About 10 years ago, I joined Sweeny Murti at Yankee Stadium for a baseball game.
Anyone who has met Sweeny knows what an impossibly nice guy he is, and though he couldn't have been more kind or courteous, he was also very busy roaming the clubhouse and dugout digging up scoops for WFAN.
So an hour before the game, I was alone on the field behind home plate, as the team took batting practice. I recall it was one of those flawless summer nights, with barely a breeze, and the musical crack of the bat as the Yanks launched a bucket of balls over the blue wall.
Other than that, all I remember was Robinson Cano.
More than the manicured grass, the pinstripes, or the epic shapes of Yankee Stadium, I recall the eager kindness of Cano, who, for whatever reason, sorted through the sea of humanity to approach me, as if he'd just gotten off a 19-hour plane ride and I was the long lost relative waiting for him.
He greeted me more cheerfully than any stranger I'd ever met in my life, much less the New York Yankees second baseman. This was in Cano's salad days, when he was still flanked and protected by older players and had the liberty to just be himself, before the true burden of greatness and monstrous amounts of money. He had a wide, white smile and childlike energy that could have lit-up a minor league ballpark. He shook my hand, asked where I was from, and just kept me company for about 15 minutes. Roy White, an icon from my childhood, stopped by and was equally gracious.
I met a dozen Yankees on the field or in the clubhouse, but only Cano sticks out. Maybe it was his warmth or his smile or his youthful charm. It just moved me to have someone take such an interest in my job when he had nothing to gain from it. If a parent wanted to give a child the thrill of their young life, that would have been it, to walk among these oaks of baseball, to pinball from Jeter to A-Rod to Teixeira and end up being charmed by a second baseman whose English was clearly his second language.
Pro athletes tend to be more relaxed around strangers while they're at work. Perhaps they feel we had to do something to earn these lanyards and passes around our necks. We somehow belonged here, and were no threat to their work or workspace. (That's not just a one-time thing. You will find it at most places where pro team sports are played.)
But that's not what this was. Cano was being kind because that's who he was. So to hear that he, once again, is suspended from the Mets for a full season for testing positive for PEDs can make you sick, and makes me sad.
As a Yankees fan since the '70s, I care more about the Mets in the professional interest than the personal, but hearing about Cano made me blue. In an age where guys only care about bank or fame or social media suckers who slavishly watch their every move, Cano is most certainly not one of them. And when he got pinched for PEDs in Seattle, it seemed distant and inconsequential. Plus, we tend to forgive our athletes after one misstep.
But it's impossible to excuse or defend a second spot on the blotter, for the same reason. Now Cano gets the full wrath of MLB, and full distance from his peers. Even worse, however, is the scorn from his fans, who, like me, were so charmed by him.
As adults, we can process and accept it as a mistake from a flawed man. But the saddest part is the parent sitting across from their bewildered child who wants to know why Cano can't play this year. Those are the hidden, solemn chats that make this whole thing such a shame. How does mom or dad tell junior that their favorite player for the last five or six or seven years isn't injured but still can't play? How does mom or dad explain needles and potions and creams designed to give athletes an unfair edge on the field? How do they tell their kids that cheating is wrong, that it will cost them friends and jobs, when a very rich and famous baseball cheats with relative, long-term impunity?
Not to mention we were supposed to be past this kind of thing. The backroom deals and bathroom shots in their bulging buttocks were supposed to have faded with the ghosts of the steroid era. Those days were gone, so we thought. Is Cano an aberration? Or was he just one of many who got caught? Is there still a secret army of miscreants who keep the PED demons alive? Cano just revived that debate.
We can't say. But we can be sad. There was a time when Robinson Cano was a beautiful baseball player, and a wonderful person. He's just 376 hits shy of the magic mark in baseball: 3,000 hits. It's the membrane between really good and great, and the gateway into the Hall of Fame. Cano was well on his way there, and should be basking in the twilight of a splendid career. Now he's a sad, cautionary case of a gifted, eager athlete who got greedy and busted. At least I'll remember his smile, and a moment, a decade ago, when he was beautiful.
Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel