Robinson Cano stayed on the field for nearly an hour after one of the Yankees' recent off-day workouts, and the Yankees' second baseman behaved as if he were having as much fun taking extra swings in front of 50,000 empty seats as he does during a real game.

As Kevin Long did his best impersonation of a fast-pitch softball league pitcher by firing underhanded fastballs from 40 feet, Cano smiled, laughed and shouted messages in Spanish as he methodically deposited the hitting coach's offerings in the rightfield seats.

"Somebody once said to me that he's always laughing," said former Yankees coach Larry Bowa, who took a special interest in Cano. "I said you would laugh, too, if the ball looked like a beach ball coming in every time you hit. I'm sure that's what it looks like for him."

Talent has never been a question with Cano. You see his natural gifts with every smooth swing. Heck, Joe Torre compared Cano to Hall of Famer Rod Carew - "with a little more pop." And that was before Cano had played his first major-league game.

The 'L' word

The big question with Cano always has been his work ethic. In the minors, he had a reputation of being lazy, and once you get that label, it's a hard one to shake. It's stuck with him, to some degree, ever since.

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Yet with Cano coming off his most prolific all-around season as the Yankees begin the ALCS against the Rangers, people close to him say it's long overdue to stop using the "L" word in reference to Cano. What he's accomplished this season in becoming the Yankees' most consistent offensive player, they say, is evidence of the hard work he's put in daily for some time.

"I think if you talk to most people in the game now, they don't see that Cano that was immature and lazy at times," Long said. "He works hard. Work isn't an issue with him."

Take, for example, the after-workout session with Long just the other day. It certainly wasn't peer pressure that made Cano stick around for extra work. After all, the other two players who stayed for additional hitting on this day were backups Francisco Cervelli and Ramiro Peña.

The reason Cano still is working overtime, he said, is because he enjoys it. He's having more success than he's ever had in the majors, and it's a high he wants to ride as long as he can.

Taking the fifth

Moved to fifth in the batting order this season, Cano established career highs in home runs (29), RBIs (109), total bases (334), on-base percentage (.381) and slugging percentage (.534). He also made only three errors at second base, nine fewer than he committed in 2009.

"I believe he's the MVP of our league," manager Joe Girardi said. "Just because, if you combine his offense and I believe Gold Glove defense and how he impacts the game defensively, I think he's had the best all-around year."

For Cano, it's been one interesting path to get to this point.

Long remembers first working with Cano when they were together at Triple-A Columbus in 2004. He was impressed with Cano's talent but also realized there was a lot of work to be done.

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"He had a long way to go makeup-wise,'' Long said. "Physically he wasn't where he needed to be and mentally he wasn't where he needed to be."

Early success

When Bowa joined the Yankees' coaching staff in 2006, he made Cano his pet project. There's nothing Bowa hates more than wasted talent, so Bowa had Cano on the field at 8 every morning - more than an hour before everyone else - and put him through fielding drills.

"At first it was a little tough," Bowa said. "But you could just see the maturation process taking place. It got to the point where he would come and get me and say, 'Let's go, let's go.' "

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Whether it's been avoiding another slow start, becoming a more patient hitter or keeping his concentration in the field, Cano has taken the time to kill each of those labels, one by one.

This season he focused on being better with runners in scoring position, and once again Cano succeeded. A year after hitting .207 (38-for-184) in those situations, Cano improved to .322 (55-for-171).

Now he'd like to improve in the postseason, especially after hitting .193 (11-for-57) overall last year.

He's off to a good start, going 4-for-12 with a triple in the sweep of the Twins, crediting his "just another game'' approach. "I don't want to put any pressure on my mind," he said.

This is the Cano the Yankees would like people to get to know better, the guy whose work ethic is not an impediment but rather one of the reasons he's become one of the game's best players.

Said Cano, "I've learned to take advantage of my mistakes, and to say, 'I can learn from this.' "