Miguel Cabrera’s chase of history is something we haven’t seen often in Detroit

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel
 
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — We don’t see many capital-S Superstars grow old, not in Detroit —not lately, at least.

Barry Sanders walked away after 10 years with the Lions, just 1,458 yards shy of the NFL’s all-time rushing record. And Calvin Johnson hung it up when he was 30.

But here comes Miguel Cabrera, a nearly certain future Hall of Famer, walking through the twilight of his career with the Detroit Tigers, chasing records as his body grows old, sharing a clubhouse with players who are young enough to be his kids.

Cabrera kneels on the grass at Joker Marchant Stadium — the only player in his group wearing tennis shoes, not cleats. There are rules and norms for others, and then there is Miggy’s World. He has earned the right to be different, to do it his way.

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And besides, when you reach a certain age, comfortable, practical shoes mean everything for achin’, tired feet.

When the other players go through stretches, contorting their bodies to warm up their young limber muscles, pressing their faces toward the grass, Cabrera kinda leans. A little bit.

When the other players walk across the grass, going through more stretches under direction of a trainer, Cabrera kinda walks along with them. Slowly.

He is entering his 19th season and knows how to prepare.

“Right now, I feel like I did back when I was in 2014,” Cabrera said Friday.

For what it’s worth, he hit .313 with 25 home runs, 52 doubles and 109 RBIs in 2014.

“I feel more like when I was healthy. I feel more with my legs, with my hips,” Cabrera said. “I don’t try to do too much. I do my swing naturally. I think that’s going to help me a lot this year to produce more and hit for more power and raise up my average.”

From youth to elder statesman

In 2008, Cabrera was 25 when he arrived in Detroit, joining a roster with 36-year-old Pudge Rodriguez, 39-year-old Gary Sheffield, 40-year-old Todd Jones and 43-year-old Kenny Rogers.

Now, Cabrera is the old guy who will turn 38 on April 18.

Think of it this way: Cabrera started his minor league career in the spring of 2000 — a few months before Riley Greene, one of the Tigers top prospects, was even born.

“I’m not that old. I’m still young,” Cabrera said, laughing.

He still has that youthful, playful spirit, laughing with teammates during drills, dancing to music on a back field, breaking up the monotony of spring training.

He still loves baseball, still loves being on a team. “I’m trying to enjoy this,” he said.

But this team is in transition, saddled for a few more years by Cabrera’s massive contract while waiting for a crop of youngsters to arrive from the minors.

“I can tell you I see a lot of good years in Detroit,” Cabrera said. “These guys, they impress everybody here in the big-league camp…. I can’t wait when these guys make the next step and play in the big leagues.”

PROSPECTING THE OUTFIELD: Riley Greene fishing for something big this spring

A man with a plan

AJ Hinch, the Tigers’ new manager, has created an individualized weekly plan for Cabrera, trying to get him ready for the season while limiting the wear and tear on his body. Hinch has been holding Cabrera out of some drills to keep him off his feet.

When the Tigers open the Grapefruit League season Sunday, Cabrera will not be in the lineup. He’ll spend the day taking live batting practice on a back field.

“He’s like, ‘I just want to play, I get paid to play, and I want to play whenever you want me, travel on the road, stay at home, whatever you want me to do, just tell me and I’ll do it,’ ” Hinch said.

Cabrera has always been a good soldier like that, wanting to play even when his body has been slowed and weakened by injuries.

“He’s a center force in our middle of our clubhouse,” Hinch said. “It’s a good thing that he’s a fun-loving youthful spirit and not a mean grumpy dude.”

OK. Sometimes, he is a grumpy dude to reporters. He talked to the media on Friday for the first time in about a year. But he did apologize for not granting interview requests during the 2020 season.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

‘He’s always evolving’

It’s not always graceful or elegant to watch someone grow old, not even someone who won a Triple Crown. Cabrera has hit 20 home runs in a season just once in the last six years —2016, when he had 38. And his .313 career average covers up for not hitting .300 in any of the past four seasons.

“Maybe he’s not doing the same exact thing that he was doing 15 years ago,” Hinch said. “He’s a different player. He prepares a little differently, hopefully a little bit better and he’s always evolving.”

While Cabrera’s body has been slowed with injures, he hasn’t lost much bat speed. He had a 93.7 mph average exit velocity in 2020, which put him in the top 3% of the league, according to the Baseball Savant website. That was just a tick off what he had in 2016 (93.6) and exactly what he had in 2015 (93.7). He doesn’t hit the ball on the sweet spot as much as he did in his prime, or hit as many extra base hits, or hit for the same average … but he is still making hard contact: His 49.7% rate ranks in the top 9% of the league.

“Mentally, I feel good,” he said. “I feel mentally strong trying to go day by day, trying to play hard.”

Milestones on the horizon

This has the potential to be a monumental season for Cabrera.

He needs 134 hits to reach 3,000 and 13 home runs to reach 500.

“We can do both,” he said, laughing. “I hope I can get to 500 and 3,000 this year. It’s one of my goals this year.”

His chase of the all-time greats is breathtaking. He needs seven home runs to pass Lou Gehrig on the all-time list and eight hits to pass Babe Ruth .

Babe Freakin’ Ruth.

Let that sink in.

“Being in this position is really awesome,” Cabrera said. “I feel proud in what I’ve done in my career. But I don’t want to stop here. I want to keep going, have fun and win games.”

Holding on to his youth

Cabrera is now on a team filled with kids who used to be him.

In video games.

Or they watched him on TV.

“It’s when you start to realize, like, you’ve been in this game for a long time,” he said. “What I’ve learned the past two years, as a veteran, is I need to talk more. I always say, ‘I talk (with) the way I play in the field.’ But right now, we got a lot of young guys. They ask you some questions. Being able to open up and try to talk to these guys, trying to teach what I learn in my career, that makes me feel like I can keep going.”

The next few years promise to be fascinating.

Maybe, there will be stretches when Cabrera shows glimpses of who he once was.

Maybe not.

He is trying to hold onto youth even as he ages — a timeless, universal battle that is easy to relate to — an old guy, relatively speaking, playing a child’s game, chasing history, battling his own body, hoping to delay the inevitable, while trying to force one more run for greatness.

Even if he has to walk.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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