ST. LOUIS — Robinson Canó gave it a ride.
Likely realizing the continuity of his MLB career was at stake, Canó came to the plate in the ninth inning Wednesday afternoon trying to give new life to the San Diego Padres. Manager Bob Melvin sent Canó to pinch-hit with the bases loaded and their team down three runs to the St. Louis Cardinals. Canó hadn't been performing with the Padres, but perhaps this could be the start of a final zenith in his 17-year career.
With right-hander Nick Wittgren trying to close out the Cardinals' third straight victory, Canó squared up an 83-mph changeup on the outer half of the plate and drove it deep to left field. It had a chance. Off the bat at 101.6 mph and with an expected batting average of .790 (a metric not even invented, or at least commonly used, when Canó's MLB career began in 2005), the fly ball looked promising.
"Ooh, I hit that ball pretty good," Canó said later.
The Padres dugout rose hopefully in unison. The 99%-partisan Busch Stadium crowd buzzed with uncertainty and a murmur of dread. Outfielder Corey Dickerson hustled toward the fence and started to call for the ball a few steps in front of the warning track. The ball wasn't going over, but maybe it would drop in. Melvin later said he thought Canó might have reached the gap. Instead, Dickerson caught it two or three steps in front of the fence, an estimated 376 feet from home. Teammate Harrison Bader gave him an instant hug. Wittgren exhaled, the expression on his face turning from concern to relief.
Canó turned from the diamond and jogged toward the visitor's dugout. Game over. And so, probably, is Canó's time in the majors at age 39. A report coming a couple of hours after the game said the Padres would release Canó if he didn't agree to a minor-league assignment. He apparently disagreed, with the Padres informing him of his release that was confirmed Thursday.
Canó was talking about his last at-bat, but it could have been applied to his time with the Padres as well, when he said: "Too bad it didn't end up the way I wanted it."
Canó hit .091 (three singles in 33 at-bats) with one RBI, one walk and 10 strikeouts in 12 games for the Padres after the New York Mets released him in early May. Overall, he's batting .149/.182/.189 in 24 games. Canó's paltry results this season obscured what has been one of the top careers of his generation. And, truthfully, his current numbers don't look all that different from other players on the Padres (and from around the league) who have been struggling.
A day earlier, when asked to assess Canó with the Padres, Melvin said: "He had a couple of really good at-bats early on … and hasn't had much to show for it since. But he's not the only one."
Canó was the one the Padres cut Thursday. If this is the end, he clocks out with a career slash line of .301/.351/.489 to go with 335 home runs, 571 doubles and 2,635 hits overall with the Padres, Mets, Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. He finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2005, played in eight All-Star Games and finished in the top 10 in MVP balloting six times (in the top five a total of four times). He also won two Gold Gloves at second base. In 2014, he was the highest-paid player in the league and has made about $286 million in his career.
Going by Jay Jaffe's JAWS' rankings, Canó is the seventh-best second baseman in MLB history, wedged between Rod Carew and Bobby Grich, and he’s also better than Frankie Frisch, namesake Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio. All but Grich are in the Hall of Fame, though Canó figures to have an even harder time than him getting into Cooperstown when he becomes eligible.
Canó twice tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, which cost him an 80-game suspension in 2018 and the entire 2021 season. A plurality of voters surely will hold it against him, like they have with others associated with PEDs, no matter that the failures came long after he had compiled credentials worthy of election to the Hall. It wouldn't be right to say Canó won't ever reach Cooperstown, because attitudes can change. But he won't be getting in soon.
Once in a while, a great player will end his career by winning a World Series or by having a multi-city retirement tour where respective home crowds will honor him with gifts and a highlight reel. Canó could get another chance to play somewhere else (like Mexico or China), but his major-league career seems to have ended with no pomp and a routine circumstance: a fly ball to left field.