Robinson Cano wore in a red first-base glove and put on a Tacoma Rainiers baseball cap with a Seattle Mariners warm-up shirt Monday afternoon. He and Daniel Vogelbach rotated taking ground balls behind a first-base bag Cano has never before played.
This was Cano’s first game of really the next stage in his 14-year career. Cano had never before been suspended 80 games for violating major league baseball’s joint drug agreement, he never before had to put on a jersey for Triple-A Tacoma and never before had to return to professional baseball under a dark cloud of performance-enhancing drugs.
Monday’s game at Cheney Stadium was his first competitive game since the suspension was announced on May 15, with his return to the Mariners scheduled for Aug. 14.
“I got there today and from about 3 p.m. to 7 it was the longest day of my life,” Cano said. “I was just waiting for that moment to go out and see how it was going to be going out to first base.”
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The last time Cano was in the minor leagues, he was with Double-A Trenton of the New York Yankees system while on a rehab assignment from a strained left hamstring – on Aug. 6, 2006.
So it had been a while.
In the meantime Cano will work at both first and third base with a little bit of second, just like he was doing at his complex in the Dominican Republic for the past month.
He played eight innings at first on Monday with some very comfortable-looking plays using a first-base glove given to him by fellow Dominican Albert Pujols. Cano picked a throw out of the dirt from Seth Mejias-Brean, later switched feet on the bag and caught a high throw on the foul side of first base and still kept his right foot on the bag for another out, all while dodging the runner. Though one line drive careened off his glove to second baseman Gordon Beckham.
So not all perfect, but still smooth.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Didn't take Robbie long to get that first hit. <a href="https://t.co/6tevwNvOsT">pic.twitter.com/6tevwNvOsT</a></p>— Tacoma Rainiers (@RainiersLand) <a href="https://twitter.com/RainiersLand/status/1026658849816596481?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 7, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
“I did a lot of work there – it’s not an easy situation in the middle of the season,” Cano said. “But it’s not about myself, it’s about the team. I will do whatever and get ready down here. The guys, the way they treated me today and the fans, it was good to go out there and play some baseball.”
And he thought Pujols would have been proud of his glove work.
“I called him and asked him and he said the hardest thing there is the throws to my right or my left, but also when you have to switch your legs. Especially for me – I’ve never done that before. Doing that in the middle of the season is really hard …
“But at least I got a hit in my first at-bat,” he smiled.
Cano went 1-for-3 with a walk and he will DH in Tacoma in the Rainiers’ 11:35 a.m. game on Wednesday.
He said the plan is to take Wednesday off and then join short-season Single-A Everett for the AquaSox home game Thursday. He’d spent four games there before joining the Mariners in Oakland.
Sky Sox manager Rick Sweet, the former Mariners catcher and graduate of Mark Morris High School and Gonzaga University, joked that Mariners manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto called in a favor and asked him to bat all right-handed hitters in the Sky Sox lineup with Cano at first base. He did have all right-handed hitters in his lineup, which figured to mean fewer line drives right at Cano.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Canó out here picking balls in the dirt like he's a career first baseman. <a href="https://t.co/XbTgemmlDt">pic.twitter.com/XbTgemmlDt</a></p>— Tacoma Rainiers (@RainiersLand) <a href="https://twitter.com/RainiersLand/status/1026672331454726153?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 7, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Cano has played 1,995 games at second base in his career, 48 at designated hitter and one at shortstop in 2013 when he still played for the New York Yankees.
But after taking a few batted balls before the game at first base, he then trotted over to second base and outfielder Ben Gamel soon after delivered him his trusty teal and blue second base glove.
Then in the game he got to try to be on the receiving end of a double play instead of starting them.
“Oh, it’s weird,” Cano laughed. “It’s really weird. But it’s all mental. I just got in my head that I got to go out and play first base and just do my best. Not trying to be perfect, just do what I can.”
No complaints. He touted how hard he had worked in the Dominican Republic over the past month to make his smooth swings in pregame batting practice look like he had never missed a game.
“He knows his job is to play baseball,” Listach said. “He came in today and he got here early. He didn’t know where to go, so I showed him the clubhouse and welcomed him in. But he’s ready to play.”
He also delivered a pregame spread of Popeyes chicken for his teammates after trying to hit homers over the right-field wall and to Foss High School’s football field up the hill behind it during pregame batting practice. The postgame spread – crab legs with shrimp and steamed vegetables. It was impressive.
“What he did for the players after the game – that was just above and beyond,” Listach said.
“He seemed like he could play in the big leagues right now.”
Listach said it reminded him of when he played with Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount with the Brewers.
“My eyes were open wide all year just watching how they go about their business,” Listach said. “Some of these guys here will be in awe just watching the mere abilities he has on defense and with the bat.”
Cano received a loud ovation when his name was announced before walking into the batter’s box for the first time.
TJ Navilio had been with his son and his son’s friends at the Seattle Seahawks training camp when he heard that Cano would be playing in Tacoma, so he trekked south.
“He’s one of my favorite players, so I wanted to get out to watch him play,” Navilio said.
Blair Starcevich was there with his wife and baby, wearing a T-shirt with Cano’s face on it. Starcevich, like most Mariners fans, was more concerned with Cano’s future production than any past transgressions.
“He’s had 80 games to think about it. I hope it doesn’t affect him too much,” Starcevich said.
“I still back him. Everyone makes mistakes. I wish he would have been more up-front initially… but (it’s) water under the bridge.”
As for Cano’s future as an icon and his legacy, reactions were much more mixed. Charlene Moore, a regular at Cheney Stadium, could only be so forgiving.
“I hope the fans don’t give him a hard time,” Moore said. “He’s made a mistake, he’s paid for it. He won’t be in the Hall of Fame now because of it. He’s definitely paid a price for what he did, and we need him back for the offense.”
Greg Norman, who has been collecting autographs outside Cheney Stadium for over a decade, thought Cano would now be tied to the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. But Doug Mitchem, whose first minor league game in Tacoma was a Tacoma Giants game in 1960, is like most other fans – more focused on the present, especially with the recent slide the Mariners have been in.
“If he’s our late-season addition, well, good for us, but we’ll wait and see on that,” Mitchem said.
But about playing first base ...
The Mariners see Cano playing every day when he does return now that Dee Gordon is entrenched at second. So that means splitting some time at first base with Ryon Healy, at third with Kyle Seager and still the occasional game at second base as well as designated hitter when Nelson Cruz needs a break.
Cano said he spent Friday and Saturday working with Mariners infield coach Manny Acta starting at 9 a.m. at Safeco Field, heading home for a shower and then spending two more hours of practicing later in the day.
Cano is lauded for his strong throwing arm at second base and how smooth he makes it look – which is why he has two Gold Gloves at second. Servais things those transfer over to first and third.
But this is not as easy as it seems.
“It’s hard,” Cano said. “The really hard part is you have to keep in your mind that every ground ball you have to go to the bag. I asked Encarnacion that, too, and he’s like ‘You got to be ready all the time because one time you might forget and get to first base late.’ That’s all I was saying in my head – don’t be late. Be ready every ground ball.”
But there’s no question Cano makes the Mariners’ better when he does return, if for his bat alone. He was watching the Mariners’ extra-inning win over the Texas Rangers when he could during Monday’s Rainiers game.
“I hope the guys, they won tonight and keep winning, and when I get up there we keep fighting,” Cano said. “I love that. I love to be in the big situations and it tells you how good you are playing.
“It’s hard – it’s hard when you have to watch because I play 150 games a year. To sit down and watch the game and know if you was there you could be helping. But they’re a great team and they’ve played so good. You have to give credit to a lot of the guys. They fight, they working hard every day and they get themselves ready. They deserve a lot of credit.”