The Hardest Things to Find
ROBINSON CANO is filming a commercial. It's February, spring training at the Mariners' complex northwest of Phoenix. He is enveloped by new colleagues, but rather than just baseball players, they are producers, directors, handlers, assistants, writers and stylists, enough to cover an infield. At this moment Cano is not thinking about the worthiness of his $240 million contract, Jay Z's foray into sports management or those who think he should run harder on routine outs. At this moment one concern overrides all others.
The Mariner Moose cannot fist-bump.
Not correctly, anyway. His attempts land too high, or with his "bump" arm too far extended. He receives pointers between takes. Not back by your body. You have to anticipate it. The Moose bends. He stretches. Action! Walk. Approach. Bump. Cut!
"As we expected, you're perfect," the director says to Cano. "We have to work with the Moose a little bit."
"Moose, you're fired!" Cano says.
"Jesus, Moose," he says more softly, smiling.
Such minute details are Cano's concern now, part of a sports experiment officially begun with his winter marriage to the Mariners. This after he dumped agent Scott Boras for Roc Nation Sports (and its partner, Creative Artists Agency Sports) and then chose Seattle over New York, and with it a history of dashed hopes over baseball's grandest tradition. That is his face on the Mariners' pocket schedules and season-ticket brochures; his bobblehead night scheduled for May; his three (three!) lockers tucked into the far corner of the spring clubhouse; his personal assistant nearby and on call.
The question here is what makes a baseball star in 2014. Big contract? Famous friends? Personality? Market size? The Cano-Seattle enterprise will provide an answer, a case study for whether crossover stardom for an elite and consistent player can be manufactured.
Cano is leaving a large media market for a smaller one and a hitter-friendly ballpark for an unfriendly one, and he's playing under the type of enormous contract that teams almost invariably regret. His clubhouse apprenticeship under Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera is over, his status as a complementary star gone. Cano will be paid and handled like a superstar, and because of the time and cash and resources involved, no less than his legacy and the next decade of baseball in Seattle is at stake.
This is Cano's new job description: Hit for average and hit for power, play high-quality defense at second base, mentor younger teammates, lure free agents, lift dwindled attendance, film commercials, make appearances, embrace a new community, restore relevance, win games, make the playoffs, contend for championships. Save baseball in Seattle, more or less.
The contradiction is this: Over nine seasons with the Yankees, Cano became an MVP candidate while making the game look easy. He played as if in slow motion, as if his swing and prowess in the field required little effort. Now effortless production won't be enough. His career has become infinitely more complicated. Everything matters now.
Even the Moose's fist bumps.
ROBINSON CANO is on an airplane—Jay Z's private plane, on a runway near Seattle. It is Dec. 5, 2013. The last of four meetings with the Mariners has just ended, and after dozens of hours of negotiations and hundreds of pages and a birthday cake with chocolate icing, Cano was about to leave town without a deal.
At the same time, the Mariners' front office contingent is heading to dinner, to the Capital Grille downtown. They have made their push. They showed off Safeco Field, where Cano highlights alternated on the big screen with clips from Jay Z concerts. They presented Cano the cake. They seized on his bruised feelings about the Yankees, the team that had found and nurtured him but refused to make an offer longer than seven years. The Mariners had made Cano feel wanted. Now they just had to pay him.
Cano's management team gave three presentations to the Mariners. First, third-party perspectives: headlines and news articles, compliments, awards. That document ran 600 pages. It took six CAA employees to compile. Second, Cano's statistics placed in historical context. That ran 80 pages. Third, something called a "consumer insights report," a survey done by a research group to see how random people viewed Cano and Jay Z and Roc Nation Sports.
The Mariners want more than a baseball player, and Cano's team sold him that way, as a cornerstone for rebuilding the brand. Seattle has lost 374 games over the past four seasons. Its last manager, Eric Wedge, walked away from a contract extension. Its president, Chuck Armstrong, retired. In the 12 years since the Mariners last made the playoffs, attendance has fallen by half.
The team's new president, longtime employee Kevin Mather, says GM Jack Zduriencik inherited a "broken" organization in 2008. The Mariners won 116 games in '01 but then tried to rebuild and contend at the same time as their roster aged. "When Jack took over, our minor league system was empty," Mather says.
Cavernous Safeco Field has long been an obstacle for potential free-agent hitters. It didn't matter who came—Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, Jose Vidro, Chone Figgins, Mike Cameron—when they arrived, their numbers dropped. Beltre's slugging percentage for the Dodgers in 2004, the year before he came to Seattle, was .629. His final year there, in '09, it had fallen to .379. The year after, playing for the Red Sox, he slugged .553 and has stayed above .500 ever since.
The Mariners allayed the ballpark concern by emphasizing the changes they made to their outfield wall dimensions before the 2013 season. One section, the leftfield power alley, moved in 17 feet. CAA, meanwhile, overlaid each of Cano's 27 home runs last year onto Safeco's dimensions; at least 26 would have gone out. It also presented the top hitters at Safeco with at least 150 plate appearances. Cano ranked third in batting average, behind Ichiro Suzuki and Jeter.
The question, then, was value. Even if Cano could hit at Safeco, in a lineup far less formidable than the one he left, how much was he worth? CAA argued that 10 equal installments of $24 million represented a bargain. Their presentation suggested that the Mariners would realize $200 million-plus in value from Cano—including value beyond his production on the field, in advertising and marketing and ticket sales, in luring free agents, in mentoring young players—years before season 10. That's why the Mariners needed the same player—but a different, more demonstrative guy.
On Jay Z's plane, Cano mulls his options. He sees a report that Jay caused a rift in negotiations and team owner Howard Lincoln had stormed out of the room. He laughs. He likes Seattle, and on previous trips there he shopped downtown and walked unrecognized through Pike Place Market. He likes the team's young pitchers. He likes the team's pitch.
Cano's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, makes the call. "If you can do 10 years and $240 million, we have a deal," he tells Zduriencik.
Zduriencik is still parked in front of Capital Grille. Every other decision the Mariners will make in free agency is on hold. Dinner too. Cano's stats, his durability, his consistency, the potential to transition into a DH as he ages—it all makes sense. Here is an expensive lifeline, immediate relevance and, for Zduriencik, the best chance to remain employed beyond this season.
The GM walks into the restaurant. "Guys," he says, "we just agreed to terms with Robinson Cano." The place erupts.
The brand has landed.
"I'm hip-hopped," Zduriencik says later at the news conference, his new friend Jay off to the side.
ROBINSON CANO is in the Dominican Republic. There is a band dressed in whites, women in bedazzled high heels and bright red lipstick, a priest to bless the Mariners' new baseball academy and guards at the gate. Two years ago there was a jungle here. Now this.
The academy is nice and all, but the assembled came to see Cano. The opening of the academy doubles as his public debut, after the initial news conference. The Mariners' suits are in attendance, along with Cano's agent, his father, his assistant and the rest of his entourage. Music best described as Ocean Breeze Mix booms over the loudspeakers. "Robbie!" Zduriencik says, in his football-coach khakis and his team-issued polo shirt. Cano comes in for an awkward bro hug.
Three dress shirts await Cano's selection inside the clubhouse. Someone holds his spikes as he walks inside. Someone else carries his bats. As the morning wears on, it becomes clearer that Cano functions as his own ecosystem, more similar to a boxer like Floyd Mayweather Jr. than a baseball star. This is supposed to simplify his life. It is the job of a small army of handlers to see to his obligations, to make sure he shows up, that he has shirts to choose from.
Now he is in a white Jeep idling outside the academy. Cano signals and they pull away, followed by a caravan of cars, down a dirt road, past three children on a horse and compounds lined with barbed-wire fences. Cano grew up in San Pedro de Macoris, the beginnings of the brand. He still hits every morning, Monday through Friday, at the field he built with his father near pastures with cows and horses and miles of sugarcane.
Now, at home, he leans back on his off-white couch, as a photographer snaps. Cano yawns. He yawns again. He is obliging if not charming, kind if not charismatic. He does not reveal much, and that casts doubt on the viability of this experiment: Cano may welcome added responsibility, but is he suited to it? He must connect with the hard-core baseball folks (an easy sell) and the casual sports fans (more difficult). He yawns once more.
This face-of-the-franchise stuff is exhausting.
SAN PEDRO is known as the Cradle of Shortstops. Yet it was here that the Yankees found a second baseman named after Jackie Robinson. Longtime scout Gordon Blakeley was among the first to notice: the easy swing, the soft hands, the natural hand-eye coordination. "He did the game easy," Blakeley says.
The Yankees offered Cano low six figures to sign. Cano's father, Jose, wanted more. They settled on $150,000, or roughly what Cano will make per game under his new deal. Cano has missed just 14 games since 2007. He has smacked 204 career home runs and displayed great range at second base. He finished fifth last season in the American League MVP voting.
Cano left for Seattle and a contract three years longer and $65 million richer than his old team offered. Early in spring training Kevin Long, the Yankees' hitting coach and a mentor to Cano, told the New York Daily News that Cano sometimes failed to hustle to first base on routine outs (a fact that anyone watching the team already knew). The critique qualified as big news early in spring training, even if it is "garbage" in the eyes of Blakeley, who adds, "O.K., so he didn't run out a ball or two. We're going to miss him. Those players are not replaceable."
The most famous Yankees, like Jeter, like Rivera, tend to embody the team's ethos. Cano thrived in those environs. He deferred. He seemed to prefer deferring. And yet "so many stars," Jose Cano says of the Yankees. "They have too many star players.
"Now," with the Mariners, "it's [just] him."
ROBINSON CANO is at a doctor's appointment in Phoenix. His driver idles in one SUV with his assistant, two friends idle in another. While everyone waits, an armored truck pulls up. Alas, it is not filled with Cano's cash.
"Big change" and "way better" is Cano's description of how his partnership with Roc Nation Sports and CAA Sports has materialized. Why he feels that way is not exactly clear. He alludes vaguely to his previous representation but does not mention Boras by name the way Jay Z did. "Scott Boras, you over baby/Robinson Cano, you coming with me," Jay rapped recently. Boras fired back, telling ESPN that Steven Spielberg could not walk into a hospital and perform neurosurgery.
Boras was diplomatic when reached by phone: "He's one of the game's greatest hitters. [Cano is] one of the most extraordinary players of the upcoming decade." He declined further comment.
Cano sees the sports partnership between Roc Nation and CAA as the future of management for brandworthy athletes. He says "everything" is better, but when pressed to clarify, he returns to two concepts: CAA's familiarity with handling celebrities and the way they handle them. He mentions the selective process, the low number of sports clients: Cano and CC Sabathia in baseball; Kevin Durant in the NBA; Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Geno Smith in the NFL; Skylar Diggins of the WNBA.
Cano's agents and their underlings handle his marketing, publicity, schedule, travel arrangements, even dinner reservations. He is shepherded from event to event. Yet the day-to-day operations of Roc Nation Sports remain shrouded in purposeful mystery. Employees sign confidentiality agreements and rarely grant interviews. This much we do know: A sports concern seems like a logical addition to Jay Z's empire. He has long been a visible presence at sporting events. He helped bring the Nets to Brooklyn, even held a small ownership stake. He befriended star players and dropped references to athletes in songs.
Jay Z is accessible and at least somewhat involved. Cano and Van Wagenen address him as Jay. He sits in on major negotiations, although those who've been there say he rarely speaks. Then there's Jay Z's burgeoning friendship with Zduriencik, the older, bald executive from Pennsylvania whose new joke is that he was the original JZ. They dined together during negotiations. Zduriencik watched Dreamgirls recently, which stars Beyoncé, Jay Z's wife. (Review: "Loved it.")
Back from the doctor and outside his rental home, Cano says he does not want to expand his crew beyond its current sizable scope. No new friends, he says. He is asked what he hopes to gain from the CAA partnership, if he sees acting in his future, or music, the various pursuits of a young, marketable celebrity. No, he says. What, then? Your brand as a baseball player? Endorsements? That kind of stuff?
He nods. "That's what I'm focused on right now. That's what I am."
So you feel like a company? A corporate creation? Robinson Cano Enterprises? He laughs. "No, no, no. I'm just me."
ROBINSON CANO is at spring training, on the first day of team workouts, nary a pinstripe in sight. Autograph hounds gather near the exits. Felix Hernandez, Seattle's ace, is among the first to say hello.
A year ago Hernandez signed his own megadeal: seven years and $175 million, which he accepted despite a roster of teammates almost unrecognizable to the casual sports fan. Now, Cano. They share the same barber, based in the Bronx, and the same task of ending the Mariners' 12-year playoff drought. No longer must Hernandez carry the franchise alone. Cano will "take a few interviews and a few autographs," he says, "and that is good."
The Mariners added outfielders Logan Morrison and Corey Hart this off-season. They boast an enviable core of young arms. Zduriencik was asked if Cano's signing served as an answer to critics who have pressed for a big move. "Robinson Cano is a good answer to anything," he says.
The ideal: Cano plays like a perennial MVP candidate, Hernandez pitches like one, both enter the Hall of Fame as Mariners, and a franchise defined by mediocrity for a generation of fans imitates their downtown neighbors, the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Hernandez says he has visualized a Mariners parade. He says he would imitate Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who rode on the hood of a float and took a slug from a bottle of Fireball whiskey someone handed him.
Cano can be the quarterback, Russell Wilson.
ROBINSON CANO is filming a commercial. He is inside the bathroom of the Mariners' minor league clubhouse, surrounded by 20 or so production types, a camera zoomed in close, shaving cream lathered on his face.
He will soon lace a single on the first pitch of his new life. He will have some dental work done and miss a handful of exhibition games. He will tell CBS Sports that the Mariners need to acquire another bat.
"We should just roll the camera and let Robbie shave," the director says.
He turns to Cano. "Just forget about us and shave, O.K.? We'll see how this all works out."
The Mariners need Cano to be the same player he was in New York—only more demonstrative.
Maybe Robinson Cano can flourish at SAFECO FIELD after all. The Mariners made their outfield dimensions more hitter-friendly before last season, and the place isn't the offensive graveyard it once was. In 2012, Safeco ranked last among AL ballparks in home runs (116). Last year it was fifth (170)—and as this plot shows, all but one of Cano's 27 home runs in 2013 would have left the Safeco yard.
Where Cano's 2013 home runs would have landed at Safeco Field.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
DATA FROM HITTRACKERONLINE.COM
Photograph by ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
EMERALD STATE OF MIND Cano won't really tend the Safeco infield, but the Mariners are counting on him to raise their profile—and to continue to rake at the plate.
JOHNNY NUNEZ/WIREIMAGE (CANO AND JAY Z)
THE MARINER AND THE MOGUL Rookie agent Jay Z (with Cano) took a hands-on approach in negotiating for his first baseball client.
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CANO ACTION)
[See caption above]
FLUID AND DYNAMIC Cano's smooth style strikes some critics as lackadaisical, but the Mariners believe he'll inspire teammates and attract other free agents.
ROD MAR; HOME RUN GRAPHIC BY LYNNE CARTY