Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Andy Does It Again

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This famous phrase was coined by a French journalist more than 170 years ago, but it's never seemed more timely than right now. First, I read a piece by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich in The Athletic, puncturing the small amount of optimism I was clinging to regarding MLB baseball being played. Then I came across an Andy Martino column for SNY pondering why "so many fans dislike Robinson Cano." As soon as I saw the title, I thought to myself, "let me guess — could it be racism?"

A decade ago, while he was still with the Daily News, Andy penned a piece questioning whether the intense dislike that many Mets fans at the time felt for second baseman Luis Castillo was due to his brown skin and Dominican heritage. That piece is gone from the internet, but an excellent follow-up by Craig Calcaterra still exists if you're interested. Now he's asking the same question about Robinson Cano.

Before I get into this, let me state that I understand very well that racism is still a big deal in this country. I'm 63 years old and became aware very early in my life that racism was a very real thing. My family was working-class Italian-American, and my neighborhood was full of blue-collar Italians, Irish, and other white families. Overt and covert racism was very much a part of that culture.

In my own family, my Grandfather enthusiastically practiced a repulsive form of racism. He was such a rotten son of a bitch that I came to reject his beliefs. He was sort of a reverse role model for me. It all clarified for me one day when we were watching tv and got the news that Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed. My Grandfather made a couple of ugly jokes that were so offensive that my 9-year-old self knew that I could never allow myself to embrace that nasty thinking.

But other family members and folks from the neighborhood who were better people than my Grandfather shared very similar opinions about race, if not quite so obnoxiously voiced. The parents of most of my friends, who were, by and large, really good people, were, with few exceptions, undoubtedly quite racist. It was harder there to separate my respect and love for those profoundly decent people with the views they held that were just plain wrong. But that was an important life lesson: things are very seldomly all good or bad. On the other hand, I've known since those years that racism still exists, even if it's less socially acceptable in most circles. And racism is always a bad thing that I certainly will never defend.

But just as, back a decade ago, I felt Andy Martino's racism explanation for antipathy towards Luis Castillo was more exploitive than profound, Andy's piece about Cano feels like Martino going to the same old well to get some clicks. It must be hard to find interesting topics to write about while the game of baseball remains in a dreary holding pattern with almost no news generated. I guess Martino would defend the choice of subject by claiming that he's asking an important question. But throwing around accusations of racism when there are plenty of other reasons some Mets fans dislike Cano is just going to outrage some folks without changing anyone's mind on the subject.

For some context, I remember the brouhaha surrounding Luis Castillo very well. Castillo came to the Mets in a deadline deal with the Twins in July 2007 for OF Dustin Martin and C Drew Butera. Martin never made it to the majors, while Butera played in 553 games over 12 seasons as a light-hitting backup. Castillo performed pretty well as a Met down the stretch, slashing .296/.371/.372 over the final 50 games of the season, but the team endured an epic collapse that devastated the fanbase.

While Castillo was hardly to blame for the way the 2007 season played out, it seemed pretty evident that the 31-year-old was on the downside of his career — a career that had been built on slapping singles, stealing bases, and strong defense. Luis' aging legs sapped away at both his offensive usefulness and defensive viability. Omar Minaya's decision to sign the declining ballplayer to a 4-year deal after the season seemed quite insane. Castillo's skill set was a bad mix for the steroid era. Even in his prime, he only produced an ERA+ over league average 3 times. And that prime was long over by 2008.

Castillo only played about half of the 2008 season thanks to injuries and wasn't great when he did play, slashing .245/.355/.305 with below-average defense. He bounced back in 2009, playing in 142 games and slashing .302/.387/.346. It was a dead cat bounce. Luis was hurt and awful again in 2010, playing in only 86 games and slashing .237/.337/.267.

Even in the one good year in his Mets contract, Luis dropped an A-Rod popup that would have been the final out in a game against the Yankees, ensuring the undying rancor of a good percentage of fans. As Castillo's injuries took their toll on his body, it looked to some fans as if he wasn't playing hard. I doubt that was really the case. I understand only too well personally how leg injuries can sap your athleticism and make you look bad.

Castillo was released by the Mets in spring training before the 2011 season, the final year of his contract. I wrote the following on March 19, 2011, in the old blog that no longer exists:

I always kind of liked and respected Luis Castillo as a ballplayer, and I don't harbor any lingering bad feelings towards the guy.  I may even be one of the few big-time Mets fans who didn't spend the whole winter obsessively hoping for the Mets to release Luis Castillo.

Still, I wonder what took the Mets so long to bow to inevitability and send the second baseman packing.  They wasted a lot of spring training ABs on a 34-year-old infielder whose production has drastically declined both offensively and defensively, and whose very existence symbolized for many fans the failures of Mets ownership and the previous regime.

The Mets have little chance of a playoff spot in 2011, and Castillo had absolutely zero chance of returning in 2012.  Meanwhile, the second base question has not been clarified in the least bit even as Castillo's continuing presence only contributed to the overall murkiness.

... Luis Castillo indeed became a symbol for fans, but not a symbol of race. In the tradition of Kaz Matsui, Shawn Green and countless others, Castillo became a symbol of growing frustration with Mets ownership and the people they hired to run their ball club. Dropping the pop fly to lose the Subway Series game sealed his fate, and only the type of extraordinary play that Castillo was no longer physically capable of producing could have saved him with the fans.

I never hated Luis Castillo, but I was still happy to see him go in the spring of 2011 — for all of the reasons I wrote about in the excerpt above. Andy Martino wrote his infamous piece back then, questioning whether the fans' disdain for Luis Castillo could be explained by racism. While, as I've said, I don't doubt that racism still exists and is still a massive problem in this country, it was too easy to explain why many Mets fans didn't like Castillo without using racism as a primary motivation. I still believe the primary reason was Castillo representing the failings of the waning years of Omar Minaya's time with the Mets, along with that infamous dropped popup against the Yankees.

In the same way, I think Robinson Cano symbolizes the mistakes made at the end of the Wilpons' ownership of the club. A completely inexperienced GM made a trade for a 36-year-old second baseman. Not only was that player long suspected as a PED user, he actually had already been caught and suspended 80 games for cheating. The Mets were on the hook for $20 million per year for five more years, through Cano's age 40 season. Putting aside all of the other players in the deal, going and coming, it was a really bad move.

Cano was below average as a hitter in his first season in New York, with an OPS+ of 95. It seemed too good to be true when he bounced back to hit .316/.352/.544 during the 60-game pandemic season. Sure enough, Cano tested positive for PEDs after the season and earned a second suspension, this time for a year. There are still two years remaining on Cano's contract for this season and next. The Mets are on the hook for $20 million per year.

There are real questions about whether getting offensive production out of Robinson Cano depends on him finding a way to take PEDs and not get caught. I would think that Cano would avoid taking the chance, as a lifetime suspension would be next. That $40 million left on his contract is likely to be all of the big money Cano will make from baseball.

Anyway, getting back to Martino's article, Andy claims that Cano's PED use doesn't explain why fans don't like him. He waffles quite a bit in his piece about whether racism can really be the cause, but, of course, he went there. Here's a sample:

So … why aren't you excited to see if [Cano] is still as awesome as the last time he donned a Mets uniform?

More than 10 years ago, I wrote a column for the Daily News exploring the role of racism in hatred of Luis Castillo. You probably remember, and you might still be mad about it.

Is that what’s going on with Cano?

He has, after all, been subject to classic racist tropes about laziness throughout his career. In the middle of an 11-year run of playing 150 games or more in every season -- but not sprinting down the line on obvious groundouts -- a white coach called him a "dog."

While it’s never my place to downplay racism that could be directed toward another group, I'm not sure that’s the main issue in this mysterious case, either.

What irritated me the most about Martino's article was all of the weasel wording. If Andy stated that he believed racism was a significant factor in all of this and made a case for it, I wouldn't have been as annoyed by the whole thing. But I believe racism is too important and too charged of a subject for a frivolous piece like this one.

For what it's worth, I'm sure that race plays a factor in how a small percentage of fans feel about Robinson Cano. I just don't think it's why most fans who want Cano to go away feel the way that they do. I don't hate Cano at all, and I think it makes sense for the Mets to give him a chance to prove he can be one of the 26 most productive players on their roster. That I'm skeptical of a happy ending with Cano is for the following reasons:

  • It's telling that Cano's offensive bounce back in 2020 led to a failed PED test. It makes me believe that the only way he can contribute offensively is to cheat and get away with it. Despite what Martino thinks about fans, I strongly dislike rooting for a player who I believe is cheating.
  • If Cano doesn't take PEDs and hits like he did in 2019, there's no place for an aging infielder who brings below-average production at both the plate and in the field.
  • I think Cano can wind up being a huge distraction to the Mets in a year that they really need to turn things around and prove that they can be a winning franchise.

So, if I could blink my eyes and make him go away, I would do it in a heartbeat. If he comes to spring training and fails another drug test, earning a quick lifetime ban, that would be somewhat of a relief. But I doubt that it will be so easy. The Mets will need to use whatever spring training there is to make an evaluation on Cano, and probably some of the beginning of the season as well. If he does well and doesn't fail another test, I believe that most fans will accept Robinson Cano, even if we don't love the guy.

I believe there would be more love for Cano among the fanbase, regardless of his skin color, if he had enjoyed some of his great years with the Mets. But none of us had the chance to fall in love with that version of Robinson Cano. That man played for the Yankees, who we loathe, and the Mariners, who we care little about.

If Cano struggles, he's just going to continue to look like a really dumb mistake by an in-over-his-head GM hired by ownership whose legacy is taking a franchise that once was the toast of the town and turning it into a laughingstock. But I don't blame Cano for the decision of other men who should have known better. However his time with the Mets ends up, I won't waste any energy hating Robinson Cano.

To sum up: racism is a very real and very serious problem. Andy Martino's article was just frivolous clickbait. We all deserve better.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

1 comment:

  1. I find it interesting that after arriving in New York Cano sucked big time. Then he was wonderful in the shortened 2020 season. Then he was caught again. My disdain for him as a player has nothing to do with race or cultural heritage. It is completely and 100% about cheating. I have no more respect for the white Roger Clemens or the white David Wells than I do for the non-white Robinson Cano.


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