Robinson cruise control? Not anymore

ARLINGTON, Texas -- He gets it now, Robinson Cano does, and that is no minor miracle. Only two years ago, Cano was a lost and clueless talent summoned to Joe Girardi's office and told to have a seat.

Cano didn't hustle after a loose ball, allowing Tampa Bay's Cliff Floyd an extra base, and Girardi finally pulled him from the game and kept him on the bench. When it came to all-out drive, or being what baseball people like to call a "gamer," this was hardly Cano's first crime or misdemeanor.

It didn't matter. The second baseman for the New York Yankees sulked about the clubhouse and asked a few co-workers why everyone was picking on him.

So Girardi called in Cano on Brian Cashman's suggestion, and the manager and general manager sat with the 25-year-old player and showed him why he needed to grow up. They showed Cano the video. They wanted him to see exactly what they saw.

The viewing and the meeting lasted 20 minutes, Cashman said, "and then suddenly you could almost see a light bulb go on above [Cano's] head. Instead of, 'Why are they singling me out when I'm not the only one messing up?' it was like, 'Now I understand. They're trying to help me. They do care about my career.'"

Yeah, his career. It's exploding before everyone's eyes, first with the MVP-worthy numbers in the regular season, and now with this mano a mano Cano is staging with Josh Hamilton in the American League Championship Series.

The Yankees are down 3-2 to the Texas Rangers, and their best shot at winning two more sudden-death games rests on the barrel of the quiet slugger's bat. Cano was the Yanks' best hitter long before Mark Teixeira collapsed around the first-base bag, and long before Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter started looking incapable of carrying the defending champs one more time.

Cano is batting .421 with five RBIs and four home runs in the ALCS, making him the first Yankee since Reggie Jackson to hit as many as four homers in a postseason series.

On cue, during the Yankees' Thursday workout, Cano and Jackson stood in the outfield grass and talked about the second baseman's renewed commitment to his craft.

Cano told Jackson he'd been studying Jeter and Rodriguez, and realizing that their many accomplishments are rooted in the blood, sweat and tears they spill in offseason and pregame workouts. Cano also told Jackson he'd been watching tapes of Michael Jordan and listening to the Chicago Bulls great talk about the grim drills he endured in dark and empty gyms.

"Now I realize you get out of this game what you put into it," Cano told Jackson.

Jeter was among those who helped usher Cano toward this epiphany. The captain doesn't like to publicize his acts of leadership, but when Cano was dishonoring his otherworldly skill by going full speed on some plays and half speed on others, Jeter took him aside and reinforced the Girardi/Cashman message.

These days, the shortstop is looking at an entirely different partner. "Robbie has fun, first and foremost," said Jeter, who has always insisted on making the postseason fun. "He enjoys playing the game. ... He's a much better player now than he was a few years back."

Asked for specifics, Jeter cited Cano's improved understanding of the game, his improved approach and his improved attention to detail. In other words, Cano has embraced his captain's dogma.

Larry Bowa had a role in this along the way, too. Joe Torre's third-base coach got in Cano's face a few years back and didn't get out until the second baseman fielded enough practice grounders to bloody his hands.

After Bowa left with Torre, and after Cano relapsed under Girardi, the Yankees called that seminal meeting in the manager's office to protect their investment. In 2008, they had signed Cano to a six-year deal that could be worth as much as $57 million, including two team option years in what would have been the player's first two seasons of free agency.

"Robbie had to understand that perception is reality and that the perception wasn't good," Cashman said. "That meeting was his defining moment."

Or one of four defining moments, anyway. In 2004, Cano the prospect was offered in packages to Texas for A-Rod (the Rangers took Joaquin Arias instead), to Kansas City for Carlos Beltran and to Arizona for Randy Johnson. The Beltran and Johnson deals didn't happen, and the Yanks lucked out.

Now Cano stands among the game's greatest hitters and most graceful fielders. He has maintained his elegant style -- Cano still plays second base as if he's wearing a tuxedo and a top hat -- while increasing his effort to the ball.

"Cano is supple," Jackson said. "He's got no tension in his body. He's got the effortlessness of Henry Aaron, and his swing is like Ernie Els' golf swing."

Cano is pretty long off the tee. In win-or-else October games, he bats third for the world's most famous ball team. It's another sign that slowly, surely, the second baseman is taking the Yankees from Jeter and A-Rod and making them his.

"I think he can be a Hall of Famer," Cashman said, "and we've told him that."

At his Rangers Ballpark locker Thursday, Cano said Cashman's words "are the kinds of things that make me feel proud." Asked whether the Yankees were capable of going on the road to win a Game 6 and a rematch with Cliff Lee in Game 7, Cano said, "Why not? Why not?"

Truth is, there are a lot of reasons why not.

But Robinson Cano happens to be the best reason why.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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