Commentary

Robinson Cano makes it a family victory

With his father throwing the pitches, Yanks' slugger had a magical night to win Derby

Originally Published: July 11, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- What do you get when you hold a Home Run Derby in the desert in the middle of July?

Correct answer: You get a heartwarming tale of a father and a son from the Dominican Republic, celebrating a special evening of Home Run Derby triumph. What else?

Hey, you were expecting maybe (A) heat stroke, (B) desert fever or (C) a home run that comes down in a cactus plant?

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano hit 32 home runs overall, including two that went an estimated 472 feet, to win his first Home Run Derby title.

No sir. Those would all be incorrect answers. And none of those incorrect answers would even be physically possible in this particular Home Run Derby, thanks to the miracle of retractable roofs that don't retract when it's 102 degrees out.

But what was clearly possible was this: Robinson Cano spent his evening Monday rewriting the script of his increasingly spectacular career, with an unforgettable assist from his father, Jose.

On a day when most of the talk seemed to be about all the New York Yankees who WEREN'T in attendance, Cano found a way to remind us that that it may not be long before the biggest star in the Bronx isn't named Derek or Mo, CC or Alex.

He reminded us by launching 32 home runs into the Arizona night, a dozen of which came in the greatest final round in Home Run Derby history.

He reminded us by smoking what felt like a never-ending series of unforgettable home runs -- ridiculous blasts that went splashing into a swimming pool, butting into concessions lines way out in various distant concourses and splattering off a giant beer bottle that has to be closer to the red rocks of Sedona than it is to home plate.

And he reminded us, finally, by reacting to it all with such unrestrained joy -- not so much for himself but for the indelible moment he'd just shared with his father.

"I don't want to say that I won this trophy," Cano said afterward, flashing a smile almost as wide as the Grand Canyon. "I want to say that my dad has won this trophy."

It is now more than two decades since Jose Cano achieved what he then thought was his greatest moment on a major league stage -- when he reached the big leagues with the Houston Astros late in 1989 and spun a complete-game win over the Cincinnati Reds on the next-to-last day of the season.

It was the first win of Jose Cano's major league career -- and the last pitch he would ever throw off a big league mound.

Until Monday night at Chase Field.

It was there that father and son got to re-enact a ritual they'd been sharing since the day Robinson Cano grew big enough to hold a baseball bat. It was a familiar scene -- a father throwing batting practice to his son. Except this time, it would be a life-changing event for both of them.

"That's what I do all the time at home, just throwing BP," Jose Cano said. "When he called me at home, that he wanted me to come to the United States because he's going to be in the Home Run Derby, I said, 'I'll be happy to pitch to you, because that's what I do at home.'"

So on this night, the son asked his father to do what he's always done, to feed him fastballs, low and inside. And "it worked," Jose Cano said. "Thank God it worked."

It worked so well, in fact, his son joked, "I might bring him to New York."

Cano smashed eight majestic homers in the first round and 12 more in the second, propelling him into the finals against the equally remarkable Adrian Gonzalez.

Then Gonzalez kicked off the final round by hitting five homers in his first six swings, eight in his first 11 swings and 11 bombs altogether. It was only the third time in 26 Derbies that any hitter had smoked that many home runs in the finals, tying a record previously set by Bobby Abreu (2005) and David Ortiz (last year).

This is a good memory. It's something that I'm always going to have in my mind and my heart.

-- Robinson Cano on winning
the 2011 Home Run Derby

After watching Gonzalez pound one rocket after another, Ortiz hugged his first baseman and figured precisely what just about every other occupant of this ballpark figured: "I thought," Big Papi said, "that was it."

But two men thought otherwise: "You can do it," Jose Cano told his son.

And his son would say later, "You have to put in your mind that you are going to win. You don't want to waste almost 40 swings to say, 'Wow, congratulations,' to another person."

So Robinson Cano smoothed the dirt, dug in and went to work. Seven swings later, he'd already put a five-spot up there, topped by one of his most insane blasts of the night -- a space shot that clanked off the big AL-NL tote board that towers above the concourse in right.

A few minutes later, he whomped three more in a row, including a 466-footer that just missed carrying over the entire lower deck in the deepest part of right-center.

Then came homers No. 9 and 10, bringing him within one of Gonzalez. Cano stepped out as 48,000 people stood and applauded. Then he wiggled back into the box and mashed the home run that tied it -- a 472-footer that disrupted life at a distant concession line, out in the concourse.

In 25 years of Home Run Derbies before this one, only two men -- Ortiz and Abreu -- had ever hit 11 homers in a final round. Now two men had just done it back-to-back. Incredible.

Cano could smell it now. He chest-bumped his friend, Jordan the barber, from the Bronx. He huddled with his Yankees teammates -- Russell Martin, Curtis Granderson and David Robertson.

Then Robinson Cano settled in for one last defining swing of the bat, lined it 408 feet into the right-field seats and headed right for the mound -- to jump into the arms of his father.

"So can we split the trophy," Robbie Cano said with a laugh, "half and half?"

It was hard to digest what had just happened here. To beat Adrian Gonzalez, all Robinson Cano had to do was hit more home runs than any man had ever hit in a Derby final -- more than Big Mac, more than Kenneth Griffey Jr., more than Josh Hamilton or Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols.

And then that's exactly what he did? Seriously?

Of course he did -- as his father stood on the mound, completely unruffled, actually counting down the home runs his son needed to win.

"Every time he hit a home run in the last round," Jose Cano said, "I said, '10 more … nine more … eight more.' And when he got the last one, I said, 'Just one. Just give me the one. That's it.'"

But on this night, that wasn't all they gave each other.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAdrian Gonzalez fell short in his bid to win the Derby, but he did hit several mammoth home runs.

The son gave the father the memory of a lifetime. The father helped give the son a night that just might do for him what another Derby night in Yankee Stadium once did for Josh Hamilton.

After all, if you somehow hadn't caught on to what kind of talent Robbie Cano had before Monday night, you sure know now.

"I compare his swing, as far as smoothness, to Ken Griffey," said Russell Martin. "It just really looks effortless, like he doesn't get tired. He just has that natural bat speed. It's not hard for him to generate bat speed. The barrel comes through that zone quick. He's like a boxer. You're just amazed by how quick his hands are."

"He deserved to win," said Gonzalez, ever gracious. "He hit homers a lot farther than I did. I just just got them over the fence."

But the real difference is that the baseballs that Robinson Cano sent flying over that fence will be flying forever -- in the memory bank of the man who hit them, anyway.

He has played in All-Star Games before. He has won a World Series. But on Monday night in the Arizona desert, it was the Home Run Derby that made one of Robbie Cano's greatest dreams come true.

"It don't matter how much money you make or how long you play," he said. "Those are the kind of things, the memories that you can bring home and always share with your family -- not only now but when you retire. You can look over and say, 'Wow, I was good back in the day.'

"This is a good memory," said Robinson Cano. "It's something that I'm always going to have in my mind and my heart."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter:

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com