In the song titled "Ted [Expletive] Williams," on Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn's new "Baseball Project" album, Williams, presumably mid-career, ponders why Willie, Mickey, and the Duke are so much more popular than he is. The answer, then and now, is that a coltish natural is always more attractive than a determined grinder. On the baseball field, Mays may have only appeared effortless, but his early exuberance was more than a match for Williams's humorless determination to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. That Williams achieved this goal is something we can admire, but not quite empathize with, in our own complacency. But we can all smile at a puppy joyfully bounding across an open patch of green.
What goes unstated is that a player needs the physical skills of a Mays or a Mantle to reach stardom on pure talent, and that as time went by, even the stickball-playing Mays and the carousing Mantle found that to stay on top, they needed less joie de vivre and more Williams-style commitment. Thanks to Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, we can now see that Williams was right to be perplexed: Talent without effort only generates waste.
All season long, writers and fans have speculated that when Joe Torre took third base coach Larry Bowa to Los Angeles, he also absconded with Cano's motivation, a concept Bowa has been only too happy to reinforce in various interviews throughout the season. We are meant to understand that Cano + Bowa = the player who hit .342 in 2006 and .306 in 2007, whereas Cano - Bowa = the Cano of 2008, who has struggled to keep his on-base percentage above .300. It is important to keep in mind the odd flashes of brilliance that Cano has shown — such as yesterday's 4-for-5 with two doubles and a home run, the latter of which proved the game winner in the seesaw ballgame. Yet, this was also a career .300 hitter who has alternated such moments with long stretches of futility, such as April's .151 AVG/.211 OBA/.236 SLG performance, or the 25 games prior to yesterday, in which he hit just .234/.287/.362.
Cano hasn't acknowledged that the absence of Bowa's self-described "tough love" has prevented him from playing his best baseball this season, but how could he? To do so would be to admit that he's something less than a professional, less than serious about his career and about winning. At the same time, he doesn't have to. Nearly a fifth of his plate appearances have been ended on the first pitch, rarely for the good. Another 112 have ended at 0-1 or 1-0. Spray charts confirm the prevalent image of Cano from this season, head down, shoulders hunched, as he jogs out another one- or two-pitch pop-out to shallow left field. Cano's shortfall in production roughly equates to four additional losses for the Yankees, or most of their gap in the wild card race.
Meanwhile, over at Shea, there was the strange spectacle of second baseman Luis Castillo, Lou Gehrig-like, asking out of the lineup so that the Mets could maintain their current second base platoon of rookie Argenis Reyes and former George H.W. Bush Cabinet member Damion Easley. Though his time on the disabled list has expired, Castillo volunteered to remain inactive so as not to tamper with the Mets' first-place standing. This is noble, but exceedingly strange, as Reyes is fielding quite well but hitting only .253/.284/.286, a pitiful but fair representation of his offensive abilities as measured by his career minor league rates of .286/.329/.346. Simultaneously, the 38-year-old Easley has batted .270/.313/.343 during Castillo's absence, while his fielding has been reminiscent of a fire truck attempting to dance "Swan Lake." This raises two questions: First, if Castillo doesn't think he can outplay these guys, just who can he outplay? The second question, which has been in the air since November 19, 2007, is just why the heck did Omar Minaya sign the clearly fading Castillo to a four-year contract? Why did he sign him at all?
Castillo is in the worst, fatal phase of a speed-based player's career, the part when leg problems prevent the infield hits and stolen bases that previously somewhat made up for his lack of power. Still, Castillo doesn't give himself enough credit: Like Cano, he could use a touch of that Ted Williams moxie. Castillo may have hit 32 points below his .293 career average so far this year, but thanks to the second-most patient season of his career (his 4.26 pitches a plate appearance just misses his career high of 4.30, set in 2000), he has reached base at an above-average rate, and far more often than Reyes and Easley have, or are likely to. And while it isn't saying much, his .331 slugging percentage isn't far off from what his replacements have done in his absence.
Ted Williams once said that baseball gives every boy the chance "not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better than someone else. This is the nature of man and the name of the game." Addendum from Williams to Cano and Castillo: Robinson, no one else is going to do it for you — not Larry Bowa, not anyone. As for you, Luis, bag the false humility and get back out on that field.
Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for yesnetwork.com and is the author of "Forging Genius," a biography of Casey Stengel.