PEORIA, Ariz. — Robinson Cano played the role of Seattle Mariners ambassador this week, attending the opening of the team’s new academy in his native Dominican Republic. He took batting practice. He posed for pictures. Clearly, he’s learned that a $240 million contract includes public-relations responsibilities. He was right to be there on an important day for the organization’s future.
But as I visited the Mariners’ clubhouse Friday morning, I reflected on how Cano’s most important outreach will be within those walls — among the teammates who will look to him for production and leadership in 2014 … and nine seasons after that.
Cano should have two objectives this spring: prepare his body for the rigors of a 162-game schedule (which he did every year in New York) and help the Mariners find an identity (which he never had to do in New York).
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Since we’ve enacted a rule this week that all baseball columns must lead to Derek Jeter, here’s the obligatory reference: Cano never had to be caretaker of the Yankees’ culture because that role belonged to The Captain. Now Cano, after signing the richest contract of any baseball player this offseason, must be for the Mariners what Jeter has been in the Bronx: reliable performer and internal compass.
Statistical analysts are welcome to disagree, but the 2013 Red Sox would tell you that an emphasis on character and cohesiveness — beginning at this time last year — was a major factor in their World Series title. The three champions before them — the ’12 Giants, ’11 Cardinals and ’10 Giants — had well-defined personalities and beat superior teams in the postseason. However you care to define it, chemistry matters.
I’m not suggesting the ’14 Mariners are ready to win a championship. They aren’t. But if they’re serious about returning to October in the near future — as the Cano investment suggests — their new superstar must help the organization develop the sense of self that has eluded them through much of a 12-year playoff drought.
Cano can take control on his own terms, with deed more than word. But the point is that he has to do it. He’s the best player. He makes the most money. That’s the way it goes in Major League Baseball.
"Robbie and I have talked," said Lloyd McClendon, the Mariners’ first-year manager. "I don’t think he’s going to need any help (getting acclimated). He comes from New York, where (he’s) the center of attention every day. They can say what they want to say, but Robinson Cano was the center of attention in New York. He was the best player on that team. He doesn’t need any help in that respect.
"The one thing I told Robbie (is), ‘Just be yourself. Just be who you are. Play the game the way you play it. Have fun.’ And I know this: If he does that, he will make other players in that locker room better. Great players do that. I don’t think he’s going to need any help in that respect."
For their part, the Mariners’ players seem curious about what the new guy is going to be like. Camp has opened for pitchers and catchers, but it’s as if they are waiting for Cano to show up before declaring the season officially open. The lingering possibility of external upgrades — Nelson Cruz? Ervin Santana? Ubaldo Jimenez? — has added to the uncertainty.
But once Cano shows up, the spotlight will be his — from now until, well, the day he’s no longer a Mariner. Camp opens Tuesday, and Cano would do well to enjoy the last hours of normalcy before then. The moment he arrives in the Mariners’ clubhouse, he becomes their Jeter. And all of his teammates will be watching.
Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.