October 24, 2012

Athlete: Miguel Cabrera

Team: Detroit Tigers

Age: 29

Position: 3B (or 1B or LF or RF or SS)

Hometown: Maracay, Venezuela

The man with the unfortunate, to me, nickname of Miggy, this season accomplished something that no major leaguer has done in 45 years. In the entire history of baseball, more batters have hit .400 than have won the triple crown, and nobody has managed to take either league’s Triwizard Championship since Carl Yastrzemski batted .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBI in 1967. Statistically, Cabrera’s year was quite similar—.330, 44 HR, 139 RBI.

Cabrera also came within a whisker of accomplishing something so ephemeral, so statistically improbable that I call it the Triple Crown Royal Flush: Win one triple crown category in successive years and then, in the fourth season, win them all. Last year, Cabrera won the AL batting crown with a .344 average; in 2010, he took home the RBI crown with 126; in 2008, one year too early, he hit 37 home runs to win the AL home run crown.

So clearly, the triple crown this year was no fluke. Cabrera has consistently put up triple crown-like numbers; since his rookie season in 2003, he’s hit 30 or more home runs with more than 100 RBI eight out of nine times and batted .320 or higher six times.

The strange thing is that Cabrera is the first guy to seriously challenge for the triple crown since, well, Yaz himself. Everybody seems to have a reason for why nobody’s even come close since—from expansion to pitcher specialization to batter specialization—none of them particularly convincing. But everybody seems to agree that winning the triple crown requires a special kind of hitter. And it has always seemed like Cabrera was destined to accomplish great things.

It was like he was born with a glove on his hand,” Gregoria Torres has said about her son, José Miguel Cabrera Torres, and she should know. After all, she was the shortstop on Venezuela’s national softball team for 14 years. She met Miguel’s father—a prominent local ballplayer before he gave it up and became a mechanic—on the diamond, and Miguel’s uncle, David Torres, was a minor leaguer in the Cardinals’ organization and had the local ballpark named after him.

Miguel would go on to surpass all their achievements on the diamond—maybe even surpass the achievements of any Venezuelan (see “The All-Time Baseball Team: Edición Venezolana”)—but not with his glove.

As a kid, Cabrera would clamber over the cinder block wall that separated his house from the local baseball field. He worked hard to get good and was a serious prospect by the time he was 15. A shortstop, he started working with Maracay’s most famous product at the position, the former cog in the Big Red Machine, Davey Concepción.

Soon the Dodgers, Twins, and Yankees all expressed interest in Cabrera, but the team with the inside track was the Marlins, who had made an impression on the youngster by winning the 1997 World Series with appealing Latin players Alex Fernandez, Liván Hernández, Moisés Alou, and Edgar Rentería.

Marlins scout Louie Eljaua first had a workout for Cabrera nine months before he was eligible to sign a pro contract. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the guy you look for all your life—and I can’t sign him yet because he’s not old enough,’” Eljaua told the Sun Sentinel in 2004. “If you had to design the perfect prospect, this guy was it. There was nothing you could find in his ability, in his makeup, his family. There weren’t a lot of negatives there.”

By 2003, Cabrera was 20 and playing third base in a Class-AA league when he got called up by the Marlins on June 20. The team was 35–39 and in fourth place in the National League East. In his first game, he hit a pitch from Tampa Bay reliever Al Levine about 420 feet for an 11th inning game-winning home run. ESPN.com presciently captioned a photo of the youngster rounding the bases, “Miguel Cabrera has the ability to become a Hall of Famer.”

The Marlins surged after his promotion and wound up the wild card. In the playoffs, they slipped past the San Francisco Giants, crushed the hearts of Chicago Cubs fans everywhere (that was the Steve Bartman series), and then defeated the mighty Yankees in six games in the World Series. Cabrera hit four home runs that postseason, the last off Roger Clemens.

In the years that followed, Cabrera just got better and better—his power numbers kept rising, his on-base percentage kept climbing. “You’re going to make good pitches,” All-Star pitcher Danny Haren said of Cabrera, “and he’s going to hit ’em.” And there’s a viciousness to the way Cabrera hits them that’s hinted at by the word he writes on his wrists when taping up for a game: Sangre.

The newspapers in Maracay have referred to Concepción for a long time now as “El Rey David,” and it wasn’t long before they came up with a royal nickname for Cabrera, too. El Principe.

In time, the Marlins, scared of losing Cabrera to free agency, traded him to Detroit for outfielder Cameron Maybin and the baseball equivalent of loose change. His first year with the Tigers, playing in roomy Comerica Park, he nevertheless led the AL with 37 home runs. Two years later, he drove in 126 runs to top the league. In 2011, he hit .344 and won his first batting crown—better than that, he made it back to the playoffs, though not quite the World Series.

But now, after getting shifted from first base back to third in order to accommodate Prince Fielder, Cabrera and the Tigers are in the World Series, having torn the heart and soul out of the AL’s most dominant team.

(One of the strangest spectacles of the postseason was brought on by Derek Jeter breaking his ankle during Game 1—and no, I’m not talking about Jeter writhing on the ground in agony. I mean the combination of nauseating lionization, sheer vitriol, and bizarre blame-the-victim talk that flowed online and on social media in about equal measures about the Yankee captain’s injury, from everyone from Buzz Bissinger to Donald Trump, who only claimed that Jeter hurt his ankle because he had the temerity to sell his Trump World Tower apartment. Although, to be fair, the Donald did seem to be desperately seeking publicity all month. A so-called “birther” who thinks President Obama is hiding the fact that he was actually born in Kenya and therefore isn’t constitutionally eligible for the presidency, Trump seems to be reading deeper into Obama’s biography, now offering to donate $5 million to charity if the president releases his college records and passport application before the election. What’s next? Obama’s marriage license to Michelle? Dental records? For God’s sake, please vote Democrat just to shut Trump up.)

Despite the very shiny, triple-pointed crown sitting atop Cabrera’s head, there is a good chance that he won’t be named league MVP. That honor, many believe, should be given to the Angels’ outstanding rookie centerfielder, Mike Trout. Mostly the fault line falls between old-school reporters and sabermetrically-inclined new-schoolers. To me, that argument is a bore. At it’s core, it’s all about whose metric (batting average, RBI, WAR, wRC+, RE24, wOBA) is better in terms of arriving at that highly subjective notion of most valuable, and it leads those arguing the number-crunching line to make idiotic statements like “a solo home run has the exact same value as a sacrifice fly that scores a run.” (Yes, the old schoolers make idiotic statements too, but they less frequently follow their illogical beliefs to such extreme ends.)

As far as I’m concerned, Buster Olney posed a much more interesting divide: while players favor Cabrera, the management guys all think it should be Trout. Which makes sense on a couple of levels. The seamheads have taken over the front offices of a lot of the MLB franchises these days. But on top of that there’s the question of salary—Trout makes the league minimum, $480,000, while Cabrera makes $20 million a year. Of course a GM might look at those figures and toss a little bargain into what it means to be most valuable.

Winning the triple crown has put Cabrera into select company. If he loses the MVP to Trout, it would actually put him into even more rarified air. In 1947, the MVP award went to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio despite the fact that a half-Mexican from San Diego hit .343, 32, 114 to lead the AL in all three categories. His name? Ted Williams.

“Miguel Cabrera,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Crowning Glory,” the October 24, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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