There is a famous baseball term for what Miguel Cabrera did this season, when he led the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in: the Triple Crown. But there is no term for what he did in the season's final weeks. It was the extreme Triple Crown, the Triple Crown with extra cheese. It was a man and his bat working in concert to make a mockery of the sport.
This is an article from the Oct. 29, 2012 issue
In his last 32 games of the regular season, Cabrera batted .347, hit 12 home runs and drove in 32 runs. Over a 162-game season, that is a 61-homer, 162-RBI pace, numbers that would have made his actual Triple Crown figures (.330, 44, 139) seem pedestrian. Cabrera did not talk much about his awesomeness. But sometimes after his at bats he would take a seat in the dugout next to one of his best friends, utility infielder Ramon Santiago, and utter the most remarkable words of his incredible season.
"Santy," Cabrera would say, "I can't walk. But I'm going to play."
Cabrera sprained his right ankle in mid-August. He waited a week to tell Detroit medical staffers, which ticked them off but did not surprise them. Trainer Kevin Rand says the injury would have put many players on the disabled list. But he knew Cabrera would never consider it, so Rand didn't even bring it up. Cabrera missed only one game.
The best hitter in baseball is as hungry as the last player on the roster, a major reason the Tigers have a chance to win the World Series for the first time since 1984. Of course their hopes do not hinge solely on Cabrera. Their starting pitchers, led by the similarly inimitable Justin Verlander, were dominant in the first two rounds of the postseason (they had a 1.02 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 62 innings), and they have other potent bats in the lineup. But Cabrera is better equipped to dominate a series than he has been at any point in his career. He has cut down on his strikeouts. He switched positions from first base to third base so the Tigers could sign slugging first baseman Prince Fielder in January, and Fielder, batting cleanup behind Cabrera, has thanked him by forcing opposing pitchers to reintroduce the fastball to Cabrera.
Nine years ago, as a 20-year-old Florida Marlin, Cabrera played in his first World Series. When scouts and teammates watched him then, he was not just a player but a fantasy. They could picture him as a slugger or batting champ, breaking any imaginable record, playing outfield, third base, first base or even shortstop (his original position). Now he is back in the Fall Classic as something less conceptual and far more meaningful: the player he always wanted to be.
TWO PLATE APPEARANCES, eight months apart. Two windows into Cabrera's genius.
The first was in February, during a spring training workout in Lakeland, Fla. Cabrera, the reigning AL batting champion, stepped into the batter's box against Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and MVP. Fans pressed against the fence to see the duel between two likely Hall of Famers. But there was no duel. Cabrera watched every pitch zip by without moving his bat.
Teammate Delmon Young stepped in next, actually tried to hit a Verlander pitch and whiffed. In the dugout Cabrera cackled and yelled, "That's why I don't swing!" The crowd laughed. But even in jest Cabrera revealed one of his core hitting beliefs: "You don't hit good pitches," he says. "You hit mistakes."
The second plate appearance came in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Pitchers have been pounding Cabrera inside the whole postseason, for good reason: He likes to go to the opposite field, and he thinks inside pitches are the toughest to hit. Yankees ace CC Sabathia threw a four-seam fastball on the inside of the plate—a sensible pitch but also a mistake. Cabrera had anticipated that Sabathia would throw an inside fastball, so, he says, "I tried to cheat a little bit." That fastball—which was on target—was doomed: Cabrera crushed it over the leftfield fence.
There is a book on every hitter in the majors. Cabrera is so good and smart that he keeps rewriting his. He says pitchers can't persist in jamming him inside because he will adjust and do what he did to Sabathia. And how do pitchers adjust to his adjustment? "They think I try to look inside, and they throw away," he says. "I say, 'Thank you very much!'"
Cabrera's at bats are a cat-and-mouse game, but it's hard to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse. He is so gifted that he turns the conventional wisdom of the game on its head. The pitcher has the ball, but Cabrera seems to control it. He can force pitchers into mistakes. "He sets people up," Tigers president Dave Dombrowski says. "I've talked to him about it. You look bad, you take a certain pitch—you look like you're being fooled and you're really not."
Cabrera does not watch video of pitchers because he does not want to clutter his mind. Sometimes he will walk out of a meeting with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon when McClendon is in the middle of a sentence because he does not want to hear any more. He wants to know the pitcher's basic tendencies, then focus on what happens that day.
Every pitch he sees is another piece of the puzzle. In his career Cabrera has a .297 batting average in his first plate appearance against a starter. This rises to .322 in his second plate appearance that game, .345 in his third and .375 if they face each other again.
Cabrera can solve any pitcher. The principal burden of his career is that he knows it.
Some players chase numbers. Cabrera's numbers chase him. They hover on the scoreboard during every trip to the plate, reminding him of his batting average and whether it has gone up or down that day. In September he bristled whenever a teammate mentioned the Triple Crown. Cabrera does not want to play for stats, and he does not want fans or reporters elevating him above his teammates. But he also knows how talented he is, and how that ability comes with a responsibility: He is supposed to be the best. Sometimes he looks up his career numbers, to see if he is living up to his own standard.
The numbers started chasing Cabrera when he was a child. His mother, Gregoria, was a softball legend in Venezuela, and his father, Miguel Sr., played professional baseball there. Cabrera, who grew up in the town of Maracay, 70 miles from Caracas, says that when he got one hit in a game as a kid, "They always told me, That's not enough. I gotta do better." When he had three or four hits, they told him not to get too excited because he had another game the next day.
The home run off Sabathia last Thursday was Cabrera's first of this postseason. When he is asked what his mother said afterward, he says, "About time." He is laughing, but he is not kidding. He has lived with this since he was five years old, not just from his parents but from other Venezuelans. "They always text me and tell me the same thing: 'Hit a home run today, hit a home run today,'" Cabrera says. "I say, Come on! I want a hit, RBI. That's what I worry about: hits with two outs, RBIs with two outs. That's a big part of the game."
He has played enough baseball to know that sometimes line drives land in gloves and even the best players hit ground balls and pop-ups. But strikeouts—he had 98 this season—still embarrass him. The idea that he would miss a pitch completely almost offends him. "Nothing!" he says. "You didn't do nothing. It's not fun. Put the ball in play, please. It's like everything's wrong."
He says he would rather go 0 for 4 and win than go 3 for 4 and lose, and his teammates confirm this. But when he goes 0 for 4 and the Tigers lose, the burden of greatness engulfs him. "When he puts too much on his own shoulders, that's when he scuffles," Dombrowski says. "But he is much better than he used to be."
Putting too much on his shoulders may have had ramifications beyond the diamond for Cabrera. He does not talk much these days about his two well-documented alcohol-related incidents. But it is reasonable to think that the pressure of living up to expectations played a role. One incident took place late in the 2009 season, when the Tigers were locked in a tight division race and Cabrera, who had signed an eight-year, $152 million contract the year before, was struggling. (Police were called to Cabrera's home after he had an argument with his wife, Rosangel, after a night of drinking. No charges were filed, and Cabrera underwent treatment for alcohol abuse that off-season.) The second incident took place as Cabrera was on his way to spring training in 2011. He was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in Fort Pierce, Fla., and according to the police report, told an officer: "Do you know who I am? You don't know anything about my problems." (Cabrera pleaded no contest, was placed on probation and had his license suspended.)
The incidents created a public image of a foolish and self-important player—the exact opposite of the man the Tigers describe. The public image is starting to change, and not just because of the Triple Crown. Cabrera is a lighter, happier player in the clubhouse. He is not as moody and talks more often—to all of his teammates. As long as reporters ask about the game, and not his brilliance, he is usually accommodating and gracious. "You see it in his face and his demeanor," says Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila, who signed the 16-year-old Cabrera when Avila was an executive with the Marlins. "You feel that he's made a big turnaround in his life."
It has translated to his performance. Cabrera does not give away at bats as he once did, does not try to win the game by himself. Now he treats slumps like injuries: If he doesn't acknowledge them, they don't exist. So why worry? "I don't call them a slump," he says with a smile. "I call them, You don't get lucky."
He thinks he won the Triple Crown partly because the Tigers were in a division race until the end. Everybody understood what he has always known, which is that the team is most important. He also thinks spraining his ankle actually helped him. "When you hurt something, it makes you focus more," he says. "When you get to a point where you don't try to do too much, boom. You can do a lot of things."
That, as much as anything, sums up Cabrera's baseball existence. He can do everything—until he tries to do everything. When he remembers the game is supposed to be hard, even for him, it gets easier. After missing that one game because of his injury, he traveled to Kansas City and got five hits in three games.
"You know what is sad too?" he asks. "I remember in Kansas City, I hit a ground ball, and people started talking bad about me: Why I don't run to first base hard? People don't realize you play hurt. It hurt my feelings a little bit."
All these years, all those All-Star appearances, and some people don't understand him. They don't see that his whole life he has tried to honor his talent. But Cabrera has learned that fan criticism is like a fastball off the plate. He can chase it and have some success, or he can be patient, leave it alone and trust that his instincts and talent will triumph.
"It's not like I want to show the people they're wrong," he says. "It's like something pushed me to go in the field and play with my heart. You don't have to show everybody. Show yourself. Try and be yourself."
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