Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Ballad of Robbie Cano

Robinson Cano's life is a fascinating moral story. For the 2022 Mets, the big question is, can he still hit?

As the New York Mets prepare for the season to get underway, one of the big questions lingering over the club is whether 39-year-old Robinson Cano can contribute anything of value coming back from a 1-year steroid suspension. There are still two years remaining on Cano's contract. While Seattle will be kicking in $4 million per season, the Mets are on the hook for $20 million this year and next. It's quite unlikely that Robinson Cano will play at the superstar level that would justify that kind of money, but that's really not the point. However you might feel personally about the man, there's no doubt that the most desirable outcome for the Mets would be for Cano to hit well enough to provide value as a part-time DH.

There have been some items in the local media about the morality of fans continuing to root for the twice-caught steroid cheater. For myself, I don't consider it to be all that big of a dilemma. I have rooted for the New York Mets for over 50 years, and have long come to accept the fundamental truth that the players who wear the orange and blue are — just like every other inhabitant of this planet — imperfect people. When I was young, these men were my heroes. But I grew out of the need to idolize ballplayers without losing my love for the Mets and baseball. Frankly, that feels much healthier than blindly believing that my guys are better than the other guys. I'll leave that silliness to St. Louis Cardinals fans. Nobody does it better.

In an article in the New York Post, Joel Sherman talks about how Cano's teammates and manager have accepted Robinson Cano back into the fold with open arms. Sherman suggests that there is some hypocrisy in the way that the Mets organization and Mets fans will react to Cano:

... by far the most fascinating benefit for Cano is that the Mets have wrapped him in their blue and orange embrace. Buck Showalter already is talking up Cano as a leader. His teammates are not giving him the cold shoulder, instead staying on script about second chances (or third) and forgiveness and everyone makes mistakes.

"What are we supposed to do?," Showalter said. "We’re not planning to beat up on him every day. I mean, what's the return there? He's wearing our colors."

Exactly. This is the polarizing world we live in — politically and in sports. What colors are you wearing? My guy is right, your guy is wrong — before I even know the subject. And even after, the only prism that matters is not morality or right or wrong. Just what colors are you wearing?

I understand what Sherman was saying here. There is a pervasive attitude in sports that your steroid cheater is a far worse person than my steroid cheater. But I don't believe that most Mets fans embrace Robbinson Cano's return to the team. We're just accepting it as a necessary evil.

For myself, that doesn't mean that I'm not prepared to cheer for Cano if he performs well. He's a New York Met, and when a Met does something positive in a game, I'm happy. As for the morality of it all, I look at it this way: Robinson Cano has received a stiff penalty from MLB and paid his price. As for the chance he might be tempted to use steroids again, it's up to MLB to test and catch cheaters. As a fan, I can only trust them to use state-of-the-art testing to stay ahead of ballplayers who attempt to cheat the system. If Cano elects to cheat and gets caught again, he's facing a lifetime suspension. If that happens, good riddance to the man.

I'm curious to see how much offense Robinson Cano can still provide. In 2019, Cano's first season with the Mets. He struggled to an anemic .256/.307/.428 batting line and missed time with injuries. My thoughts then were that Cano had probably stopped taking PEDs to avoid another steroid suspension and that those numbers reflected his capabilities without enhancement. When Cano bounced back in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to slash .316/.352/.544, he looked like the Robinson Cano of old. My first thought was that Robbie was cheating again. Sure enough, in November 2020, it was announced that he had tested positive for a PED and would be suspended for the entire 2021 season.

So here we are. Robinson Cano is entering his age 39 season, having been away from the game for a year. He will not be the starting second baseman, nor is he likely to be a full-time DH. If Cano is to be a part of the 2022 Mets, he will have to contribute to the team in a part-time role. He'll have to put up numbers to justify that spot. If he hits like he did in 2019, the team would probably cut bait and move on.

On the other hand, if he somehow hit the ball as he did in 2020, Cano will probably see a ton of playing time. And I will be wondering if he is cheating again. I'll be honest with you — I'll be cheering for the guy, but I probably will feel uneasy and distrustful of that achievement. But that's the dilemma that a twice-caught cheater causes for fans.

I think the most likely outcome is that Cano does okay for the Mets in a part-time role, provides some mentoring to younger players who look up to him, and is back next year for another go-round with the Mets where they'll have to evaluate once again whether he's worth an active roster spot. But who knows? I'm as curious as anyone to see this play out.

One thing that I really doubt is that most Mets fans will ever fully embrace Robinson Cano. And no, Andy Martino, it's not because his skin is brown — not for most fans, anyway. And it's not even 100% about the PEDs. It's really because Robinson Cano's greatness was achieved in the Bronx and Seattle. Had he come to the Mets earlier and played like a superstar in orange and blue, there would be a residual level of love in the fanbase that would be more forgiving of later struggles.

Mike Piazza was a shadow of the player he had once been in his final two seasons with the Mets. That the fans stayed with him during his struggles was due to a vast reservoir of love the fans maintained for the man who rejuvenated the franchise when he signed with them. Robinson Cano is just a guy who's being paid by the Mets for stuff he did elsewhere because a naive first-time GM thought Cano could still carry a team without cheating.

On the other hand, I remember how things went much differently for George Foster. Foster had played 11 seasons for the Cincinnati Reds and had been one of the most feared and revered power hitters in the game. But he was entering his age-33 season when he was traded to the Mets in February 1982. George had a terrible year for a bad Mets team in 1982, slashing .247/.309/.367 and hitting only 13 HR. He was a bit better in 1983, hitting 28 HR, but slashing a still-weak .241/.289/.419. His combined OPS+ in those first two seasons in New York was 93, below league-average. Mets fans had hoped they were getting a superstar, but Foster was just getting old and a poor version of what he once was.

Foster actually had his two best years for the Mets in 1984 and 1985, putting up more-than-respectable OPS+ of 111 and 121, averaging over 20 HR and 80 RBI and slashing a combined .267/.320/.451. However, Foster's play in LF had declined considerably in those pre-DH days, and he slumped again with the bat in 1986. The fans wanted to see younger, better players like Mookie Wilson get more playing time, and the Mets let George Foster go during their 1986 championship season.

There were allegations of racism with how the fans reacted to George Foster. While that may have played a part with some fans, the truth is that Foster had never been great or even very good with the Mets, and the fans had no reservoir of love for the man. His greatness had been in Cincinnati. Had he stayed there, I'm sure the Reds fans would have been more tolerant of George's decline, remembering the earlier joy he had provided them.

As for Robbinson Cano's cheating, I think that he is a fascinating study. I remember when the Yankees first promoted Cano to the majors. He was not a hyped prospect, but he quickly became a star for them. Cano hit for average and power and also provided excellent defense. The numbers Cano put up for the Yankees far exceeded his minor league production, with the exception of his last season in Triple-A just before he was promoted. And that was only 24 games.

We'll never know the truth unless Cano decides to come clean on the subject, an unlikely outcome, to say the least. But I guess that Cano began using steroids at some point in the minors to make it to the majors, and continued to use them over the years. Even though there was PED testing in MLB from his rookie season, it was widely known that the cheaters had access to cocktails of drugs and masking agents that kept them ahead of testing labs. But the labs began to catch up, and some big names started going down.

In 2009, Manny Ramirez was caught for the first time. In 2010 pitcher Edinson Volquez failed a test. Manny was nabbed a second time in 2011. Guillermo Mota was caught for a second time in 2012, along with Freddy Galvis, Melky Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal, and Bartolo Colon. Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Francisco Cervelli, and Alex Rodriguez were nailed in 2013. It was clear by that point that the labs were catching up to the cheaters.

By 2018, 35-year-old Robinson Cano was a superstar on a Hall of Fame track. He was in the fifth year of his 10-year contract with the Mariners, earning $24 million per year. Financially, he was set for life. But Cano's offense had dropped. His OPS+ in the five seasons from 2010-2014 averaged an astounding 142, superstar production. But then it fell to 117 in 2015, rebounded to 138 in 2016, then fell again to 114 in 2017. Still good numbers for a middle infielder, but far below what he used to accomplish.

I suspect that the rising number of big names getting caught for PEDs caused Cano to stop using them at times, but his ego couldn't deal with being a much lesser player than he had been. For sure, we know that Cano was nailed for Furosemide — a diuretic used to mask PED use  —  in 2018. He was suspended for 80 games, and his chances of making the Hall of Fame were considerably lessened. But Cano claimed that he wasn't cheating. Sportswriters liked Robinson Cano, so some were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he could have got in.

But Cano's bad first season with the Mets in 2019 led him to cheat again in 2020. This time he tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol, got a 1-year suspension, and ensured that he would never be elected to the Hall of Fame. Incidentally, those two suspensions cost him a combined $36 million in salary.

I have to wonder, what drives a man like Robinson Cano to such foolishly self-destructive behavior? He ruined his reputation and cost himself a lot of money. There was no need beyond his ego to get caught cheating either time. Cano already had the huge contract and a clear path to the Hall of Fame. I wonder how he feels about all of this when he's alone with his own conscience.

Steroids likely made Robinson Cano a Hall of Famer, but steroids ultimately took that honor away from him. Yet he probably had enough talent to have had a decent career as a major league second baseman even without all of the power. Cano wouldn't have been a great player, and he wouldn't have secured a 10-year, $240 million contract. But Robbie would have made a few million —  more than enough to go back to the Dominican and be set for life. And, above all, that version of Cano would have been respected rather than reviled. I wonder if he could magically go back and never juice up if he would. If I were him, I would always wonder how good I could have been playing it straight.

In Joel Sherman's article quoted above, Joel mentioned that fans ask him what they should tell their kids about the cheaters. I know that's a question many parents ponder. I've never been a parent, but I know how I would have handled things if I had a kid. I grew up in a family that didn't give me the best grounding in honesty and doing the right thing. Through trial and error, I had to figure out that lying or taking a moral shortcut to get ahead or even just avoiding consequences may seem like the easy way out. But ultimately, I discovered the price you have to pay with how you feel about yourself is higher than accepting the consequences of doing the right thing in the first place.

So, if I had a kid who asked me about cheaters like Robbie Cano, I would have a frank discussion with him or her about the costs of taking the easy way out in life. The steroids Cano took offered a shortcut to what he wanted to be. Somehow, he convinced himself that the benefits of cheating outweighed the consequences of that cheating. I would tell the kid that being caught and singled out as a cheater is terrible enough, but having to live with bad choices even if you get away with them is still a pretty stiff price to pay. Frankly, I think you could have a great discussion about right and wrong with a kid that I only wish someone had with me when I was young.

For Mets fans like myself, Robinson Cano is in camp and getting ready for the season. If he can still hit, Cano will be a Met and factor in the Mets winning some games in what has turned into a very challenging division. If Robbie can no longer hit, then he's likely to see his time with the Mets end as unhappily as George Foster's tenure once did. In a Mike Puma article in the New York Post, Cano said that he is ready to accept a reduced role for the good of the team. Cano has apologized to his fellow players, the team, and the fans. Sure, the apology was quite non-specific, as PED apologies almost always are these days, but Robinson Cano has done what was required in coming back. What remains to be seen is whether he can still make the club better.

The morality of it all is more complicated — as moral questions always are. The final pages of Robbie Cano's story have yet to be written. How Mets fans view Cano will largely depend on whatever redemption he can provide with a bat in his hand. Personally, I hope that he's got something left in the tank that he can access without cheating again.

Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

2 comments:

  1. The best thing the Mets can hope for is a stellar year out of Cano. It will help them win ballgames and open up the possibility that someone may want him at the All Star break or for next year as their DH. The Mets are best to rid themselves of a known cheater. Buck Showalter lost some major points with me for the "give him a hug and welcome him back" as if he was recovering from an injury. It was an action he took upon himself in full known violation of the rules. I hope he hits. I really do. However, if he's on the straight and narrow we may see a reprise of 2019.

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