By Brent Stecker
When you’re trying to coax the biggest available free agent to leave the New York Yankees and join your team all the way across the country, there’s no question that you pull out the stops. Especially when rap superstar Jay Z is also added into the mix.
That was the situation the Mariners and general manager Jack Zduriencik faced over the last few weeks while trying to sign All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano. Seattle pulled off the deal to the tune of a 10-year, $240 million contract, but as Zduriencik told “The Hot Stove League Show” on 710 ESPN Seattle, a lot more went into signing Cano than just a big offer.
After meeting multiple times with Cano’s agents, Zduriencik had one final meeting at Safeco Field with Cano and his representatives from Roc Nation Sports, which included Jay Z, who flew up to Seattle after a concert in Anaheim, Calif.
“When we knew they were coming in for sure, your mind starts going on how we’re gonna make a nice presentation to this group of people,” Zduriencik said. “Around noon or so, I call (Mariners vice president of marketing) Kevin Martinez, and I said, ‘Kevin, you know, we gotta do something for these people.’ And then I was told yesterday was Jay Z’s birthday.”
And that’s where things really got interesting.
“I said to Kevin, ‘Kevin, let’s get a birthday cake for Jay Z.’ And Kevin says, ‘How am I gonna pull this one off?’ Because what we were afraid of was the tweets,” Zduriencik said. “If anybody finds out he’s coming, or you see him here or there … all of the sudden, you know how it is today, you’re gonna Twitter or tweet or whatever and next thing you know it’s all over the place.”
Luckily, Martinez devised a plan based around Zduriencik’s fortunate initials.
“So Kevin comes back to my office, and he goes, ‘Here’s what we did: I told the lady we’re gonna play a joke on our general manager, and we’re gonna pretend that he’s Jay Z, the rapper, because he thinks he’s a rapper.’ So the lady got a big kick out of it.”
The Mariners employees still had to play it cool for a little while longer, though.
“We’re gonna put the cake in (a) suite, which is looking out at the ballpark, but our meetings are in the board room inside the stadium,” Zduriencik said. “As I’m walking out of my room to go to the suite just to make sure everything’s set up there, here comes the girl with the birthday cake, and she sees me and she yells, ‘Jack! Happy birthday. I’ve got your birthday cake!’ And I just let on like it was my (birthday). … So she went inside the suite, she put the cake there, she did not know what’s going on. … She had lit all the candles. We walk in and now she sees Jay Z … but she was really good. She didn’t tip her hand or anything.”
The Mariners had a little more up their sleeves, using Safeco Field’s screens to display pictures and welcome notes for the entire Cano entourage, followed by a video package of Cano highlights mixed with Jay Z’s music.
“If you would have seen them, they were honestly just like little kids. They were taking pictures, snapping, getting in front of it so they could get their pictures in the background,” Zduriencik said. “And Robinson was really like, his eyes lit up. Like, ‘I see myself in this Mariners jersey,’ you know? Then we did a video. … They were high-fiving. Oh, they were loving it.”
Finally, the Mariners clubhouse was set up to make the group feel at home.
“At the end we took them down into the locker room to give them a tour of the field, and we had lockers set up for them. There was Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, (Roc Nation president) Juan Perez, (Roc Nation’s) Desiree Perez, Jay Z, the whole group,” Zduriencik said. “And Juan Perez, he gets in front of a locker and flops down in a chair, leans back into a locker, got a baseball bat in his hand, like he’s a player. And he’s yelling at nobody in the locker room. It’s like he’s a locker room guy. It was pretty neat, I mean, it really was.
“And then we went upstairs and we talked about $240 million.”
Zduriencik believes going the extra mile went a long way in helping the Mariners land Cano.
“All the other stuff was preliminary, but I think what it did is it gave them a real warm feeling,” he said. “It made them feel like they were part of something that was a little different, and it was really neat.”