The silence of Robinson Cano's stardom
We don't ask, so he doesn't answer. No wonder he might as well be Charlie Chaplin.
NEW YORK -- He's the real-life product of one of the most unabashedly romanticized relationships in sports: that Norman Rockwell image of a father playing catch with a son who dreams of becoming a big league baseball player someday. Except in this version, the father's name is Jose. And their home isn't Anytown USA. It's San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, arguably the most talent-rich baseball town on the planet.
And by the time this particular father-and-son duo make their first really big splash in the public eye --- with the father standing on the mound at Chase Field in Phoenix this July and grooving pitches to his son, Robinson Cano, to help him win the 2011 All-Star Game home run derby in an upset few folks saw coming --- 28-year-old Robby Cano had already accomplished a lot. He'd won a World Series ring in 2009, finished third in the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player voting, contended for the 2006 AL batting title and won a Gold Glove as an All-Star second baseman for the New York Yankees. He's the best all-around ballplayer in a baseball-mad city where the spotlight never sleeps.
Yet, something else was striking as the Canos stood there arm in arm in Arizona, something beyond how much both men were beaming after the home run derby was won.
When Robby was allowed to say just a few quick words on TV, it was probably the first time most baseball fans had ever actually heard the sound of his voice.
Which isn't unusual for Hispanic players. Even the best of them.
In many ways, they remain baseball's silent superstars.
They appear on your home television sets nightly for 10 months a year. But they are so rarely invited to give their insights and opinions or flesh out their personal stories, they might as well have played ball in Charlie Chaplin's era, back when movies flickered up on the silver screen without any sound.
"It's been better for me because of where I play, but it is hard, it can be hard," Cano says. "I also understand why it happens.
"If you go around baseball, how many Dominicans or Latinos are in the big leagues today?" he asks. Told it was 28 percent of all players on Opening Day this year, Cano says, "OK, 28 percent are Latino, right? And out of that 28 percent, maybe you cannot have a conversation [in English] with maybe 10 percent of them for more than five, 10 minutes. And most of us learn English when we're already in the big leagues. So it's really hard, I know.
"It's really hard making a story on a guy when you have to get a translator, when you want to get to know a guy, when you want to sit with a person one on one, and you want to hear it coming from that guy. You don't want somebody translating for you who just says, 'He said this or that.' I know how it is. You want it in his voice."
Cano's explanation makes sense -- but only to a point.
It accounts for Hispanic players whose English isn't all that great. But it doesn't explain why other Latino players who speak excellent to perfectly understandable (if accented) English -- stars like him -- are routinely bypassed when reporters walk from locker to locker looking for someone to interview, or when other outsiders show up with an endorsement opportunity, a business proposition, a public appearance to book or talk-radio show slot to fill. Lazy assumptions get made all the time about Hispanic players that prevent them from being approached as often as American-born white or black players.
But how much does any of this matter in the big scheme of things? A lot, Tony Perez, the last star of Cincinnati's old Big Red Machine teams to get into the Hall of Fame, has repeatedly said.
Perez's late Reds manager Sparky Anderson often said that Perez was the heart and soul of Cincinnati's 1970s teams that won four titles in seven seasons, not Pete Rose or Joe Morgan or Johnny Bench. But Perez has frequently said he believes his Latino background contributed to his longer wait to be voted in by reporters, which finally happened in 2000. Overall, only six other Hispanic players have ever been inducted. Luis Aparicio, Juan Marichal, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente and Roberto Alomar are in; Luis Tiant (229-172, with a 3.30 career ERA), two-time batting champ Tony Oliva and groundbreaking Cuban-born star Minnie Minoso are not.
Perez isn't the only one who feels that way. Though Latino stars dominate baseball, only two of them -- Albert Pujols (No. 6) and Alex Rodriguez (No. 9) -- were among the top 20 jersey sellers when MLB baseball released sales figures for the first time this March.
One of the reasons New York businessman Julio Pabon, who was born in Puerto Rico but later moved to the Bronx, started Latino Sports Ventures (LSV) in 1990 is this: He noticed as he played baseball one day with his 9-year-old son that, "He would mention Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and others, but never a Latino." Since 1990, Pabon has expanded LSV so that it now includes a website, an annual awards banquet, a Spanish-language sports talk radio show, and a memorabilia store inside the new Yankee Stadium.
"We should not let anyone tell us who our heroes are -- we should determine who our heroes are," Pabon said.
Cano is a good example of a terrific story that could be better told.
Other Yankees routinely say he's been their best everyday player for a couple of years now, and he's one of the top 10 players in baseball, period.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi batted Cano cleanup for long stretches this year when Rodriguez was injured, and the Yankees didn't miss a beat on the way to the AL's best record and a playoff spot against Detroit in the division series that starts Friday in the Bronx. Cano has always hit for average, but he's also now adept at driving in runs (118 this year) and hitting for power (28 home runs).
Nonetheless, he remains underappreciated. And he still went into that All-Star Game home run derby seen as a what's-he-doing-here? curiosity, not a real contender.
People caught on after he smacked 32 home runs overall, including 12 in the final, that night. But if anyone had bothered to ask beforehand, they'd have found out Cano has a terrific backstory, not just a sweet swing.
His father, Jose, is a former big league pitcher who appeared in just six career games, all for Houston. He named his son "Robinson" because he admired how Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line. And Robby -- who now wears No. 24 because it's Jackie's 42 in reverse -- takes his social responsibilities off the field seriously.
Cano recently outfitted 6,000 children with baseball uniforms and bought two ambulances for his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris. He's had such longstanding relationship with the Hackensack Medical Center in New Jersey, visiting and raising money, that there's a pediatric rehabilitation ward named after him there. Cano is also now the central character in a new children's book, "Boy of Steel," by best-selling author and Yankees community advisor Ray Negron. The book is about a boy who gets help from his baseball hero while dealing with cancer. Negron says one reason he chose Cano is that the player's commitment to numerous causes is so sincere and unflagging.
Negron says he occasionally enlists Cano, A-Rod or a few other Yankees after a game to show up unannounced at the large grass playground that sits atop a parking garage next to Yankee Stadium and play there for a while with neighborhood kids.
Sometimes the game is stickball.
"We're bringing back the days of Willie Mays playing with kids in the streets [in Harlem]," Negron laughs.
All of that is part of Cano's story, too.
And yet, in July, as he and his dad sat in the locker room in Phoenix, waiting for the All-Star Game festivities to begin, he might as well have been invisible.
Understand, this is nothing Cano volunteers or complains about.
"I know I'm still a young guy, and a lot of people have been in the game longer than me," he says.
But he does notice when he's ritually ignored or underestimated.
"You can tell by the way people acted that day," he concedes. "I mean, I was sitting there and nobody asked me one question."
Cano smiles now and adds, "But in the end, it was all good. I looked at it as an opportunity to show people. & When you hit a [regular-season] home run, they show you -- what? -- 10 seconds, eight seconds on TV, and that's it? But that contest, at least you get to be there for an hour. And people get to learn something good about you. And in that way, you touch a lot of people. I think it showed a different side of me."
What does Cano think people learned about him?
"It's easy to see just a guy that comes to the field and smiles and loves to play the game," Cano answers. "But people don't get to see behind the scenes. What do you do on a daily basis? How do you prepare mentally and physically to be great or play the game the right way? What sort of relationship do you have with your family? They don't know.
"That day was a huge moment for my dad. But also, I always wanted to be with my dad on the same field. And that was a big, big opportunity for me. To be on the same field -- him and me -- and win something. Together."
It's a sweet story, all right: The son who became a big star with his dad's help later teams up and gives his dad, who had just a cup of coffee as a pitcher in the majors, his best moment ever on a big league mound.
Don't be surprised if there's more good to come for Cano.
Girardi has repeatedly touted Cano's case for 2011 MVP. And when Cano was asked last week in an ESPNNewYork.com video interview whom he'd vote for in this year's crowded race, Cano looked straight into the camera, laughed a little and said, "I would give my vote to myself & why not me, right?"
There's a moral to this story, you know.
See what can happen when any Hispanic player --- not just loose cannon Ozzie Guillen, everybody's go-to guy for a quote -- is asked what he thinks or is invited to show what he can do? There's no telling what you might learn or what surprises you might get.
Robinson Cano, silent star no more.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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