $2 to every resident of the Dominican Republic, yet have millions left over.
The salary is the largest in Mariners history. With it comes a weight Cano either won't acknowledge or truly does not feel. Seattle has been bad at baseball for a decade. The Mariners won 88 games in 2007 and 85 in 2009; otherwise, they have compiled losing season after losing season since their 93-win 2003. When fall comes, Safeco Field seats are predominantly occupied by drizzle. Cano has been summoned to fix this.
Cano has multiple responsibilities: Play high-level defense, hit like a corner infielder from second base, help the younger players, re-energize the fan base. The latter may be the biggest challenge. In regard to the Mariners, the Seattle court of public opinion now operates like a judiciary of medieval times. The Mariners are judged guilty of error and locally repudiated without trial, no matter the move.
None of which seems to phase Cano. He had a wonderful spring, finishing with a .412 batting average. He talked often with the his youthful Mariners teammates. Photographed, interviewed, photographed and interviewed again, he was the most in-demand person in camp. After playing with flash-bulb occupiers Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera for years, Cano is the Mariners' lone position player jewel. He's insistent nothing will change.
"You don't want to put pressure on yourself," Cano said. "Just go out there and play with the team."
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Asked for his biggest baseball inluence, Cano's reponse is immediate: "My dad." Former major leaguer Jose Cano prompted Robinson to throw and swing starting at age two or three. Cano is not sure precisely, though he knows somewhere in that range is when he began to be pushed toward baseball by his father.
"He was hard on me" Cano says. "He was (tough) when I did something if he thought I could do it the right way (and wasn't). Besides father-son, we're like friends. He's a dad, he talks to me, explains things to me, which is good. Because as a kid you always follow your dad's steps. I wanted to be a baseball player."
That statement is delivered in the same deep but quiet monotone most of his words come in. Cano is nothing if not relaxed, which in turn makes his words come out at a level that causes listeners to lean in. He crosses his legs high and folds his hands in his lap when sitting. It's the body language of leisure.
Instead of summoning two of Seattle's young players to his expansive back-corner spring homestead, Cano visits their lockers. The discussions are conducted in Spanish, the listeners two unlikely 2014 major leaguers: outfielder Abraham Almonte and left-handed starter Roenis Elias, who has joined Seattle's rotation because of injuries to two other starters. Both are rookies. Elias has never been above Double-A.
Almonte, who will often start in center field and likely lead off for Seattle, previously looked at Cano as the monolith he's become. Almonte left Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and came up with the Yankees organization, well aware of Cano, who has turned from favorite player to teammate. Almonte says Cano calls him and other young players if he identifies something he thinks is incorrect.
"As soon as I heard the Mariners signed him, I wanted to take advantage," Almonte said. "Get close to him, learn the right routine, how to prepare myself to play the game right. Learn from the right person. Somebody who has years on the job."
After spending nine years in the Bronx with Jeter and Rivera, it's assumed their leadership ability rubbed off on Cano. The Mariners bosses contend that would be nice, but is not the reason they wanted him in Seattle.
"His job isn't to run around and worry about what the 24 other players on the club are doing," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "His job is to play baseball."
"I can lead in the clubhouse," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "I need players to hit three-run homers."
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Cano twists, squats and stretches in the on-deck circle before working the tape on his bat. Strike three is called on shortstop Brad Miller -- his new 24-year-old double-play partner replacing first-ballot Hall of Famer Jeter -- and Cano makes a quick sign of the cross, points to the sky, then taps the rosin bag to the barrel. The umpire receives his customary tap on the legs from Cano's bat. Cano digs in, arches to stretch his back, and takes a pitch under the Arizona sun last week.
Thirteen years after signing with New York, everything around Cano is different, other than the simplicity of baseball, because the Mariners went all-in and won.
After missing on Prince Fielder in 2012 and Josh Hamilton in 2013, Zduriencik worked toward Cano last offseason. He pitched the pursuit to team owner Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong, who has since retired. As the price for Cano escalated, Lincoln and Armstrong continued to give the go-ahead. More years, more money. At the end, Zduriencik contended a seven or eight-year offer would not have been sufficient. Ten years was necessary, so that's what was delivered.
"They believed this was the time for us to strike," Zduriencik said of the ownership group.
Zduriencik scoffs at the thought he is under pressure in his fifth season in Seattle. Not because he doesn't think it's true, but because he thinks that's an annual issue. With Cano, he has made his most extreme move yet. A handful of trades have not worked. The roster is filled with young players after a revamping of the minor league system -- something Zduriencik promised would happen and accomplished -- who have yet to win. When a reporter tells Zduriencik such an epic signing likely means his behind is on the line pending the result, there is agreement.
"I think I realize that," Zduriencik said with a laugh. "Honestly, let's be real here."
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Phones rattled throughout Seattle when the Cano deal was announced. Seemingly every resident with a tie to the Northeast was being informed that Cano did not run out every play. This was the pertinent news to many who had watched a second baseman compile an .899 OPS the last five years, proving scorn can prompt muddled evaluation.
That's the perception of Cano, though -- that things come easy and that's how he takes them. The Mariners even emulated the idea when shooting a spring training commercial. In the final product, Cano is moving in slow-motion throughout. The concept is to portray how simple the game appears when he plays it, yet it also unintentionally feeds into the perception Cano is not playing his hardest. Add perception to Zduriencik's list of irrelevant issues.
"That's speculation," Zduriencik said. "What I know is we play him many times a year and he beats our brains in when he's on the other club. That's what I know."
Cano will carry a massive offensive weight for the Mariners. He has 204 career home runs. Seattle's seven other positional starters in Monday's opener have combined for 192. Veterans Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, both with past bop and injuries, were signed in the offseason; neither were effective in the spring, plus Hart had forearm tightness that caused him to miss time.
The Mariners' offense was so woeful for so long, the organization dragged the fences in. Dirt, grass and wall were moved closer after the 2012 offseason in an attempt to strip Safeco Field of its deserved reputation as a stat squasher. Cano, who spent much of the spring practicing going the other way or up the middle, says he's a line-drive hitter. His Barry White-smooth swing allows him to work gap-to-gap with enough power to average 24 homers annually. He's not worried about power numbers.
"What's the most homers I hit? 33," Cano said. "Because I get the big money here I'm not going to put it in my mind to hit 30. I'm going to play the same game, be the same guy. Not try to do too much. Just play the game. When you try to do too much, things aren't going to work the right way."
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The Mariners are gently wading into the marketing of Cano. He is on the side of Seattle Metro buses, will have a bobblehead night, a T-shirt night and be part of a poster giveaway. A 26-foot wide and 31-foot tall banner of Cano is being put up above the left field gate. He'll be across from a similar banner of Hernandez, which has stood alone since Ichiro Suzuki was traded to the New York Yankees in the middle of the 2012 season.
He'll be arriving in person soon. Bags destined for Monday's season-opener in Anaheim were separated from those to be delivered to Seattle on Saturday. Spring training was over for Cano, who used the month in the desert to hone his poetic swing. He couldn't play for four of the days after having root canal surgery, so, to stay sharp, he used a broom handle to hit black beans thrown at him from 20 feet away.
On Cano's final day in Arizona, a look around the infield showed his prominence. At third base was 26-year-old Kyle Seager. Shortstop Brad Miller, a high-socked galloper who stands out next to Cano's fluidity, was a few feet away. He's played 76 career games. At first was Justin Smoak, now 27, and his career .227 batting average. Behind the plate was Mike Zunino. He was playing in the SEC two years ago.
This is the setting Cano chose when he left super agent Scott Boras for startup Roc Nation Sports, with Jay Z as the public figurehead. Cano departed pulsating uptown New York streets for the Sodo section of Seattle, where freight-filled 18-wheelers rumble from the piers past the stadium. He'll now operate for a team that has never been to the World Series and couldn't convince recent free agents to take hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Not everyone is the same," Cano said.
The Mariners are banking on it.
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Todd Dybas has written for SI.com, The San Francisco Chronicle and SB Nation Longform, among others. Currently, he's the Seattle Seahawks beat writer for the Tacoma News Tribune, as well as a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.