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Hitting genius Miguel Cabrera and the pressure of greatness

Forty-five years have passed since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski led the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in -- the Triple Crown. For two generations of fans, the Triple Crown is a relic of history. It is not a plausible goal for a modern-day ballplayer.

You watch baseball year after year, decade after decade, and you think: Nobody will win the Triple Crown again.

And then you watch Miguel Cabrera, with his quick hands, tree-trunk legs, hitter's eye and ridiculous raw power. You watch him hit line drives all over the field and home runs without trying to hit home runs.

And you think: That man has the talent to win the Triple Crown.

And here he is, with a week left in the 2012 regular season, and he leads the AL in batting average (.329) and RBIs (133) and is second in home runs (42) by one. He might just win that Triple Crown.

That is Miguel Cabrera's baseball story.

It seems like such a simple story.

Baseball is rarely simple.

"People don't realize a lot of things about me," Cabrera told me this week, as he sat at his stall in the Comerica Park clubhouse. "A lot of things, they don't know."

* * *

The story of Miguel Cabrera is not so much that the game is simple for him, but that it looks simple for him.

Watch him in batting practice. Opposing players do it all the time. They have never seen anything like it. Many times over the years, Cabrera has treated batting practice like a carnival act, playing a game of Around The World for his own amusement: Over the fence in rightfield, over the fence in right-center, over the fence in center, over the fence in left center, over the fence in left -- in exactly that order, a hitter's royal flush.

It is the ultimate display of raw talent. And it masks the fact that Cabrera might be the smartest hitter in the major leagues, a savant who remembers pitch sequences from at-bats five years ago. He knows exactly how much information he needs to bring to the plate, and refuses to bring any more or any less.

Most hitters make adjustments between at-bats. Cabrera makes major adjustments between pitches. Sometimes, he even adjusts mid-pitch.

He famously got in a drunken spat with his wife in the fall of 2009, on the last weekend of a tight division race, and people said he was selfish. He was never selfish. He can occasionally be brusque with reporters who ask about his greatness, and he can seem like he thinks he is better than them. In fact, he just doesn't like talking about the one way he clearly is better than them: his ability to hit a baseball.

You watch him and think he can get hits forever. But he says that every at-bat now, he thinks, "It might be my last hit. I don't know where I'm gonna get a hit."

* * *

Scouting is a projection game. You have the super athletes, the freaks who can hit the ball a country mile or run from first to third faster than you can say "second base," and you have to project whether they will learn to hit the curveball and lay off the high strikes. And then you have the discipline machines, the fundamentally sound guys with an eye for the game, and you have to project whether that will carry them into the major leagues. And what made Cabrera special, from a very early age, is that he was both: an athletic freak and a discipline machine.

He had the swing, the balance, the ability to identify pitches, and mostly, he understood pitchers better than they understood themselves. Americans love to say baseball is a game of fathers and sons, but growing up in Venezuela, Cabrera learned at least as much from his mother, Gregoria, who was a softball legend there. His father, Jose Miguel, also played baseball.

"They always pushed me to get hits, get hits," Cabrera said. "Do good every game. They expect me to get a hit in every at-bat. It was something I like. They teach me at a young age, that's the beautiful thing about this game. Go out there and compete with the best guys."

He was a baseball genius with world-class physical skills. There were no gaps to fill. There were no projections to be made. Cabrera was signed as a shortstop, made his major league debut as a leftfielder, switched to third base, ended up at first base, and moved back to third this season ... but his position always felt like paperwork, something that had to be filled out but wasn't really the point. Miguel Cabrera was there to hit. And he could always hit.

As a 20-year-old in 2003, he hit 12 home runs in 314 at-bats for the World Series champion Florida Marlins. In 2004, he hit .294/.366/.512, with 33 home runs, 112 RBIs and an OPS+ of 130.

He was 21 years old and already a star.

But some days he would not get a hit.

And his phone would ring, and it would be his mom and dad, and they would say, with only a hint of humor: You went 0 for 4? Really, Miguel?

"They say, 'What's goin' on?'" Cabrera said with a laugh. "'You better get a hit tomorrow.'"

* * *

That is a lot of pressure for a man who already had enough. Cabrera says he likes the pressure, and maybe part of him does. But it has created a perception that he was supposed to do everything at once. Baseball is never easy, but it really isn't easy when it is supposed to be easy.

"When you say something like, 'He's gonna hit a home run every time he's at the plate,' people believe that,'" he said.

Like the most gifted athletes, the true prodigies, he had a hard time proving anybody wrong. Whatever he did well, he was supposed to do.

He put up magnificent numbers, year after year. But sometimes he seemed caught between trying to meet people's expectations and trying not to set any expectations at all. Those batting practice performances drove his coaches nuts. Too much batting, not enough practice.

"That was really frustrating for me a few years ago," Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon says, "because he had so much talent that sometimes he would come out and not really get ready for what he needed to do."

From 2003 to 2009, he hit .311 with a .542 slugging percentage, but he was still dogged by a question that seemed both ridiculous and reasonable: Why isn't he Albert Pujols? As great as Cabrera was, he could have been better.

Pressure? Cabrera says he likes it. But it's true that his worst season, after he established himself as a major leaguer, came in 2008, his first season as a Tiger, after he signed an enormous contract and was expected to carry the team. And that 2009 drinking incident came as he was trying to lead the Tigers into the postseason for the first time.

His problem was not toughness -- he played through injuries. It wasn't work ethic -- he worked hard on his fielding and said he wanted to win a Gold Glove. It was not selfishness, either -- he cared desperately about winning. It was something harder to define, and it goes back to that talent that makes you think he can win the Triple Crown.

"He probably got a little bored at times," McClendon said. "He would come back and say, 'I gave an at-bat away.'"

* * *

There has been a raging debate lately about the American League's Most Valuable Player award should go to Cabrera or Angels rookie centerfielder Mike Trout. It is a classic debate in so many ways. Trout is an all-around great player while Cabrera is a traditional slugger. Trout is the favorite of the modern-stats crowd while Cabrera is chasing the Triple Crown, maybe the biggest old-school stats jewel of them all. Trout is the new story and Cabrera is the established star.

On and on it goes. One of them will get the award, but the debate will go on for years. That's one of the fun parts of being a sports fan. We can argue about this stuff forever.

But in the baseball story of Miguel Cabrera, how much does the 2012 AL MVP plaque really matter? His season has not been about perception. It is not even about his numbers -- he put up similarly great numbers in 2010 (.328/.420/.622, 38 home runs, 126 RBIs) and 2011 (.344/.448/.586, 30 HRs, 105 RBIs). It's about the intersection of his talent, drive, attitude and focus.

He volunteered to move to third base when the team signed Prince Fielder, proving how much of a team player he really is, and he has played competently there, proving his critics wrong.

Early in the year, he seemed a bit caught up in being part of the Tigers' new power show with Prince Fielder. He expanded the strike zone and didn't look like the hitting genius that he is. Then he stopped giving away occasional at-bats. Now he uses batting practice primarily to work.

And he now wears those expectations like a shiny, lightweight necklace: We see them, but he doesn't. Between batting practice cuts Monday, he hit popups to Fielder's kids, and Cabrera laughed and laughed like a little boy. He went out and extended his hitting streak to 14 games. He is even patiently answering questions about his achievements. Miguel Cabrera has become comfortable with his own magnificence.

Since the last day of August, with a playoff spot, the MVP and the Triple Crown on the line, Cabrera has posted all-time great numbers: .360 batting average, .426 on-base percentage, .791 slugging percentage. He has 10 home runs and seven doubles in 23 games.

And isn't this nice? Cabrera told me this week that his mom is in town.

I asked: For how long?

"A month."

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