There’s No “I” in Team
Issue   |   Wed, 05/07/2014 - 02:15

Just a couple weeks ago I wrote about the “New Look Yankees”, who feature a roster without the likes of Robinson Cano, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte.

Just this week, Rivera released an autobiography, entitled The Closer, chronicling both his personal life and baseball career. In his book, Rivera supposedly makes some critical remarks about some of his former teammates, including Robinson Cano — questioning his work ethic and passion for baseball.

“This guy has so much talent I don’t know where to start ... There is no doubt that he is a Hall-of-Fame caliber [player]. It’s just a question of whether he finds the drive you need to get there. I don’t think Robby burns to be the best ... You don’t see that red-hot passion in him that you see in most elite players,” he says of his former teammate Cano.

These remarks aren’t the first time a player has written an autobiography that includes strongly opinionated statements and denunciations, but Rivera’s statements come as a bit of surprise. The closer developed the reputation as a likeable, uncontroversial, “just business” baseball player and person. While an opinion is just that — an opinion — I would’ve thought him to be the least likely to disparage his former teammate.

Perhaps worse, Rivera took a stab at his longtime teammate and said he would rather have Cano’s former division rival 2008 American League MVP Dustin Pedroia, the longtime second baseman and key leader of the Boston Red Sox. It’s not unusual for Cano and Pedroia to be in the same conversation as they have been competing for the title of the best second baseman in the league ever since they both started posting big numbers.

On the surface, Rivera’s remarks seem insignificant, but they have broader implications. In comparing the supremely talented and relatively unmotivated Cano to the hardworking and team-oriented Pedroia, Rivera makes a bold statement. He highlights what sometimes gets overlooked in the world that favors flashy numbers and prototypical athletic specimens. Sometimes, a guy with average major league talent, such as Pedroia, can be propelled by his own motivation and ambition to reach the top and may be more valuable than someone who lacks these characteristics.

Cano, like Dwight Howard in basketball, has been criticized before for his demeanor and body language on the baseball diamond, but his numbers have really done the talking, overshadowing these concerns. In his first season with the New York Yankees, the Dominican quickly rose to stardom, garnering Rookie of the Year honors in 2005. He progressively has gotten better and better, setting new career highs with every season. For the past five seasons, he has been in the MVP conversation every year, hitting at least 20 home runs with over a .300 batting average — a rare and impressive feat.

Like many players, his success on the field translated to a large contract offer. He signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners after the 2013 season, tied with Albert Pujols for the fourth largest all-time in terms of total value.
Coming off a very strong “contract year”, it was no surprise that Cano got such a big contract. But should he have? At the age of 31, he was already a few years behind the generally accepted prime of player’s career. Although he showed signs of consistency, that may be mostly attributed to the talent he was surrounded by in New York. Now, with the severely less talented Seattle Mariners, he isn’t exactly playing jaw-dropping baseball, and his numbers are hurting. Through 31 games, he has a .291 average with just one home run and 18 RBI.

While it is unfair to criticize him this early for under-performance, as the bulk of the season remains and there is a lot of time to improve, his lack of success provokes questions about his incentives and about large contracts for players in the later half of their career. Cano’s preference of the large amount of money in Seattle over staying in New York where he created a name for himself and competed for World Series’ seems to suggest that he cares less about winning and more about getting paid well. He cares far more about himself than the team dynamic, exhibiting a “me-first” attitude throughout his career and lackluster work ethic. Evidently, he is more extrinsically than intrinsically motivated, as he has shown a clear preference for money over enjoyment and passion for the game.

Rivera, on the other hand, showed that he is a team player throughout his career, who cares just as much about those around him as himself. He cared about creating a winning culture with his teammates on his way to five World Series Championships and working towards building a New Yankee Dynasty in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Given the contrast between the motivations and work ethic of Rivera and Cano, it now (all of a sudden) makes more sense why he would be so critical of his longtime second baseman and why he would be so complimentary of Pedroia — a player who similarly wears the team on his sleeve and inspires those around him to be better everyday. While Pedroia still signed a large contract, he took a significant hometown discount in order to stay in Boston for the years to come, a true sign of a team player who prioritizes intrinsic motivation.

Rivera’s career could well have been done after a serious knee-injury that kept him out for the 2012 season, but only the utmost competitor and gamer would still be trotting in from the bullpen at Yankee Stadium to “Enter Sandman” at the start of the top ninth inning after the potentially career-ending injury. Indeed, in true Rivera fashion, the best closer in MLB history went on to have a very strong bounce back season to close out his career in 2013.

Just as Rivera received standing ovations everywhere he played during his “farewell tour”, that could be Pedroia in 10 years as his career comes to an end — a man respected for his passion, grit and love for the game of baseball. But Cano? Well, that’s a different story.

Jen (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 17:17

Well most obviously I must point out that he finished 2nd in ROY in 2005 (at least according to baseball-reference) but beyond that I have some other just alternate opinions to express. First you are saying that batting .291 is a bad thing? By the end of the season my guess is he hits at least .300 like he usually does. Also, people have different personalities. His demeanor may mean he just isn't the same kind of person as Rivera. Pedroia puts up good numbers because all along he's had a better team surrounding him. The Yankees have won one WS in 09 since Cano came into the league ... sure the Red Sox have only won 2 but that is still a lot and they still had a good team coming out of 04 into Pedroia's rookie year! Anyway, I am very surprised that someone, I agree, was noncontroversial and quiet throughout his career. In the past 20 years I have never had a negative word to say about the man but one I think he is wrong about Cano (I'm an A's fan so I am not being all like that bc I like the M's) ... Cano's durability can't be complete coincidence. He averaged 162 games over 9 years! There's no such thing as luck like that. I'm sure he's played through uncomfortable situations just not gone on the DL and the Yankees never treated him well ... why shouldn't he leave for money. He offered the Yankees a lower number to keep him, they denied it. That is there problem. Cano is like Mariano in that he makes his job appear effortless, as did Mariano - as have all the truly great players ... just because he isn't jumping around and swearing with intensity like the Ray's Grant Balfour does not mean he is lazy or unmotivated. Maybe he is just quieter? Who knows? But for Mariano to call him out like that shows a lack of class I never thought I would see from Rivera. Cano in response handled it with class. I'm just saying that this is a weird situation but I think that Rivera was wrong for putting it in the book knowing that it would be a big controversy ... so if Cano is into money then Rivera is too ... all this has brought his book is more publicity!