Ramon Santiago has hit only 27 home runs in 783 major league games, so sometimes he asks Miguel Cabrera, his friend and Tigers teammate, to hit one for him. Santiago requested one in the middle of a game in Texas on May 19. Cabrera had already hit a typical Cabrera home run, the kind almost nobody else hits: a seemingly casual opposite-field poke at a changeup that landed beyond the right centerfield fence.
In the dugout before the fifth inning Santiago placed his order, as though Cabrera were a waiter and home runs were the evening's special. Santiago spoke Spanish: Ponme a gozar. Make me happy. Cabrera obliged. He hit a line drive so low that Rangers lefthander Derek Holland actually ducked, but with such force that the ball flew over the centerfield fence.
Cabrera had hit two homers: one for himself, one for Santiago. "I said, 'You make my day,' " Santiago said. "He said, 'The game's not over yet.' "
In the eighth inning Cabrera went deep to centerfield again. It was the kind of performance that makes managers wonder if he should be walked every time he picks up a bat. But that doesn't work either. In the sixth inning of the same game the Rangers' Ron Washington ordered an intentional walk of Cabrera with runners on first and second base, loading the bases.
June 17, 2013
And what did Cabrera think of that? With a laugh that sounds as if it came straight out of a text message—Hahahahahahaha!—he says, "They walk me ... awwww, they're in trouble!"
Trouble is having to face Prince Fielder, Detroit's cleanup hitter, with the bases loaded. Fielder can seem even more like a superhero than Cabrera—starting with his name, arguably the best in sports. It is the baseball version of Tiger Woods, though even in that case, Tiger is a nickname. Fielder was born a Prince.
Fielder has the kind of body that an eight-year-old might draw: enormous round shoulders, thighs that look like torsos, and a face so large it could double-park. He also has short arms, giving him an impossibly quick and compact swing, which helps explain why, after the Rangers walked Cabrera, Fielder smacked a 95-mph sinkerball so hard, it reached the centerfield fence on one bounce. Double. Three runs in.
The Rangers won the game, but the most fearsome power-hitting combination in baseball had spoken. Cabrera bats righty, and Fielder bats lefty. Cabrera hits third, and Fielder hits fourth. Cabrera thrives on hitting to the opposite field, and Fielder is a classic pull hitter. Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball, and Fielder is the game's best sidekick. Years from now we may look back and decide Cabrera is Mickey Mantle and Fielder is Roger Maris; Cabrera is Hank Aaron and Fielder is Eddie Mathews; Cabrera is Babe Ruth and Fielder is Lou Gehrig.
Superheroes? Nah. They know better than that. When Cabrera is asked what he admires most about Fielder, he does not talk about his teammate's moon-scraping home runs, his preposterous strength or his explosive swing. The first thing Cabrera says is, "He is ready to play every day, man."
Fielder remembers the last time he missed a game: Sept. 13, 2010. His Brewers were 66--76 at the time, with no chance of making the playoffs. When the team had landed in Houston late the night before for a series against the Astros, Fielder started hoarding Gatorade. His sons had been sick from food poisoning, and he knew he was next. He wanted to be ready.
"I lost a lot of water," Fielder says. "My hamstrings were just on fire. I couldn't move them. It was the worst feeling—not because I was throwing up, but because I knew I couldn't play. That's a terrible feeling for me."
Fielder got two IVs the next day but still had to sit out. (Or, more accurately: lie down. He went back to his hotel room.) That snapped his streak of 326 straight games played, the longest in the majors at the time. He returned to the lineup on Sept. 14 and began another streak. Through Sunday it was at 404 games, the longest current run in the majors.
In an era of vanishing sluggers, the Tigers have two who never miss a game. Fielder has averaged 160 games per season since he became a full-time major leaguer in 2006. Cabrera has averaged 158 games a year since '04, his first full season. Neither has ever been on the disabled list. "You write those two names down every night," Detroit manager Jim Leyland says, "you feel pretty good."
The Tigers signed Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract in January 2012, and at first glance it seemed as though owner Mike Ilitch had hit for the cycle of free-agency mistakes. The contract was enormous, at the time the fourth-most lucrative in baseball history. Fielder, who's listed at 5'11" and 275 pounds, has the kind of wide body that supposedly ages poorly. He was also an impulse purchase: The Tigers had no interest in him until incumbent designated hitter Victor Martinez tore up his knee a week before Fielder signed. And Fielder's position, first base, was already occupied by Detroit's best player, Cabrera.
Seventeen months later the Tigers are thrilled with the signing. Fielder's durability and relative youth (he turned 29 last month) lower the risk of his massive contract. And rather than diminish Cabrera's value to the team, Fielder's arrival actually increased it. The 6'4", 240-pound Cabrera was willing and able to move to third base, a tougher position to fill and to play, and Fielder's presence in the lineup has made Cabrera more dangerous.
Last season, his first hitting in front of Fielder, Cabrera won the Triple Crown, leading the American League with a .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBIs. This season he is making that look like an off year: Through 61 games, a little more than a third of the season, he had a .431 on-base percentage and a .593 slugging percentage ... and that was just against righties. Against lefties he had a .508 OBP and was slugging .824. Overall Cabrera was hitting .363 with 17 homers and 67 RBIs.
Sometimes in the dugout Cabrera jokes with teammates, "I'm hot!" But he is incapable of truly bragging, partly because he always expects to be hot. It is the burden of his talent. Cabrera says there is only one real difference between his great start to 2013 and his other outstanding seasons: He has not slumped. This is by design. Cabrera tries to address swing flaws "before [they become] a slump," he says. "Don't let it get to that point."
Through Sunday, Cabrera was on pace for 177 RBIs this season, which puts him in a position to threaten Hack Wilson's 83-year-old record of 191. We can argue about the value of the RBI as a stat, but that's still an enormous pile of them, and Cabrera credits some of them to Fielder. In his first four years in Detroit, Cabrera averaged 0.73 RBIs per game. With Fielder hitting behind him, that number has jumped to 0.93.
"You can see a difference," Cabrera says. "They pitch to me more. They say, We've gotta get someone out. I know they are trying to get me first. I see a lot of good pitches."
If Fielder were a conventional slugger, teams could pitch around Cabrera and try to strike out the man behind him. But Fielder has excellent plate discipline—this season he has walked 36 times, most in the AL—and his career strikeout percentage (19.1%) is below the MLB average. He's also very good at making pitchers pay for walking Cabrera. In 36 plate appearances after Cabrera walks, Fielder is batting .388, with a .666 slugging percentage and 21 RBIs.
Fielder's effectiveness behind Cabrera becomes more exaggerated late in games, when he can explode the by-the-book strategy of pitching around Cabrera and bringing in a lefthander to face Fielder. Last year Fielder had an .808 OPS against lefties—respectable but well below his 1.017 mark against righties. His explanation is simple: The Tigers did not have a lefthanded batting-practice pitcher. Now they do, and Fielder takes as much BP against lefties as any other player in the majors. The result: His OPS against southpaws this year is 1.045.
Leyland's admiration for his two sluggers is so complete that in a recent discussion of pinch running, he made one thing clear: "I'm not running for Prince Fielder or Miguel Cabrera. Maybe you should, maybe you shouldn't, but I ain't doing it. I'm keeping those sumbitches in there all the time."
Fielder and Cabrera are paid to be teammates, but not to be friends—that just happened. Fielder remembers Cabrera's greeting him with a big smile on the first day of last year's spring training. Shortly after, Cabrera says, "[Prince's] son [Haven], he told me: 'Man, that's weird. I thought I knew you for a long time.' I said, 'I feel the same thing.' When you feel that connection with people, that's good."
Cabrera and Fielder have a complicated, multigesture handshake that occasionally ends with a hug, often with Cabrera's mouth open, like that of an excited little kid. When one of them hits a mammoth home run in batting practice, the other usually follows with a blast of his own. "They feed off each other," Leyland says. "There's a comfort zone there."
Cabrera and Fielder talk about hitting sometimes, and Tigers batting coach Lloyd McClendon says, "I imagine it's one hell of a conversation." But Fielder says it really isn't: "We don't like to stay too long on it, because then you're thinking too much."
Fielder says Cabrera has "helped me a lot going opposite field," and Fielder has talked to Cabrera about pulling the ball. Cabrera says it doesn't matter that they hit from opposite sides of the plate. They talk about how to use their legs and how they hit inside or outside pitches. Presumably pitches over the middle are not worth discussing. "He always has a plan of what he is going to do to a pitcher," Cabrera says. "That's when you see people are good: They anticipate what the situation is going to be."
Anticipation, even more than strength or coordination, is what makes the two sluggers great. Fielder likes to know a pitcher's repertoire, but he doesn't want to think too much at the plate. He trusts his instincts. Cabrera rarely watches video of opposing pitchers and doesn't want too much information about their tendencies. In hitters' meetings he often tells McClendon to stop talking, even though the other hitters are still listening. Cabrera prefers to solve pitchers by watching them that day.
Veteran outfielder Torii Hunter, who signed with Detroit in the off-season, watches video into the early-morning hours after games and pores over scouting reports every day as if he's studying for a final exam. Then the game starts and he realizes Cabrera has all the answers. "I'm in awe," Hunter says. "He makes adjustments every pitch. He sees the two-seamer move six inches, or a cutter move six inches, or a slider that doesn't break as well. He is processing all these things every pitch. He'll take a pitch, I can see him shake his head ... he's like, O.K., this ball is moving two inches, four inches. And then he swings two inches inside the ball so it can hit his barrel. This guy is like a genius, man."
McClendon says good hitters can identify a pitch an instant after it is released. Cabrera seems to know it while the pitcher still holds the ball. After Cabrera hit a home run off a changeup this season, McClendon asked him if he was looking for that pitch. "He said, 'No, I just saw it. Everything slowed down, and I knew it was going to be a changeup.' And he looked at me and said, 'Is that a gift?' "
McClendon laughed. "I said, 'Yeah, that's a gift.' "
Early in his career Cabrera took the gift for granted. Not anymore. When he has a bad at bat he goes to McClendon for feedback, even though he knows that feedback will probably start with one question: "What the f--- were you doing?" It is part of the verbal game the two play. When Cabrera has a hitless game, he kids McClendon: "You were horses--- today."
Some athletes get on a hot streak and don't want to think about what they are doing, let alone change it. Cabrera says he hones his swing every day, regardless of how well he does.
Even after that three-home-run game in Texas? "I went 1 for 4 the next [game], so that means something," he says. "You're not perfect."
He neglects to mention that the one hit was a home run to centerfield.
Why are they so driven to play, when most players are willing to skip a game a month? In the Tigers' clubhouse answers vary. Leyland points to Ilitch, who has committed almost $400 million to the two. "Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are very fond of Mr. Ilitch, they're very respectful of what he's done for the organization and the amount of money he's paid them," Leyland says. "They believe they have an obligation to him."
Santiago says of Cabrera, "It is no secret: He wants to win a championship."
Fielder says he is motivated partly by people who say he is too big: "If you can play every day, I don't understand what's wrong with my body type. It might be the way to go."
Cabrera says, "You gotta appreciate this time when you have a chance to play every day. You don't know when it's gonna stop."
There are a lot of reasons for Fielder and Cabrera to play every day. The truth is, they don't need a reason. This is who they are. The game is both challenging and therapeutic for them. They embrace the difficulty of beating the pitcher and the grind of doing it again the next day.
Serious injuries can happen to anybody at anytime, so Cabrera and Fielder have been lucky. But Tigers trainer Kevin Rand says what separates them from other players is their ability to play through everyday pain. They are so in tune with their bodies that they can compensate for a tight hamstring or balky ankle and still produce. Fielder says, "I'm big, so people assume I'm able to deal with it," but he and Cabrera visit the trainer's room regularly. They just don't give in to faulty body parts. They are reluctant even to ask to be the designated hitter for a day. Imagine doing your job virtually every day for six months, including weekends, without a mental vacation.
Cabrera has said that injuries make him play better, because they force him to focus. Fielder agrees. "When something is hurt, you're not going to be your best, and sometimes people are afraid of that," he says. "My thing is, I'm going to be the best I can."
For Cabrera, the joy is not just hitting home runs or winning games. It's standing at third base, smiling and calling to a batter he knows well: "Bunt it over! I'm gonna throw you out!" Fielder says that in the cage, he tells himself that his sons, Jadyn, 8, and Haven, 7, are alongside him, monitoring his work ethic.
"I imagine them watching me doing whatever I'm doing," Fielder says. "I'll hit all day if it calls for it. Not because I think it might help me get a hit that day. Just to be at peace with it, to know that I've done absolutely everything that I could to help my team. I'll hit for as long as it takes for me to be at peace."
Years from now we may look back and decide Cabrera is Mickey Mantle and Fielder is Roger Maris. Or Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. Or Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
"You can see a difference," Cabrera says of batting in front of Fielder. "They pitch to me more.... I see a lot of good pitches."