Robinson Cano, ready to return to the Bronx to face Yankees, is stressless in Seattle
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SEATTLE -- The Mariners' new $240-million second baseman entered Saturday night with one home run. The team just endured an eight-game losing streak and appears to be headed for its fifth consecutive losing season.
But nobody here would even think of booing the new $240- million second baseman.
You're not in New York anymore, Robinson Cano.
"They've been pretty nice," Cano said on Friday in the Mariners' dugout at Safeco Field before a 6-5 win over the Rangers -- complete with a two-run double from Cano -- improved his new team's record to 9-13 after a 5-2 start.
"We're not playing really good lately until Wednesday," the former Yankees second baseman said. "But you've still got fans coming over, being so nice and kind to us."
Nice and kind. That's what Cano has seen in his first month in Seattle, which locals say doesn't expect much from the Mariners anyway. Plus, Seattle sports fans are still working off a latte-fueled hangover from the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory in February.
"I like it here," the now-bearded Cano said. "It's nice. The team's really nice. I like the team, the city. Playing baseball, the fans, it's really nice. Here it's more relaxed. It's not as intense as New York. In New York, when the game is over, everyone is looking at what's wrong. Here we don't have that."
Nice and kind may not be on display at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday when Cano returns for the first time since leaving the Yankees after nine seasons. The cheers-to-boos ratio will be an interesting story line. Cano doesn't know what to expect.
"I have to say I hope it's good," said Cano, who will be a guest of Jimmy Fallon's Monday on "The Tonight Show." "Hopefully they understand that this is a business and I don't have anything against the fans, the team, anybody. I can tell you I'm excited to go back and be able to see guys that I played with for a long time. Be able to see [Derek] Jeter play in his last year. Just looking forward to going back."
Some Yankees fans have always had mixed feelings about Cano. Discontent about his reluctance to run hard on routine ground balls seemed to at times overshadow his immense talent, his Hall of Fame-path production and the fact that he averaged 160 games during his final seven seasons in pinstripes.
But the perception is there, and it may be as much of Cano's Yankees legacy as his .309 average, 204 home runs, five All-Star Game appearances and 2009 World Series ring.
The issue bubbled to the surface in February when Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said, "If somebody told me I was a dog, 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, Robby chose not to."
Cano just smiles when asked about Long's comments. Others in Seattle have a different take.
Like, you people are nuts.
"When that whole story broke, all of us just rolled our eyes in Seattle," said Dave "Softy'' Mahler, a popular sports talk show host on KJR-950 AM. "When [Ken Griffey Jr.] was here popping 40 home runs a year, he kind of lollygagged to first base as well, and nobody gave a damn because the guy was an All-Star. If Robinson Cano ends up putting up the numbers he put up in New York, the guy can crawl to first base."
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who signed the 31-year-old Cano for 10 years and the fourth-richest contract in baseball history, said: "I don't see it as a problem at all. We've got a great fan base here. Our fans are knowledgeable and passionate, but they're also understanding, if you will. No one's expecting him to come in here and hit .400 and hit 40 home runs. We just expect him to be Robinson Cano."
Entering Saturday night, Cano was batting .291 with 10 RBIs. Switching from Yankee Stadium to spacious Safeco likely will suppress his offensive numbers; his career OPS in the Bronx is .906 vs. .804 in 49 games in Seattle.
But he didn't come to Seattle for the pretty ballpark.
"Twenty-four million dollars a year -- that's what it takes to get free agents to come to Seattle," Mahler said. "I mean, the Mariners don't have a great history of free agents and they don't have a great history of really outbidding anybody for free agents. Has he lived up to $24 million so far? No. Will he? We're hopeful."
The main Mariner
For most of his Yankees career, Cano was surrounded by offensive talent. Last season, however, injuries left him somewhat unprotected, with the likes of Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells batting behind him in the lineup.
Still, Cano hit .317 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs and finished fifth in the American League MVP voting. He was the one Yankee you didn't want to beat you. Now he's the one Mariner you really, truly don't want to beat you.
On Friday, Cano batted third as the Mariners won their second in a row. Corey Hart was the cleanup hitter. Seattle's starting outfield was Colle Gillespie, Abraham Almonte and Stefan Romero.
The young players the Mariners hope will complement Cano -- Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley -- are batting between .183 and .242.
Free-agent signee Logan Morrison is on the disabled list, as are starting pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Taijun Walker. Former Yankee Jesus Montero, no longer a catcher, is slowly rounding into shape at Triple-A after reporting to camp 40 pounds overweight.
The Mariners entered Saturday night ahead of only Houston in most offensive categories in the AL. They were 14th in runs per game (3.7), batting average (.226) and OPS (.642).
Knowing that Cano doesn't have much around him could be one reason his honeymoon phase might last a while here.
As Mahler put it: "Right now, Robinson Cano is basically surrounded by slop."
The low point may have come last Monday when ace Felix Hernandez lost to the Astros, 7-2. But the Mariners lost the next night, too, before snapping the eight-game skid on Wednesday.
"It's a little tough, but it's a long season," Hernandez said. "Still in April. We've just got to get it back and we're going to be good."
That's debatable. One of the realities of seeing Cano in his Mariners uniform with No. 22 on the back (24 is retired for Griffey) is realizing he's not playing with Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte and all of the Yankees' cavalcade of superstars anymore. The Mariners last made the playoffs in 2001 (when they went 116-46).
"They haven't won for a long time and that's something he's going to have to get used to," said former Yankees and Mariners reliever Jeff Nelson. "It's awful hard to leave an organization such as the Yankees where you know every year you have a shot to get to the playoffs. That's tough to leave.
"I know he got tons of money, and I don't think anybody can blame him, but as far as baseball-wise, you're going to an organization that's starting to build from scratch. But you're going to an easy place to play. The fans are great in Seattle. They can't wait for the Mariners to get better."
While they wait, they have been staying away. The Mariners have seen their attendance drop from more than 3.5 million in 2002 to less than 1.8 million the last two seasons.
They drew 31,145 to Friday's game against the Rangers on a chilly night and averaged 23,970 for their first nine home games -- 21st in the majors. The Yankees were third after 10 home dates, averaging 42,001.
To help boost their profile, the Mariners have been playing up their ties to the champion Seahawks, who play next door at CenturyLink Field.
Quarterback Russell Wilson threw out the first pitch before Seattle's April 8 home opener. On Friday, Cano received the biggest cheers during pregame introductions . . . until Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett took to the mound to throw his ceremonial first pitch.
"There's no question people are more fired up for the Seahawks than what the M's are doing," Mahler said. "People are almost more into the [NFL] schedule coming out and the draft in May. When the Seahawks go out and win the Super Bowl, there's going to be a party for them that lasts all offseason long. People are just down on the M's. They've been down on them for 10 years."
That's not to say the Mariners aren't using Cano in their marketing. "Hello Cano" T-shirts are on sale at Safeco Field and a "Hello Cano" page on Facebook has 3,161 likes. Sunday's giveaway for fans 14 and under is a different Cano T-shirt.
Cano the leader?
Cano has drawn praise from Hernandez and Zduriencik for acing the transition and working with Seattle's young players.
"When I was a young player with Derek, with Alex, Mariano, [Jason] Giambi, Bernie [Williams] . . . you have to pass it along, because that's why I became who I am today," Cano said. "Watching them and learning from them. If there's a chance I'm able to do that, why not?"
Said Hernandez: "He's a great guy, great player, great teammate. I know him from a long time ago. He's been helping here a lot."
Cano is still getting settled in Seattle. A fixture in the New York-area Dominican community and its restaurants, he was asked if he's found any good Dominican food in town. "I have my mom here," he said.
Even with Cano here, King Felix remains Seattle's biggest baseball star. But Cano has a long time to become as beloved as Hernandez and Griffey and Edgar Martinez.
Ten years is a long time. And it's only just begun.
"I'm happy here," Cano said. "You have to be. You know how many guys want to play in the big leagues one day and be able to be here for the next 10 years?"