PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — In the first inning of the Mets’ first simulated game on Wednesday, Robinson Cano took a pitch off the shoulder from David Peterson. “We’re on the same team!” J.D. Davis hollered from the on-deck circle, and everyone laughed. Cano stayed in the box and hung in against a breaking ball, pulling it foul but swinging with confidence.
“Those are the little things you look for,” Manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s competing. He’s got that look in his eye. I’ve learned through the years, don’t sell guys like him short. He’s got a pretty good pedigree.”
Cano’s pedigree is glittering: He’s a .303 career hitter, and no second baseman in history can match his totals in both home runs (334) and hits (2,624). He is also a two-time steroids offender, suspended for 80 games in 2018 and all 162 last year. At 39 years old, he is here as a relic of a previous regime that believed in him.
So much has changed for the Mets since Cano last played for them, with a brief renaissance in 2020 — a .316 average and 10 homers in 49 games, a return to his Yankees prime that now seems wholly illusory. The Mets have gotten a new owner since then (Steven A. Cohen), a new general manager (Billy Eppler), a new manager (Showalter), and a bunch of players who have made Cano an afterthought.
With Showalter’s blessing, Cano addressed the team at the start of spring training, apologizing for his absence last season. His public contrition came in a small conference room off the media lounge on Wednesday, with only the usual group of reporters on hand. We’ve all been through this before, after all — Cano included.
He was there in 2009 with his Yankees teammates, under a tent befitting the circus atmosphere at spring training in Tampa, Fla., when Alex Rodriguez made his own tortured apology. Rodriguez had been revealed as a former steroid user, in the era before testing, and he asked people to judge him from that point forward. Then he cheated again.
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How could Cano, who was then just 26, have learned nothing from Rodriguez’s ordeal? Or maybe he learned that drugs can help transform a very good player into a highly paid superstar. Whatever he took from A-Rod’s example, Cano wasn’t saying. He clung tightly to his script.
“I think the best lesson you can have is from yourself, when you make mistakes yourself,” said Cano, who offered no insights into what led him to use Stanozolol, an unsophisticated and easily detectable anabolic steroid developed in the 1960s.
“There’s no why or how,” he said. “There’s no excuses for that. All I know is that I can’t live in the past. Just move on from now on and just go out there and keep being the same Robbie Cano that I’ve always been.”
That’s the problem with baseball’s steroid guys: Can they really be the same as they’ve always been without the artificial boost? Very few ever say when they started cheating or what difference it made. Teams and fans must assume that when a player serves his suspension, he learns to stop the behavior that caused it. But — don’t ya know? — you can never be sure.
While a former Mets general manager (Brodie Van Wagenen, Cano’s former agent) engineered the trade with Seattle for Cano, Eppler made a four-year, $78 million bet that Starling Marte was clean. Marte, 33, served an 80-game drug suspension with Pittsburgh in 2017 and has remained an elite player. Last season, with Miami and Oakland, he had a career-high .383 on-base percentage and led the majors in stolen bases, with 47.
Marte has been slowed by an oblique injury lately and has not been cleared to swing in the batting cage. But Cano seems ready, after hitting .344 in 17 games in the Dominican Winter League.
“I prepare myself,” he said. “I stayed home this whole year, training every day, Monday to Friday, and I was doing different things that I’ve never done in the past to prepare myself, to be able to be healthy and come out here and keep performing at a high level.”
Showalter said Cano could play at second, designated hitter and first base, but he would not say how often he plans to use him. The Mets are deep in everyday players, with five infielders who could fill everyday roles for most teams: Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Francisco Lindor, Eduardo Escobar and Davis. They also have four such outfielders: Marte, Mark Canha, Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith, who homered twice off Max Scherzer in Wednesday’s simulated game.
Cano is extraneous, making you wonder why he is here, besides having a contract that runs through 2023. Showalter — such a stickler for the right way to play that he still wears old-fashioned stirrups — would seem to have no use for a two-time violator of baseball’s drug policy.
“It may look kind of selfish from the standpoint of, well, what are we supposed to do, not play him?” Showalter said. “Beat up on him every day? What’s the return there? He’s wearing our colors.”
He continued: “Talking to Robbie, the thing he felt worst about was not being there for the club, for the team, and I choose to believe him. Have I sat down and said, ‘Why did you do it? What drove you and all that stuff?’ I have some curiosity, but now’s not the time for it.”
Davis was right: They are on the same team. No reason to overthink it. If Cano has anything left to offer — then, hey, welcome back.