Why Miguel Cabrera is boosted by playing first base, seeing fans in the stands

Detroit Free Press

The combination of heavy snow, rough wind and a 32-degree temperature made Comerica Park look like a snow globe during Thursday’s 3-2 win on Opening Day. Considering the weather, Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch didn’t think anyone would hit a home run.

Miguel Cabrera proved him wrong.

Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber has faced the 37-year-old veteran before. The reigning American League Cy Young winner knows one mistake can be gutting. After throwing two pitches inside, he went up and away with a 93 mph fastball.

The ex-Triple Crown winner — that’s Cabrera, a likely future Hall of Famer — knew he drove the baseball the opposite way to right field, but he didn’t know where it landed. The snow blocked his view.

So, he slid into second base.

“With this weather, you never know,” Cabrera said Thursday. “I was excited to get a double. It was good slide, too. … When I saw the umpire, he said, ‘Home run.’ I said, ‘OK, thank you.'”

[ Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day win told us a lot in a little: Wins will rarely be easy ]

Cabrera’s two-run homer in the first inning — his first at-bat of the season — set the tone for the Tigers against one of the best pitchers in the majors. “Miggy’s gonna Miggy, you know?” Bieber told reporters after the game. “He’s a hell of a hitter. It is what it is.” The Tigers tacked on another run in the second inning, on a JaCoby Jones double and aggressive base running from Victor Reyes, for a 3-0 lead.

Yet Cabrera’s presence on Opening Day did more than jump start a season in which the Tigers want to turn the page, escape the rebuild and showcase signs of a winning culture under their new manager. Rather, his push for a revival must be the spark plug to the team’s overall success.

“Miggy is part of our energy creation in the dugout and on the field,” Hinch said Thursday. “When he makes a diving play, the crowd starts yelling. We need a full all-around player.”

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In the top of the fourth inning, Cabrera made a diving stop at first base to take a single away from Josh Naylor and keep a run from scoring. A roller through the hole would’ve plated Eddie Rosario from second base.

Hinch called the gem a perfect example of “winning baseball,” even though Naylor’s at-bat shows up in the box score as a simple groundout to first base. Cabrera’s snag helped left-hander Matthew Boyd, who allowed three hits and four walks with two strikeouts, complete 5⅔ scoreless innings.

“The guy wants to do everything he can to win ballgames,” Boyd said Thursday. “He plays his part, whether that’s getting in the shape he’s in to go play first and make a play in the hole there or whatnot. He was a huge difference in the game. Who knows if that ball gets through, what happens?”

What made Opening Day extra special for Cabrera was just that: He returned to first base for the first time since June 18, 2019. Last season, he was the full-time designated hitter, despite asking to play in the field.

Hinch chose to grant his wish.

For now, the plan is to use Cabrera at first base once or twice per week.

“Hopefully, I can be there more times,” Cabrera said. “I love to play first base, and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

There was another factor involved in Cabrera’s fresh mindset, too. After a season without fans in the stands because of COVID-19 concerns, the Tigers brought in a sellout crowd of 8,000 spectators — at about 20% capacity — for Opening Day.

The cheers, and conversations, from the crowd gave Cabrera a boost.

“I heard a lot of ‘Miggy! Miggy! Throw me a ball! Miggy! Miggy!'” Cabrera explained, laughing. “I said, ‘C’mon, man, calm down, I know you guys had to wait for almost a year to come to the ballpark, but let me play a little bit. Let me focus.'”

As Cabrera embarks on his chase of 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, both of which could be accomplished this season, he is relying heavily on the fans and his position in the lineup. He thinks returning to first base more could help his offensive production.

His first homer of the 2021 campaign put him at No. 350 in a Tigers uniform and No. 488 in his career. With 2,000 hits while wearing the “Old English D” already, Cabrera became the second player — Al Kaline was the other — in franchise history to collect at least 350 homers and 2,000 hits for the organization.

As he attacks more accolades, the fans should continue to keep Cabrera loose and bring out his child-like love for the game.

“He still loves to play,” Hinch said. “Like you watch how he’s into it in between pitches, in between batters. Oppo homer, I’ve seen it from the other side, and it’s miserable. It’s great when you’re his manager.

“It’s fun to watch Miggy play the game. Like, he plays the game in its entirety. I can’t thank him enough for being into what we’re trying to do.”

After Thursday’s performance, the former two-time AL MVP sits 12 homers and 133 hits away from adding his name to two esteemed columns in the history books. He turns 38 on April 18, but he is focused on turning back the clock, reaching his milestones and proving there is more of his old self left in the tank.

And Cabrera couldn’t have asked for a better start to his resurgence.

“Man,” Boyd said. “Miggy is the best.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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