ANAHEIM, Calif. — Even the boos told a story — loud and lusty catcalls as Robinson Cano came to the plate in the first inning for his first at-bat as a Mariners.
He is a player great enough to inspire the antipathy of the opposition’s fans, charismatic enough to care about. Those signals of grudging respect have been infrequent in recent M’s vintage.
The Cano era began Monday with a routine ground out to shortstop — let the record show that he ran it out, hard — but there is an air of expectation each time he steps to the plate. And there is an overall expectation, the real reason the Mariners shelled out $240 million, that if the Mariners make it back to respectability, Cano will be at the forefront.
It won’t be a smooth road. The Mariners have much to overcome, and one player can’t make it all sugar and roses. The opener was filled with early moments that induced grimaces and grumbles — just like old times. And the 10-3 victory was filled with many more moments that provided glimmers of hope for those inclined in that direction.
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Manager Lloyd McClendon came out of spring training more convinced that Cano is the right person for the task.
“He came probably more than advertised, as far as the quality of person, his desire to win, his desire to help the young players on this team,’’ McClendon said. “I think on a scale of one to 10, he’s probably been a 15.”
And on the talent scale?
McClendon laughed. “Twenty.”
Life as a focal point is a new phenomenon for Cano, who even as an All-Star and bona fide superstar in New York could fade into the background while Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera shouldered the responsibility of team leader. And whatever new hotshot free agent the Yankees had signed that winter would endure the media frenzy, as Cano stayed comfortably in the shadows.
But so far, Cano doesn’t seem to be mind being, along with Felix Hernandez, out front. Though he texted Derek Jeter on Tuesday to wish him luck in his final season (“he was one of the guys that was there for me”), he says he’s distanced himself from his pinstripe past. He’s a Mariner now, and it doesn’t feel weird at all.
“I’ve been in spring training 50 days now,’’ he said. “I’ve forgot what it looks like on the other side. I’m just looking forward. I adjusted to the team right away. This organization, my teammates, everyone made me feel like a part of this team.”
His second time up, Cano hit a squibber up the third-base line, for which the Angels, shifted over to the right side, had no play. The first Mariners hit by the man with a swing so sweet, poets write odes to it, was an infield single. Baseball is funny that way. A ringing double in the ninth, just before Justin Smoak’s decisive three-run homer, was more prototypical.
Many wonder how Cano will react if the Mariners remain a second-division team, if he’ll come to regret his decision to leave the guaranteed buzz of the Bronx for what has been, lately, a baseball desert.
One day into the season, after those 50 days of getting ready for it, he remains stress free. Yes, we’ll check back later, but right now Cano is happy to take on the role of, not just franchise face, but also mentor to the younger Mariners. He says he’s just paying it forward, doing what Jeter, Rivera and others did for him.
“I was a young kid when I first came up, and I had guys that took me under their wing, taught me how to play the game the right way,’’ he said. “They gave me those little tips that helped me take it to the next level. Those are the same things I try to do with those guys.”
Cano says those young players, whose development will determine the pace, or even the existence, of the Mariners’ revival, have been highly receptive. Many of those players – Abraham Almonte, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Kyle Seager, Smoak – were instrumental in the victory.
“Oh, yeah, they ask questions,’ he said. “I like that they’re hungry. They want to play this game. They love this game. You can see the good chemistry we have in here. Everyone gets along. It’s not about, ‘I want to do this so I can put up my numbers.’ We all have the same goal. We want to go out there and win a game. We know we have a team that can compete.”
His third time up, Cano hit a soft liner to the left side that happened to be just in the range of third baseman David Freese, the only one over there, who caught it with a slight lunge.
We’ll stop micro-analyzing each at-bat after this game, I promise, but that’s another byproduct of being The Man. Or, more accurately, The Co-Man.
There have been those who have buckled under such scrutiny. They’ve succumbed to the pressure of trying to live up to the mega-contract, for which some fans expect instant, constant production. McClendon doesn’t see that being an issue, either.
“I think Robby’s different, because Robby’s made a ton of money in this game already,’’ he said,. “He’s been a big-time player for a long time. When you’re really talking, what’s the difference, 180 or 240 (million)?”
In the pursuit of scouring the landscape for potential pitfalls for Cano – add that to the list of new challenges — McClendon was asked if Cano’s zeal for working with Mariner youngsters might take away from his own focus.
“Great question,’’ he said. “I don’t believe so. If you know Robby, he has a tremendous work ethic. He has a tremendous program he adheres to. He’s done that. He’s been very routine with that, so he knows what he needs to do. I watched that in spring, and I don’t think he’s going to deter from that. So I’d say no, zero danger of that happening.”
His fourth time up, in the midst of a rally that put the Mariners in the lead, the Angels walked Cano intentionally. Will teams even pitch to him in crunch time? Another burning Cano question that will unfold over the course of this season.
We’ll be watching. So will everyone else.