Willis proud of old pal Miggy’s milestones

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are enjoying the ride on Miguel Cabrera’s run to 500 home runs. On the other side of the country, Dontrelle Willis is enjoying it from afar. He was there on the ground floor.

Not only was the enigmatic left-hander in the dugout in Miami when Cabrera hit a walk-off homer for his first Major League home run, he was with Cabrera for the ride up. They were teammates at High-A Jupiter in 2002, then at Double-A Carolina to begin the 2003 season.

“When I got called up, he was the happiest guy in our locker room,” Willis recalled. “He gave me the biggest hug. He gave me $300, because all of us were broke. He told me, ‘I’m next.’”

Willis made his Major League debut in Florida just over a month before Cabrera got the call. When Cabrera stepped to the plate against veteran Tampa Bay reliever Al Levine with a runner on second in the 11th inning on June 20, 2003, Willis was in the dugout.

Cabrera, making his big league debut, was 0-for-4 with a strikeout at that point. But Willis knew better.

“He was having a bad game, and he’s the highly touted prospect, the best prospect,” Willis said. “I sit on the bench as a rookie telling everybody, ‘Don’t worry, he’s going to get this guy right now.’ And all of a sudden, he hits this ball to dead center and it’s gone. And I’m the only one not excited, because I’ve already seen it.”

Four months later, Willis was in the Marlins bullpen at Pro Player Stadium when Cabrera homered off Roger Clemens in Game 4 of the World Series, a seven-pitch battle that included two foul balls before he crushed a ball.

“It was just that whole at-bat, really,” Willis said, “one great against the future great. The little brother was not backing down, finally big enough to wrestle with the big brother.”

Did Willis think then that he was watching a potential 500-homer, 3,000-hit legend?

“Aw, hell yeah,” the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year said. “It was just about if he stayed healthy. Every level I see this guy from Jupiter, he was always the best player on the field. I’m pretty good on watching talent, and you knew this was the guy. He threw 98 miles an hour across the diamond. He did things then that would be Statcast-crazy now.

“I’m obnoxiously not surprised. It was all a matter of when is the sun going to come up.”

For that matter, Willis said, Cabrera is doing things now that are crazy.

“To see him still performing, it feels Tom Brady-esque,” Willis said. “It’s almost like we can’t appreciate his career because he’s still performing.”

Willis and Cabrera were teammates for nearly a decade, from the Marlins farm system to five seasons in Miami. They were traded to Detroit together and spent two-plus seasons as Tiger teammates.

Now, Willis is watching Cabrera from the media side as an analyst with FOX Sports.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “Honestly, I’m just proud of the man he’s become. And for him to hit like that home run in Comerica through the snow, I don’t think there’s another more Detroit home run that you’ll see ever again. For Miguel to do that, of course it would be him. It’s just really, really cool.

“It’s just surreal for me to sit next to Frank Thomas and think, ‘This is where Miguel is going to be.’ Frank Thomas doesn’t really appreciate what Frank Thomas has done. So I don’t know if Miguel is really going to take in. This is Venezuela. This is magic.”

Willis is watching the magic from afar, but he’s also plugged in. They keep in regular touch between texts and calls. As much as he’s pulling for his longtime teammate and friend, Cabrera is pulling for him in his second career.

“He’s probably my biggest fan on TV,” Willis said. “He is so proud of me, and I’m so proud of him. He literally sends me pictures of him in the locker room and me on the TV. It’s cool, man. As much as I’m proud of him, he’s proud of me.”

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