Commentary

Face it, Yanks need to be Cano's team

As Jeter and Mo age, who will be the next signature Bomber? Answer's at second base

Updated: March 6, 2011, 2:38 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Above all else, the mythology of the New York Yankees demands the presence of signature stars for every generation of ballplayers and fans.

The Babe and the Iron Horse. Joe D and the Mick. Thurman and Reggie. Jeter and Mo.

But as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera confront their mortality, and as an aging and scarred champion, Alex Rodriguez, tries to bring clarity to an unsettled legacy, the Yankees need a transcendent player to emerge from the on-deck circle.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRobinson Cano's batting average dipped to just .271 in 2008. He responded by hitting at a .320 clip the next two seasons.

They need Robinson Cano to make the world's most famous ballteam his.

"He can be the face of the franchise," hitting coach Kevin Long said. "When you think of the Yankees, you think of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. But at some point someone is going to have to take over that, and Robinson is the guy."

Funny how things work out. As recently as two seasons back, Cano would have been called a lot of things, but "face of the franchise" wasn't within a country mile of any of them.

His tough-love mentor, Larry Bowa, had departed with Joe Torre, leaving the second baseman to start throwing spitballs around the classroom of the substitute teacher, Joe Girardi. Cano showed the same alarming lack of urgency running out a grounder to short that he did tracking a batted ball. Finally Cano pushed the rookie manager too far late in 2008, refusing to chase a ball hit by Tampa Bay's Cliff Floyd and allowing the lead-footed Ray to reach second base.

Girardi pulled Cano from the game, benched him, and ultimately met with him in the company of Brian Cashman. For 20 minutes the manager and general manager showed Cano the tape of the Floyd play and told him he needed to start hustling or else.

Jeter pulled him aside, too, and gave him a captain's order to honor his considerable skill. Just to reinforce the point, Long took time out of his offseason to confront Cano at his Dominican Republic home.

"Listen," the hitting coach told him, "you're a talented player but you've got to start doing some things differently. You've got to start working hard. You've got to start applying some of this talent, otherwise you're going to find yourself at the end of your career looking back and saying, 'I didn't get the most out of my ability.'"

Cano listened intently. He didn't retreat into a state of denial, and there was no verbal sparring between player and coach.

"He was just appreciative that I was telling the truth and not sugarcoating it," Long said. "Instead of pouting he went the other way with it."

Cano arrived in camp in 2009 a different player and man. He had rebuilt his body and rewired his approach, and in a fitting piece of symmetry he fielded the final out of the Yankees' first World Series title since 2000.

The Red Sox had seized two liberating, ghost-busting championships in between, and they had a former league MVP at second base, Dustin Pedroia, who was supposed to be the passionate winner the old Robinson Cano -- the room temperature Robinson Cano -- was not.

But by nearly claiming his own MVP award in 2010, when Pedroia went down with a broken foot, Cano established a superiority at second that gives the Yankees one (if only one) decided advantage over Boston entering 2011.

"I know I had a great last two seasons," Cano said, "but I don't look at myself as being as good as or better than Pedroia. He's fun to watch, he plays the game the right way, and he can hit and field and do it all. For me, I'm just trying to get the best out of myself and help this team win the World Series."

Cano maintains a quiet disposition from one corner of Yankeedom to the next, but there's growing evidence of a raging fire within. He's embraced the A-Rod/Jeter work ethic and he's watched tapes of Michael Jordan, listened to the six-time NBA champion talk about the commitment and desire to be great.

This offseason, after he batted .319 with 29 home runs and 109 RBIs, after he became the first Yankee to hit four homers in a postseason series (in the ALCS loss to Texas), Cano didn't reassume the role of struggling student in dire need of Long's straight-shooting candor.

Cano was the one who delivered the lessons, inviting Francisco Cervelli and Eduardo Nuñez to share in his intense workouts near his Dominican home. Cervelli, for one, said Cano showed him what hard, fat-burning work was all about.

"Robinson took those two under his wing this winter," Long said. "It showed he's gaining in his leadership responsibility."

Cano will need to lean on those gains. He's no longer the kid Cashman once offered in packages to Kansas City (for Carlos Beltran), to Arizona (for Randy Johnson), and to Texas (for A-Rod); the Rangers took Joaquin Arias instead. At 28, Cano is no longer the kind of future game-changer that Manny Banuelos projects to be.

Cashman has already told Cano he can be a Hall of Famer, and as the heart of the Yankees' lineup ages, the second baseman has to keep swinging like one. Cano has to keep swinging like a No. 5 hitter who deserves a sooner-rather-than-later promotion to No. 3.

"To be honest," he said, "I don't care where I hit. You've got [Mark] Teixeira, Alex, Jeter, Posada, [Nick] Swisher, [Curtis] Granderson -- everybody can hit in this lineup."

Just not like Cano. Before a 2006 Division Series his team would win, Detroit manager Jim Leyland described the Yankees as "Murderers' Row and then Cano."

Now Cano is a Murderers' Row of one. Long expects his power numbers to increase this year, along with his appetite for becoming the next face of Derek Jeter's franchise.

"That's heavy stuff," the hitting coach agreed.

In other words, Robinson Cano had better be strong enough to shoulder the load.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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