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Cano dominates center stage of WBC

Yankees 2nd baseman does superstar turn in leading Dominican Republic to title

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

March 20, 2013

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SAN FRANCISCO — He was 18 when he signed his first contract, 22 when he made his big league debut, 23 when he played in his first All-Star Game and 27 for his first World Series. He's 30 now and as the Most Valuable Player of the World Baseball Classic, he's freshly minted as a legend in his own land.

Everywhere else, Robinson Cano is a rumor waiting to happen.

For 13 days in three cities, Cano turned the third edition of the WBC into his own little sandlot game. He and his friends from the Dominican Republic invited the kids from other neighborhoods over only so they could show off a little, and that's what they did.

Remember when Cano was the Yankee infielder who complements Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira? He's the leading man now. He received the Barry Bonds treatment at AT&T Park — intentional walks in all the tight spots.

There will be no getting around Cano next fall, not unless the Yankees find $200 million-plus to buy him out of free agency. His future is one of the storylines we will watch closely this season, even as the team he has represented in New York falls apart.

But, man, it was fun to watch Cano (.469, two homers, four doubles) and his teammates delight in themselves and their sport during their 8-0 title run these last couple of weeks, even if their behavior pushed baseball's traditional limits.

The Dominican rode the arm of Samuel Deduno and glove of Alejandro De Aza to a 3-0 victory over Puerto Rico in the championship game, with a steady rain starting in the third inning. De Aza looked up into the raindrops to take an extra-base hit away from Andy Gonzalez in the fifth inning, when Deduno (a Twins secret weapon) was as close to the ropes as he would get.

De Aza, the White Sox's center fielder, created a run in the sixth with a bunt single and some good baserunning, crossing the plate after an Erick Aybar double to start another of the Dominicans' uninhibited celebrations.

"It's like you're playing winter ball," Cano said. "You play your way, go out there and have fun, something you don't do in the big leagues."

"It's like you're playing winter ball," Cano had said about the WBC. "You play your way and have fun, something you don't do in the big leagues."

The Dominicans had fun in 2009 too. But most of it was off the field. They weren't prepared when the event got under way in Puerto Rico, and back-to-back losses to the Netherlands made them a national disgrace. It also motivated them to show the world how they roll.

Venezuela, led by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, might have been the favorite to go toe to toe with Japan and Korea when the tournament began. But it only took Cano two trips to the plate to set a very different tone in the WBC opener.

Facing Anibal Sanchez on a rainy night in San Juan, Cano drove a two-run double to left field in the first inning. The next time up, against emergency reliever Cesar Jimenez, he dunked a ball over Elvis Andrus' head and kept running until he got to second base with a hustle double. Team Dominican Republic had a 5-0 lead after the second inning, and '09 seemed a long time ago.

Cano had three hits in each of the Dominican's first four games, including a pair of solo home runs. He entered the championship game 15-for-29 while doing everything that manager Tony Pena and agent Scott Boras could have wanted from him.

Pena and the Dominican players talk about the leadership skills that Cano has shown. That's not surprising, not given that he's the son of a big-leaguer (former Astros pitcher Jose Cano) and has been under Jeter's spell since 2005.

"Cano has grown up so much,'' said Pena, the former Royals manager who is the Yankees' bench coach. "Not only has he grown as a player, but he has grown as a person. He feels like he needs to step forward and he has done that.''

With the franchise in a downward spiral since Derek Jeter's ankle snapped against the Tigers in the 2012 playoffs, the Yankees let it be known earlier this spring they have made a "significant'' offer to Cano, trying to keep him off the market after this season. But Boras likes his clients to establish their value in open bidding, so there's no way general manager Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner brothers get off that easily.

ESPN's Jim Bowden has speculated the Rangers could sign Cano, turn shortstop over to Jurickson Profar and trade both Andrus and Ian Kinsler. There is talk about Cano with the Dodgers, who have everyman Mark Ellis as an unlikely second baseman on their Hollywood Review.

There will be money to be spent on both sides of Chicago next fall, and Cano certainly would move the needle. But would the Cubs risk him turning into a second serving of Alfonso Soriano? The White Sox might be a better bet, especially if Paul Konerko calls it a career.

While it's all guesswork now, Cano is certainly calling the question.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers