A Coda For Cano
Did Jay-Z cost a New York baseball legend a shot at the Hall of Fame?
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Ask any baseball fan, and they’ll tell you lefties look better swinging a bat. Maybe it’s because they have a split-second longer to recognize a pitch thrown by a righty, or because they don’t have to twist awkwardly to run toward first afterwards. Then again, as the Washington Post once noted, “We may never ever really know why it’s so beautiful. It just is, okay?”
Back in 2013, the sweetest-swinging lefty on the New York Yankees—and quite possibly all of major league baseball—was Robinson Cano. Even while crushing 98-mile-per-hour fastballs into the right field bleachers, he moved his hands in a manner less like a lumberjack and more like an orchestra conductor.
Many observers believed he was on track for a Hall of Fame career—until Jay-Z became his agent and guided him to a gargantuan deal with the Seattle Mariners. A decade later, fresh off a yearlong suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, an ineffective Cano has been released with $44 million left on his contract. Which raises the question: did Jay-Z derail his ride to Cooperstown? Let’s turn back the clock and investigate.
In 2013, Jay-Z was still establishing his Roc Nation Sports division as a legitimate agency for pro athletes. So, luring Cano away from Scott Boras—long considered the top dog in the business—was an incredible coup. Jay-Z even rapped about it: “Scott Boras, you over baby; Robinson Cano, you comin’ with me.”
Boras made the mistake of responding with a barb of his own, insisting Jay-Z’s new venture was akin to “if Steven Spielberg walked into USC Medical Center and said, ‘I want to do neurosurgery.’” Jay-Z had employed a tactic he’d learned coming up in the hip-hop world: picking a fight with the king to become royalty by association. Soon ESPN had declared the tiff “baseball’s fascinating new rivalry.”
But Jay-Z wasn’t working alone. He’d enlisted CAA to help get Roc Nation Sports off the ground, and the Los Angeles behemoth assigned an agent named Brody Van Wagenen to lead the charge. As I reported in my book Empire State of Mind, baseball sources confirmed that Van Wagenen was doing the heavy lifting, with Jay-Z serving as more of a figurehead.
In any case, Cano’s camp seemed quite confident that a massive contract was on the horizon. As the regular season ended, Cano reportedly turned down the Yankees’ reported seven-year, $161 million offer, apparently seeking a pact nearly double that size.
Yet the fall progressed without the emergence of any new suitors for Cano. A brazen ploy to goose the Yankees didn’t work, either: Jay-Z and Van Wagenen sat for dinner with Sandy Alderson, then the general manager of the Mets, and paparazzi predictably showed up. Asked if he could envision Cano playing in Queens, Yankee president Randy Levine said, “For $300 million, yes.”
Just when it appeared Jay-Z and company had led Cano toward a non-existent market—and that he’d be lucky to get the $161 million the Yankees had originally offered—the Mariners materialized. Figurehead or not, Jay-Z flew to Seattle with Van Wagenen and sealed a staggering deal: 10 years, $242 million.
There’s no question Cano made the right move financially. His deal with the Mariners paid some $80 million more than the Yankees’ reported best offer—and there’s no state income tax in Washington, as opposed to New York, which has some of the nation’s highest rates (plus city taxes as well). But, in terms of his chances of becoming a Hall of Famer, would Cano have been better off in the Bronx? The numbers say yes.
During his time in Seattle, Cano socked 25 homers just once; he did that in each of his final four years with the Yankees. In five seasons with the Mariners, he topped only 85 RBI twice, after doing it in each of his last five campaigns in the Bronx. And though his team made the playoffs in all but one of his nine years with the Yankees, he never returned to the postseason after leaving. Now 39, he sits at 2,632 career hits, a major disappointment for a player who’d been hovering around 2,500 in his mid-30s.
Had Cano stayed in the Bronx instead of bolting for Seattle years ago, the Yankees’ superior lineup would have afforded him more plate appearances, likely giving him a chance to reach the hallowed 3,000-hit milestone. Barely 30 players have achieved that feat, and all of the eligible ones are enshrined in Cooperstown, minus the cheaters.* In addition, Cano would have likely clubbed a few dozen more homers at Yankee Stadium, with its right-field porch tailor-made for his lefty bat.
The Yankees certainly would have been better off had Cano accepted their offer of $161 million, which they effectively handed to the miserable Jacoby Ellsbury instead. The outfielder came down with more maladies than a malingering middle schooler during the first half of his seven-year deal and ultimately sat out the rest with an array of nebulous injuries.
Following an 80-game steroid suspension in 2018, Cano did make it back to New York, traded to the Mets after they hired a fresh general manager—one Brody Van Wagenen. He lasted two years before the team’s new owner, billionaire Steve Cohen, ousted him. After a second suspension cost Cano the entire 2021 season, the lefty just didn’t look the same this season, and the Mets released him earlier this week.
But who deserves the blame for the sour coda to Cano’s sweet-swinging career? Probably not Jay-Z. Van Wagenen was more involved in the negotiations that led the lefty away from the Yankees, anyway. In the end, though, Cano was the one who made the final decision to take the deal with Seattle—and, critically, he was the one who took the PEDs, not once, but twice.
It’s not the storybook finale anybody would have wanted, unless you look at it from a financial perspective. Jay-Z rode the prestige of the Cano deal, among many others he’s sealed, to billionaire status. Van Wagenen re-emerged with a new job: working for Jay-Z at Roc Nation. And Cano ended up about $100 million richer than he would have with the Yankees. Hall of what, again?
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*Some baseball nerds may quibble with my characterization of “cheater,” but for the sake of not boring the sports muggles out there, I lumped Pete Rose and his ineffable greatness in there with the steroid guys.