Mentors guide Asdrubal Cabrera on unlikely path to stardom
CLEVELAND -- Day after day this spring, one ball after another would soar over the fence at the Indians' training facility in Goodyear, Ariz., propelled from the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera. Watching from the close proximity of the same batting practice group, Orlando Cabrera would watch his new teammate and unrelated though similarly surnamed double-play partner demonstrate power he rarely displayed in games.
"It's like a waste," Orlando Cabrera said. "I always thought that he hit 12, 13 home runs a year, but when he told me, 'No, just three,' I was like, 'What? Why are you doing that?' Three or five home runs? That's ridiculous."
Asdrubal replied that he rarely swung with much gusto for fear he'd make less contact; his batting average and on-base percentage were his primary concerns. Before this season, Cabrera had rarely visited Souvenir City -- the place one Indians broadcaster refers to as the destination of an Indian home run -- having never hit more than six homers in any of his first four big league seasons.
Orlando, though, provided a helpful lesson in baseball statistics: "I said, 'You know, you can do all that. As a matter of fact, I think when you get a home run, your average goes up. They don't take points away.'"
Orlando counseled that Asdrubal be selective in picking his spots to swing for the fences, considering both the opposing pitcher and the outs-and-bases situation, and his tutee has taken off: Following an 8-for-9 stretch in which he homered three times on Sunday and Monday, Cabrera has now hit 10 already this season, a total that ranks first among American League shortstops. He has kept his average up (.305), while also leading league shortstops in hits (58), runs (33), RBIs (34), on-base percentage (.364), slugging (.537) and OPS (.901).
Asdrubal, just 25 years old, is a burgeoning star and a driving force behind Cleveland's offensive success that has helped the Tribe to a baseball-best 30-16 record through their first 46 games.
"O.C. told me in spring training, 'If you hit the ball hard in B.P., you can do it in games too,'" Asdrubal said in his improving English. "I just try to hit the ball a little more hard."
It's perhaps fitting that the advice came from Orlando Cabrera. Though the two are not related, Orlando jokingly calls Asdrubal his nephew, and family has always been important to Asdrubal.
The interest in baseball came from his mother's side of the family, who all played locally in their native Venezuela. Cabrera's father, also named Asdrubal Cabrera, was a talented basketball player there. His son said his father was recruited to play professionally, though the salaries at that time were lacking.
"They tried to make my dad play professional basketball," the Indians shortstop said. "But he was married young, too, at 20 years old. He wanted to have a family and said that money was not enough."
A major league payday, however, is a different story. Cabrera signed a professional contract with the Mariners when he was 16. And his journey to the big leagues wouldn't have been possible without family, biological and otherwise.
If you were to look at a map and pick a minor league city as far as possible from Puerto la Cruz, a coastal city in eastern Venezuela, you'd be hard-pressed to find one farther away than Everett, Wash., which lies 25 miles north of Seattle.
But that's where Cabrera traveled in 2004 to begin his professional career in the U.S. He left behind his home in Venezuela, his native language and his family, bringing with him a few words of English and some paternal support.
"My dad, he believed in me," Cabrera said. "My first year was hard for me. I came to the States with myself and no one came with me."
Cabrera's talent as a quick-handed shortstop and switch-hitting line-drive hitter helped him ascend quickly through the ranks of Seattle's minor league system. He didn't struggle until he reached Triple-A in 2006, where he batted just .236 with a .323 on-base percentage before being traded to the Indians for first baseman Eduardo Perez that June. In his new organization, Cabrera's struggles continued, as he batted .263 with only a .295 OBP.
He was, after all, just 20 years old, splitting his season between two Triple-A teams where he was the youngest regular on both. Concerned about his plate discipline and his confidence, the Indians demoted Cabrera to Double-A during spring training the following year.
"They told me Seattle jumped me too quick," Cabrera said. "I was really young. I felt like a little man that year, because they sent me to Double-A."
He again needed a father and found a surrogate version in Akron Aeros manager Tim Bogar, whose guidance took on such a parental flair that he began calling Cabrera "mi hijo" -- my son.
"When he first got sent down he wasn't really, I'd say, motivated to go to Double-A," said Bogar, now the Red Sox third-base coach. "I felt like at that point I had to get his trust."
To do so, Bogar, then in his fourth year as a minor league manager, did what he admitted is "extremely" rare: He didn't make Cabrera travel to away games for the rest of spring training, letting him stay behind in camp to work out on his own, swinging in the cage and taking groundballs, a luxury usually only afforded long-tenured, big-salaried major league veterans instead of 21-year-old minor leaguers.
"I kind of treated him like a big leaguer in Double-A," Bogar said. "I thought it was a little bone that I could throw him to make him get excited about the upcoming season."
Said Cabrera, "That made me forget that they sent me to Double-A. I was mad in that moment."
Bogar's ploy, which was done with the approval of the Indians' front office, seemed to smooth things over. In 96 games in Akron, Cabrera batted .310 with a .383 on-base percentage, smashing eight home runs and stealing 25 bases.
"Once the season started, he was incredible," Bogar said, "not only performance-wise but the way he worked, his attitude, the way he approached the game daily."
Cabrera almost became too comfortable. When the Indians wanted to promote him back to Triple-A, he initially balked. The little man who was so disappointed to play Double-A ball was now the big man on the roster and knew he was in a good situation with his manager.
"What is the difference? I want to stay here with you. I feel comfortable here," Cabrera recalled saying, raving Bogar is "an unbelievable guy" and "one of the best managers I've played for."
Bogar assured him that the promotion was the right move, and eventually, Cabrera went to Triple-A, where he hit .316 in a brief stint of nine games before receiving a big-league call-up and debuting on Aug. 8, 2007. He impressed so much in the season's final two months -- a .283 average and .345 OBP -- that he started all 11 games of Cleveland's playoff run that October.
"You could tell that he was ready to go up to the big leagues, which he eventually did," Bogar said. "He could have just skipped Triple-A altogether, but I know developmental-wise, it was good for him to go there and actually succeed at the Triple-A level where he was struggling before that."
He continued to improve in 2008 and '09, batting .308 with a .361 OBP in the latter season, but a broken wrist derailed his 2010 campaign. When he returned to the majors, he wasn't the same player, so he played winter ball in Venezuela to regain his strength and his confidence, leading to his spring training adjustment on the advice of Uncle Orlando.
Cabrera is now a father himself to a son, Meyer, and a five-week old daughter, Ashley. Firmly entrenched as the Indians' everyday shortstop, Cabrera sought to return the support his father, who has driven a truck for the past 28 years, always gave him.
"I saw that the work was really hard," said the younger Cabrera. "I said, 'Hey Dad, I'll take care of you. Don't work anymore.'"
With their son's financial backing, Cabrera's parents have relocated to Cleveland, bringing his biological family closer to his baseball family. Now all of them can watch Asdrubal launch balls to Souvenir City.