The Wake-up Call

July 18, 2010

He always could hit, but the truth is that Miguel Cabrera wasn't fully focused on the game. After a sobering run-in with the law, he's showing us how good he can be

A telephone call at 6:30 a.m. on the final Saturday of the 2009 season awakened Tigers president Dave Dombrowski. It was the Birmingham, Mich., police, calling to tell Dombrowski that his franchise player, first baseman Miguel Cabrera, was in jail and extraordinarily drunk. "You can come get him," an officer said, "or let him stay here."

"No, I'll come get him," Dombrowski replied.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland likes to say that Cabrera has "a great face, a happy face." It is childlike, even now that Cabrera is 27 years old and one of the most feared hitters in baseball, a legitimate Triple Crown candidate who is following the statistical footprints of Hank Aaron. Cabrera has the smooth, plump cheeks of a cherub and a patch of whiskers on his chin that would need the company of many others to qualify as a full-blown beard.

Dombrowski has known this face well—since Cabrera was 16 and, at the time, one of the most expensive international amateur free agents in baseball history. It is also the face of the Tigers' franchise. But the visage Dombrowski found in jail was worn, tired and, following a domestic dispute that night with his wife, Rosangel, scratched.

"He was in bad shape," Dombrowski said. "I knew it had already reached that point where he needed help. But as I told him first, 'Let's get you some sleep.' Because that's what he needed first and foremost."

Cabrera's blood alcohol level was 0.26—high enough for three people to be over the legal limit, the equivalent of someone his size drinking 15 pints of beer in five hours and, based on how long it takes alcohol to leave the body, enough to require 17 hours for Cabrera to completely sober up.

Drunk, jailed and excoriated: a Triple Crown of shame. That hardly seems how the tale of an MVP-quality season by a friendlier, more self-assured player should begin. But to understand why Cabrera has become a better ballplayer ("by far," Leyland says) and a happier person this year, you have to begin with that colossal bender, which took place at a hotel bar among friends from the White Sox and eventually led to a 911 call from Rosangel, who told police that her husband hit her after he returned home. (No charges were filed.) Since then, little about Cabrera has been the same—especially, he says, his drinking.

"I don't feel different physically, but I feel like for the first time in my career I know what I want," Cabrera says. "I want more from baseball. I want the MVP. I want to go to the playoffs. I want to win the World Series."

In his first two seasons with Detroit, after a December 2007 trade from Florida, Cabrera hit .308, drove in 230 runs and won a home run title. Yet privately, teammates and opponents wondered what Cabrera could do if he took his job more seriously. They need wonder no more. Cabrera (.346 average, 22 homers, 77 RBIs) came within two home runs of becoming the first player since Aaron in 1957 to lead his league in the Triple Crown categories at the All-Star break. In addition to batting and RBIs, Cabrera led the AL in slugging and OPS and carried a career-best 19-game hitting streak.

Perhaps most revealing, he has licked his careerlong problems in day games. Having entered this season batting only .296 in those as opposed to .318 at night, a fitter, better prepared Cabrera was hitting a robust .341 in daylight and .351 at night at the break. "He used to give away at bats all the time," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge says. "Now I can count on one hand the at bats he's given away this year.

"The other thing is that he used to be much more introverted," Inge continues. "He kept to himself and had good days and bad days, and it was easy to tell the bad days. Now he's outgoing. I've seen him talk to the media more this year than the other years combined. We have great chemistry on this team, and he's a big part of it."

Cabrera explains, "Before, when I didn't have men on base, I always tried to hit home runs. Right now I work the count, take a walk, get a base hit, and if you make a mistake, I can hit a home run. I have the same approach every time.

"People tell me, Don't throw away at bats, because when you throw away at bats, you throw away games. And one game you throw away may make the difference in the season."

Last year the Tigers missed the postseason by one game, losing a tiebreaker to the Twins and becoming the first team to squander a three-game lead with four to play. Cabrera, who played the 161st game 12 hours after he was bailed out of jail, put up much bigger numbers on the breathalyzer (.260) than he did at the plate in Detroit's last four regularly scheduled games (.067). The morning after the playoff, he was in Dombrowski's office at Comerica Park along with one of his agents, Diego Benz.

"He was very open that he needed to do something," Dombrowski says. Cabrera entered an alcohol-abuse treatment program in Miami, which included sessions with a doctor up to four times a week at up to three hours per session, Dombrowski told the Detroit Free Press. Meanwhile, several clubs called Detroit with offers to trade for Cabrera, sensing an opportunity to acquire an impact hitter at a reduced price. "I said we're just not interested," Dombrowski says.

Cabrera disclosed his treatment to the public last January at the Tigers' annual fan festival. "The fans have been great," he says. "They see me, how I act with everybody. I was clean with everything. They see the truth. They see I was working. They see I was O.K."

Dombrowski says Cabrera's treatment continues. "Any individual who goes through this, you know a follow-up is attached," he says. "If you know you have an addiction, you know that you have to fight it every day."

Cabrera has played in the spotlight since he was 16, when the Dodgers, Red Sox, Braves, Twins and Marlins were eager to sign him. Dodgers scouts Camilio Pascual and Jack Zduriencek (now the Mariners' general manager) sat in Cabrera's home in Maracay, Venezuela, at five minutes before midnight on July 2, 1999, the start of the signing period. They offered him $2 million. Midnight came and went without a deal. Cabrera's mother said she would call them the next morning.

"The next day at the hotel the elevator doors opened, and we saw guys from the Marlins," Zduriencek said. "The Marlins? Right then we didn't have a good feeling. We didn't expect the Marlins. His mother didn't call us back until the afternoon, and she said he was signing with a different team."

Florida's payroll at the time was $21 million, second lowest in baseball. But the reports on Cabrera were so glowing that John Henry, then the Marlins' owner, and Dombrowski, at the time their G.M., authorized a splurge. One Florida scout, Miguel Garcia, had known Cabrera since he was 13 and had developed a bond with his family. Because of that relationship, Cabrera signed with the Marlins for $1.8 million. The Yankees never made an offer.

"The Yankees' scout in Venezuela didn't like me," Cabrera said. "He said I would not play in the big leagues. He told my dad that, and he told other scouts too. I think maybe it was because I was playing shortstop and was tall. I was awkward. The other scouts said, You're going to move to third. He didn't see that."

Cabrera reached the big leagues in 2003, at age 20. He hit a walk-off homer in his first game and, that fall, a World Series home run off Roger Clemens of the Yankees. The next season he smashed 33 homers, becoming one of the 10 youngest players to hit that many. When he became too expensive for the Marlins, they shipped him to Detroit, where the relocated Dombrowski quickly signed him to an eight-year, $152.3 million deal.

So far this year Cabrera's career numbers dovetail with those of Aaron at the same age, including batting average (.314 to Aaron's .319), home runs (231, 253), RBIs (820, 863) and OPS (.936, .935). "He's the best hitter I've ever played with," says Tigers teammate Johnny Damon, who has played with Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. "Manny was the best two-out hitter, Alex has the perfect swing and Tex has all the intangibles. But nobody hits like [Cabrera]. I think he's been a good hitter who now wants to be great. I think he realizes that five years from now people could be talking about him among the best hitters ever."

When he was seven, the righthanded Cabrera would take BP with one of his uncles and drill line drive after line drive to rightfield. "He said, 'Hit the ball the other way,' " Cabrera says. " 'Every time you pull the ball, you have to run a lap.' So I hit the ball the other way."

That training and Cabrera's size (6'4", 255 pounds) and strength have given him, in Leyland's words, "the best opposite-field power of any player I've ever seen." In a batting practice session earlier this month, Cabrera laced 18 consecutive hits to rightfield over three rounds, then pulled the 19th about 450 feet into the leftfield seats. "Sometimes," Leyland says, "when he knows someone is watching, like somebody from the other team, a big broadcaster, somebody important, he'll just put on a show. He'll hit the ball out to straightaway rightfield, then right center, center, left center, left—like shooting three-pointers. It's amazing. There haven't been many players like him, and his best days are ahead of him."

The truth about the phone call that awakened Dombrowski nine months ago is that it did not come as a complete surprise. As Leyland says, "I knew there were some issues." Adds Dombrowski, "You hear things. And for me, with him that goes back for years. But a lot of guys go out at night and have something to drink. If you thought it was something of major, major consequence and you had proof of it, you would approach those things at the time. That never happened."

Everything changed the night Cabrera wound up drunk and in jail as his team's pennant hopes were flickering out. It was apparent even to Tigers fans that by this year he was a changed man. The spring training regulars in Lakeland, Fla., would stop Dombrowski and tell him, "Miguel is different. He stops and signs autographs and he smiles. He's never done that in the past."

Dombrowski too saw something new in Cabrera. "I find a definite difference in his attitude," he says. "He's much more open and has a smile on his face. He feels better physically, he feels better about himself, his family life is better."

Cabrera has become the fulcrum not only of the Tigers' lineup but also of their clubhouse. He has become a mentor, for instance, to rookie outfielder Brennan Boesch, who bats behind him in the lineup. "He calls me his bodyguard, which is funny because he weighs about 50 pounds more than me," Boesch says. "He's been more than a teammate to me. He's been a friend and a leader. The way he goes about his business is something I will try to emulate."

Cabrera is a big rig of a man, and the hugeness of his presence is now enhanced by the sense of purpose he projects. Yet there remains a youthfulness about him, a sense of a man not in full but in progress. There is, for instance, his boyish hobby of collecting autographed jerseys from other players (he has about 60) and his nervousness before the first game of every season.

"It's the excitement," Cabrera explains. "You want to get that first hit. I'm always nervous that first at bat. Then once you get going, get the blood going, there's no more fear. Then the pitcher's nervous!"

As he laughed at his own joke, his eyes shone clear and bright and his smile widened. Now this is the new face of the franchise. It's a great face, a happy face.

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"For the first time I know what I want," Cabrera says. "I want more from baseball."

"We have great chemistry on this team," says a teammate. "[Cabrera] is a big part of it."

PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN BIEVERJUST LIKE STARTING OVER After off-season alcohol-abuse treatment, Cabrera has been a model citizen at the plate and in the Tigers' clubhouse. PHOTOLEON HALIP/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTORICK OSENTOSKI/CAL SPORT MEDIASTRETCHING HIS TALENT Cabrera's new fitness has helped him in the field as well as at bat, where he almost won the first-half Triple Crown. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERINTO THE LIGHT Since getting treatment, Cabrera has become more extroverted—and as good a hitter in day games as at night. PHOTOBRAD MANGIN[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)