The daily ritual started the first day Robinson Cano walked onto the Mariners’ practice fields.
The moment he steps into the batting cage, the crowd grows, coaches and players move closer for a better view, casual conversation quiets and eyes focus on Cano as he takes batting practice.
He rewards them with a series of screaming line drives rocketing to all parts of the outfield. Some sail over the fence, some are laser beams that never rise more than 10 feet off the ground. The maple bat smacking the baseball makes a distinctive pop that is unmistakable. It sounds identical, swing after swing, because Cano always hits the ball the same — on the barrel.
The players mutter to each other. They shake their heads in admiration. They can only watch and envy.
They all want what Robinson Cano has, and it’s not the money. Well of course, they’d love to have a 10-year, $240 million contract. Who wouldn’t?
But this covetous desire is purely baseball related. They want his swing. That productive swing that helped earn him the largest free-agent contract of the offseason. That short, compact swing that led him to hit .314 last season with 41 doubles, 27 homers and 107 runs batted in. That beautiful swing that never seems rushed or hurried in any situation and rarely makes him look bad on any pitch. That smooth, graceful swing that look so effortless, but produces stinging line drive after line drive. That disgustingly perfect swing that they all want, but know they can’t have and can’t completely replicate.
“Baseball is not that easy,” said Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders. “But he sure makes it look easy.”
Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
They all know the swing wasn’t just gifted to Cano. It’s a swing forged out of hours upon lonely hours in the cage, pounding baseball after baseball, leaving his hands blistered through batters gloves and his forearms aching.
It’s a swing he has crafted and honed.
It’s his alone for all to envy.
“It’s just my swing,” he said, flashing a bright smile. “Right now, it feels good.”
Cano isn’t some hitting savant.
He analyzes, he adjusts and he works — all the time. There’s no such thing as a finished product.
When he talks about his swing, he begins to move his hands to demonstrate. Even then, it’s fluid and graceful. But that’s not good enough. He then grabs a bat. If he’s going to talk about his swing, he might as well have his lumber in his hands.
“Every time I see a bat, I have to grab it,” he said. “Even at home, I’m grabbing things and acting like I’m swinging.”
This habit started in his younger days when he couldn’t get enough of the game.
“I’d hit rocks with a stick, whatever there was,” he said. “I love this game. I was born into this game.”
His father, Jose, a big leaguer with the Astros, first taught him how to swing a bat as a child. And he just kept swinging and swinging.
Growing up in San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic, Cano didn’t emulate major-league players. He had no way to know what their swings looked like.
“When I was kid, before the age of 10, it was hard,” he said. “There weren’t many games on TV. It was in black and white. We didn’t have cable. There was no cable or satellite. It was hard to copy someone in the big leagues.”
So he studied and learned from the people he could see in person.
“Being around my dad, being around players, my whole family, girls in my family used to play softball — my mom, my aunts. My uncle played baseball, not in major leagues, but he was a good player,” Cano recalled. “You learn from everyone. It’s in my blood.”
The learning never stopped. The swing Cano has now is different from the swing he had when he was coming up through the Yankees’ minor-league system. Like any player, he has made dozens of tweaks in the search for consistency and success.
“It’s changed,” he said. “Before I used to have a leg kick. But now I don’t. It’s basically the same swing. The difference is I’m now using the whole field. Before with a fastball, I’d go more middle away. But pitchers started throwing cutters and sinkers and you have to make adjustments.”
There remained a constant.
“It’s always been short,” he said. “When your swing is short, you can hit to the opposite field. And that’s something I grew up doing — my inside-out swing.”
How would he describe it now?
“I would say it’s a line-drive swing,” he said. “I’m not a guy that over swings. It’s a line-drive swing.”
Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
Cano might not be big on descriptors, but his teammates aren’t afraid to use them to describe his swing.
“Simplicity, fluidness, repeatability,” Saunders said. “It seems like he’s always on time. It seems like he never gets fooled on a pitch. And even if he does, it still looks like the same swing.”
They talk with a tone of respectful jealousy.
“You can see how he repeats his swing,” teammate Dustin Ackley said. “It’s the same thing every single time. It’s so smooth. He’s never in a rush. You never see him taking stupid check swings. He’s either all in or he’s not.”
Even his hitting coach can’t help but gush about the swing. Howard Johnson knows not all of that swing can be taught to others.
“I like the tempo of it all,” Johnson said. “I like the way it flows. It’s smooth. He’s always on time. He’s always in the right position right before he swings the bat. He doesn’t panic.”
There is violence in the swing. It just isn’t noticeable to some. While the bat looks so smooth that it wouldn’t ripple water, the power his legs generate could cause a tidal wave.
“It comes across as a very easy swing — that it’s almost effortless,” said Kyle Seager. “But there’s a lot of body involved in there. He’s found a way that he can explode his hips and continue to keep his hands in the right position.”
Said Ackley: “It’s why he can hit the ball as hard and as far as he does.”
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was the hitting coach for Detroit the past seven seasons. He watched AL MVP Miguel Cabrera on a daily basis. Cano’s swing is a left-handed version of what he saw every day with the Tigers.
“It’s the combination of the load, the hand-eye coordination and the commitment,” McClendon said. “A guy like Cano isn’t afraid to get jammed. He’s like Tony Gwynn. Guys that are not good hitters, they’re really conscious of being jammed. Good hitters don’t care about that because they are willing to let the ball travel a little bit more to get it timed.”
In the midst of all their praise, Cano’s teammates and coaches were quick to point out the time that goes into it.
“When you see him on an everyday basis, you really appreciate how hard he works at it,” Saunders said. “People think it comes easy to him, but they don’t realize how much extra work he puts in every day.”
Cano takes hundreds of swings per day. And each one has a purpose.
“He’s not just out there screwing around,” Seager said. “It’s getting your work in and getting where you need to be. Everything is planned.”
But to Cano, it’s just what he does. It’s what he’s worked for. It’s what he will continue to work on. It’s an unfinished symphony of simple, fluid aggression.
“I have my swing,” he said, bat in hand, and smile on face. “And it feels pretty good right now.”