PEORIA, Ariz. – Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long had some explosive things to say back in Florida about Robinson Cano, one of his star pupils the past several years.
He said he loved Cano like a son. Boom! He said Cano worked voraciously to eliminate holes in his game, usually initiating the practice sessions himself. Bam! He said Cano had become a leader in the clubhouse, taking it upon himself to help the younger players. Wham!
You missed those comments? No big surprise, because Long also opined in The New York Daily News piece that Cano’s occasional lack of hustle on the baselines frustrated him.
“If somebody told me I was a dog,’’ Long told the newspaper, “I’d have to fix that. When you choose not to, you leave yourself open to taking heat, and that’s your fault. For whatever reason, Robbie chose not to.’’
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Those are the remarks that went semi-viral, hurtling their way around the Internet and landing with a loud thud at the computer of a none-too-pleased Lloyd McClendon, which I’ll get to in a moment.
I would characterize all this as much ado about. … well, not nothing. It’s something. No one likes to see a star player lollygagging it up the line, and Cano is no exception. In fact, if anyone should be expected to hustle, it’s the guy who just got a $240 million contract and is being counted upon to lead a renaissance in Seattle.
But if this came as a revelation to anyone, they haven’t been paying attention. It was way back in 2008 that Yankees manager Joe Girardi benched Cano for not hustling after a ground ball. And while there was still grumbling from fans and Yankees personnel about Cano’s occasional lapses after that, Girardi never again saw fit to bench him.
In fact, here are Cano’s games played over the past seven years: 160, 159, 161, 160, 159, 161, 160. He’s missed a total of 14 games in that span, which means he fits one vital element of being a “gamer”: He shows up and plays every day.
And plays brilliantly, it should be unnecessary to add. Cano’s production speaks for itself; just check his baseball card. The degree to which he cares about his craft has been vouched for in a wide array of comments from Yankees personnel — including Long.
“People don’t know how hard he worked, how many times he was the one asking me to do extra work in the cage,’’ Long told The Daily News.
In a column I wrote about Cano in December, I told the story of Larry Bowa being hired as the Yankees’ third-base and infield coach in 2005, and having his phone ring the next day. It was Cano, telling Bowa 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.
For that December article, I talked to Yankees executive Gordon Blakely about the allegations that Cano had issues with hustle.
“You know what that is?’’ Blakely responded. “Garbage. You can quote that from me. Look at how many games he misses. The game is so easy to Robbie, 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 Robbie.’’
Getting through the rigors of a 162-game season is an underrated achievement, one that requires a certain amount of pacing. Ken Griffey Jr. didn’t always bust it down the line, but he knew when to turn it on. Ichiro was famously lax about crashing into walls or diving after balls, but he played 157 or more games in 11 of 12 seasons with Seattle.
McClendon knows how the game is played, and he vehemently defended Cano on Tuesday, while firing back at Long.
“I was very disappointed,’’ McClendon said. “I’ve been in this game a long time, particularly at the major-league level. And one thing I was taught was: ‘You worry about your players and getting them ready and not players on other teams.’ I’m disappointed, surprised … didn’t know he was the spokesman for the New York Yankees.
“My concern is Robinson Cano in a Seattle Mariners uniform and what he does moving forward. I don’t give a damn what he did for the Yankees. I have no concern whatsoever. We had a great talk this morning. He’s looking forward to being very productive in a Seattle Mariners uniform and being a very good teammate. That’s what’s important as you move forward.”
I have a feeling that McClendon might not be so displeased that this situation arose. It gives him a chance to put into action the sentiment he expressed at his introductory news conference, when he said, “My motto is simple. I respect my opponents. But I fear nobody. And I want my players to take on my personality.”
It also lets his players know, in a tangible way, he has their back.
“One of the messages I’m trying to send to my players is we don’t have to take a back seat to anybody, that includes the New York Yankees or anybody else,’’ McClendon said. “… Any time anybody attacks one of my players, then I’m going to defend them. If you don’t like it, tough (expletive).”
And McClendon’s last word on the topic was sensible: “My talk with Robbie was real simple. I expect all my players, including Robinson, to give me a fair effort down the line.
“I’m not too far removed from playing … I can remember the days when I hit a pop up and I’m pissed off and you don’t run to first. Is that dogging it? I don’t think so. There’s a human element that comes with this game. You know you roll over and hit a ground ball to second base, your head drops and you are a little disappointed.
“In the big scheme of things, would I rather have a guy out there for 160 games, hitting .300 and driving in over 100? I will take that.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry