Miguel Cabrera isn’t just chasing milestones; he’s hustling after his own mighty shadow

Detroit Free Press

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Miguel Cabrera made a little history Friday night. He also snapped the worst slump of his career. And if you’re gonna catch — and pass — Babe Ruth on the all-time hits list, busting a couple of singles after a 0-for-27 stretch feels rather poetic.  

This is the space Cabrera inhabits these days. Chasing milestones and his own outsized shadow. Watching his contemporaries — Albert Pujols was released last week by the Los Angeles Angels — fade into the distance . Trying to conjure a late, late-career renaissance.  

Or at least one more summer to remind himself he’s not quite done yet, before his salary and his lack of production force the Tigers to do what the Angels did with the only other hitter who could lay claim to the title, “best of his generation.” 

But if this season is as good as it’s going to get, if he’s still barely batting above .100 when the weather cools in the fall, then it might be helpful to remember why it’s so difficult to watch an all-time great in the autumn of their career. 

“We all have to take a minute to reflect a little bit,” said his manager, A.J. Hinch, after Cabrera tied and passed Ruth. “I don’t care what generation you were born in, how old you are, how big of a baseball fan you are, you know Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth is synonymous with baseball. Miggy should be very proud.” 

He should be.  

At his best — which is better than almost anyone who’s ever swung a bat — Cabrera didn’t just hit the ball, he told stories at the plate.  

Feats of hand-eye coordination and speed and muscle. Feats you wanted to share with your fellow fans, and your brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.  

Feats you’d hear about the next night, tuning into the Tigers broadcast to hear the analyst talking about what Cabrera had done the night before. Even now, all these years from his prime, I’m guessing you remember some of his swings. 

Not so much the walk-off moments or the go-ahead at-bats in the late innings of a postseason game, though he had his share of those. No, I’m talking about the down-and-away sinkers he’d lift into the opposite field seats.  

Like he did in Kansas City in 2012, during the series he clinched his Triple Crown — becoming the first hitter to lead the AL in homers, RBIs and batting average since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967. It was a rip shot, over the right field wall, that left his manager, Jim Leyland, shaking his head in the clubhouse after the game. Though even that homer didn’t stun the way other Cabrera opposite field shots would.  

Cabrera was so strong, with such keen eyes and such nimble hands and such easy balance, that he could take an inside fastball headed for his knees and shift his weight back into his stance, pull his hands inward, and forklift the ball over the opposite field wall. He could also take that same pitch and turn on it, blasting it into the left field seats.  

He did that once at Yankee Stadium, the year after his Triple Crown season, when, on a Phil Hughes fastball so far inside it might have missed the catcher’s mitt, he backed up, swiveled his hips, and sent an elegant arc into the left field stands.   

“That was a ball,” said his teammate at the time, outfielder Torii Hunter.  

He was laughing in disbelief. 

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers’ starting pitcher that day. 

Neither had Leyland, who wondered if his staff and the rest of the team understood what they were watching. 

“It’s hard to believe,” he said, “… I mean, this is my 50th year (in the game and), I don’t get too giddy about anything, (but) I’m not sure I’ve seen what’s going last year and this year. I’m seeing things that are a little mind-boggling.” 

That was the closest I ever heard Leyland express awe. Forgive him. The game before, he’d watched Cabrera take a 2-2 fastball from Mariano Rivera in the top of the ninth and belt it over the fence in straightaway center.  

The homer tied the game. Rivera, the best closer ever, turned and watched his offering sail into the Bronx night, grinning, before he mouthed:  

“Wow.” 

Yes, wow. And … how? And also: How long ago all that seems. 

The extraordinary skill at the plate. The moments that so often begged retelling. The anticipation every time he stood in the warm-up circle.  

You never knew what you’d see.

Would the best hitter in the game chase a ball and rip it into the gap for an easy double? Or would he square up 99-mph heat and line it down the left-field line? 

Back then, he combined a shortstop’s balance, a second baseman’s eyes, a first baseman’s power, an outfielder’s flexibility and a catcher’s grit. That’s how he led the AL in batting average and slugging percentage in both 2012 and 2013. It’s easy to forget now, watching him chase pitches to parts of the zone that he can no longer consistently catch. 

There are still a few moments, though. Friday night was one. Not just for the history. Not just for nostalgia. But for the small reminders.   

One of his singles came off a pitch high in the zone, where pitchers purposefully throw to Cabrera these days. It takes bat speed and timing to succeed up there. And, at 38, he doesn’t possess as much of either. 

If it’s bittersweet to watch, think about how it feels to play, to step into the place where you once ruled, where you felt free, with all that muscle memory, and all those memories in general, and know that no matter how hard you chase, how hard you swing, your hands and eyes won’t ever synch up as they once did. 

Cabrera knows that the stories we tell are no longer about what he’ll do, as much as they’re about what he’s done. Yeah, milestones remain. Passing Babe Ruth on the career hit list is meaningful. Amassing 3,000 hits and 500 home runs will spur celebrations galore. 

And they should. 

And maybe, just maybe, Cabrera will find his way to a version of himself slightly more recognizable at the plate. As he did Friday night, when he smacked a single to the wall and another through the left side of the infield, then followed those at-bats with a couple of walks.  

It wasn’t Cabrera at his peak — few things in baseball ever have been — but he wasn’t swinging into the abyss, either.  

Some nights, that will have to be enough. And when it’s not, you will always have the stories. 

So will he.  

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor. 

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