HOUSTON -- On the day after their indelible night in the Bronx, where Mariano Rivera broke down and cried on his city's shoulder, the New York Yankees looked washed out, emotionally vacant, as they prepared to play a series as strange as any they have played in years.
The 108-loss Houston Astros? In Minute Maid Park? To end the season and officially close out the closer, Rivera, right after he authored the perfect ending to a near-perfect career by collapsing into the arms of Andy Pettitte and collecting dirt from the Yankee Stadium mound?
Hey, you play the schedule that the schedule-makers give you in sports, even if an intraleague opponent offers up an interleague vibe and even if the circumstances are odd enough for Joe Girardi to consider putting Rivera in center field this weekend.
But one part of Friday night's 3-2 Yankees victory that grounded the event was the appearance of Robinson Cano in the lineup. With Alex Rodriguez saying his legs are probably done for the year, with Derek Jeter disabled, with starting pitcher Adam Warren among the (relative) no-names in the field, Cano was the only Yankee starter in Houston who had played for the 2009 World Series champs.
This was his 159th game of 2013, marking his seventh consecutive season of at least 159 games played, an impressive run of durability for a franchise that is about to open its own wing at Columbia Presbyterian.
And now Cano wants to be rewarded in a staggering way for his durability and his defense and his .309 career batting average and his three seasons of 100-plus RBIs in his past four. A league source said he wants $310 million over 10 years, and his people have told the Yankees they believe they'll get that deal from some ambitious big league owner, if not from them.
Of course, Cano's people aren't your average, everyday people. The second baseman has Jay-Z in his corner, and the high-powered Creative Artists Agency, reps Cano acquired in his Scott Boras trade. Jay-Z and CAA see what everyone else sees when surveying a world-famous franchise losing Rivera and Pettitte to retirement, losing A-Rod to a (likely) lengthy suspension and losing Derek Jeter as we knew him to gravity and time.
They see a brand in desperate need of in-his-prime talent, the kind Robinson Cano delivers on a daily basis.
So this isn't a knock on Cano's strategy, because it's business, not personal. If you don't ask, you don't get, and Cano was well within his pending free-agent rights to ask for the moon and hope for the stars.
No, this is just a reminder to the Yankees that they shouldn't bust it for a player who usually doesn't bust it for them. They've already offered Cano eight years at $138 million, according to a source, and then six years at $144 million, and there does need to be a reasonable limit to the next Yankee bid, a luxury tax on a player who treats all-out hustle as a luxury rather than a necessity.
"I don't want to go into the details," Cano said Friday of the contract talks. "I want to enjoy this weekend and continue to play the game."
He wants to get from Minute Maid Park to free agency without addressing this leaked figure or that one. "One thing I can say, it is not coming from us," Cano said of the leaks. "I'm not going to go into details. It is still the same since spring training. I don't want to talk about contracts, just be here. Like I said the other day, I haven't said I'm leaving, haven't said I'm staying."
But if he sticks to 10 years and/or $300 million-plus, he'll definitely be leaving. The Yankees aren't doing another 10-year contract after living through the $305 million disaster (including home run-milestone bonuses) that is/was the A-Rod deal, and after watching another 30-something, Albert Pujols, make the Angels regret giving him 10 years only two seasons into the term.
Will they attempt to negotiate a compromise? Sure -- Cano understands the legacy benefits of being a lifer Yankee (Rivera's emotional farewell Thursday night said it all), and the Yankees understand the importance of retaining their best player at such a vulnerable time.
But when they do talk again in an attempt to find common ground, Cano will surely insist on a nine-figure deal that starts with a 2, and a high 2 at that, while the Yankees will want to start their next nine-figure bid with a 1. The next round of negotiations will probably still leave player and team a good $100 million apart.
And that's when the Yankees have to do exactly what they didn't do when A-Rod came crawling back to them after his 2007 opt out. They need to show a little fiscal restraint. They need to tell Cano that if $189 million over 10 years ($18.9 average wage) was once good enough for a 26-year-old, four-time champion Jeter, a figure in the same ballpark over seven years ($27 million average) should certainly be good enough for a 31-year-old, one-time-champion Cano.
The Yankees could remind Cano that his career postseason on-base percentage (.267) pales in comparison to Jeter's (.374). They could tell Cano that he doesn't sell tickets or draw viewers like Jeter and A-Rod do, and that he doesn't honor a ballplayer's base responsibility of running out every ball on the ground and in the air.
Once upon a time, Joe Torre's third-base coach, Larry Bowa, tried to turn Cano into a grinder with a tough-love approach. In 2008, Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman treated the second baseman to a 20-minute film session on his lack of hustle after the manager finally benched him for failing to chase down a loose ball. Kevin Long, hitting coach, visited Cano in his Dominican Republic home to urge him to work harder.
And yet little has changed. After all this time watching Jeter and Rivera build Hall of Fame careers the old-fashioned way, Cano still can't bring himself to play full-scholarship baseball with a walk-on's intensity.
Yes, years after Cashman offered him in trade packages for Carlos Beltran, Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez (Texas went for Joaquin Arias instead), Cano developed into a hell of a player who can make an impossibly difficult game look easier than a 2-foot putt. He had another big year this season despite the pressures of his approaching free agency and despite the injuries that left him stranded in the lineup.
But when's the last time you heard a respected big league veteran say Cano "plays the game the right way," which is exactly what Cano said of Dustin Pedroia in a conversation about the Red Sox star a couple of years back?
Pedroia made an eight-year, $110 million score in Boston, and on talent and production Cano deserves a richer contract than that. How much richer is a point of contention between Cano's employer and Cano's representatives, including a certain someone who sang that he "made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can."
Really long-term deals (and not just A-Rod's) haven't been kind to the Yanks, so they need to be smart here. Offer Cano no more than six or seven years, and then let him break down on someone else's dime.
Cano shows up for at the office more than any teammate, but he takes a few too many coffee breaks while there. The Yankees know that's not going to change, so they shouldn't bust the budget for a player who doesn't bust it for them.