Wojo: Miggy Milestone March is getting fun, and Tigers riding the wave

Detroit News

Detroit — Anticipation rises as the fans rise, as the numbers rise. In a Tigers season of rookie revelations and youthful spark, Miguel Cabrera is back to being the show.

It’s not a sideshow, and if you thought it was, you’re an idiot (with all due respect). Cabrera is handling his chase for 500 home runs with respectful diligence, more interested in winning games than putting on a performance. Never one to court attention, he can’t help it now, and I think he’s finally appreciating it as much as the fans, who grow louder with each at-bat.

Cabrera energizes the crowd and the Comerica Park crowd energizes him. When he clubbed No. 498 Tuesday night in a 4-2 victory over the Red Sox, the ovation was huge, cranked higher as Cabrera pointed to the stands. As he churns toward 500, so do the Tigers, 52-57 with three consecutive winning months, edging closer to .500.

“We’re following him,” rookie Akil Baddoo said. “He’s the energy provider. He’s everything.”

Cabrera has been hot for more than a month, hitting .361 the past two weeks. After a rocky start and a frank admission that the pressure was bothersome, Cabrera has raised his average to .253 with 11 home runs and 49 RBIs. This is the perfect time for him to stalk multiple milestones — 500 home runs, 3,000 hits — because it’s productive for the team, not merely perfunctory.

The focus can rightly be on Cabrera, even if he preferred it wasn’t, because we’re nearing the end of low expectations for the team, after four miserable seasons. Tigers owner Chris Ilitch, asked when the Tigers might start courting pricey free-agents, said, “Undoubtedly this could happen this winter.” Although sufficiently couched, it’s one of his stronger declarations since taking over for his late father in 2017.

We’ll take him at his word and assume he’s ready to demand more and spend more. There have been enough positive developments — Baddoo, AJ Hinch, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Eric Haase — to warrant a recharge to the rebuild.

Ilitch hasn’t spent wildly — the Tigers have the 23rd-highest payroll in MLB — like his father did, which makes fans skeptical. Fair enough. The same skepticism dogged Mike Ilitch early in his tenure, until the losing motivated him to push it.

Changing expectations

I think it’s too early to judge Chris considering the timetable — a complete roster teardown, followed by a pandemic that canceled the minor leagues, hampered prospects’ development and wiped out revenue. There’s also the looming threat of labor strife this offseason. But speaking at a ceremony at a historic Negro League ballpark in Hamtramck, Ilitch offered something to chew on, although not the whole meal.

“I very much support the approach (GM Al Avila) and his team have taken,” Ilitch said. “Building a young core of talent and now having the desire to bring in high-impact players to fill that out. I’m very supportive of that.”

The highest impact would be a free agent such as Astros All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, who may command $25-30 million per season. I’m not sure the Tigers have the roster and resources to lure someone like that, and they’re acutely aware of the risk of gigantic contracts. Chris Ilitch needs to find his version of Pudge Rodriguez, who signed in 2004 and helped transform the Tigers into contenders for a decade, but maybe it comes in a series of medium-sized moves.

After 2023, Cabrera’s $32 million salary will drop from the books, and at the moment, his contract and presence aren’t impeding anything. Most people get it. The fans who stood for every Cabrera at-bat against the Red Sox get it. The energy has ratcheted dramatically at Comerica Park, although after the Boston series, the Tigers are on the road for the next six games.

Hinch rightly pointed out they had to earn the right to add more players, and they gradually have. Since a 9-24 start, they’re 43-33 and have beaten some of the best — Red Sox, White Sox and Astros. Once the gates reopened, fans have trickled back, with enthusiasm for a younger, faster, more athletic team.

“The fans have been incredible,” Hinch said. “Obviously Miggy’s chase contributes to a lot of that. You can feel the energy surrounding that and it just bleeds more and more energy into different parts of the game. There’s some youthful talent, a buzz, an expectation to win every day. I think that’s contributing more to Miggy’s upbeat nature than even the numbers.”

The numbers posted beyond the left-field wall mark the march of history. The home run total clicked to 498 and the career hits total to 2,944 Tuesday night, and could click again Wednesday. For Cabrera, the milestones have been millstones at times, grinding on him because of the pressure to deliver. That seemed to change when the Tigers’ fortunes changed, and the scoreboard became as big a focal point as the Miggy Milestone board.

Powering through

Teammates joke about the milestones with Cabrera and he generally, playfully brushes it away. Baddoo, 22, is the wide-eyed rookie who can’t quite believe that he’s here, and what he’s witnessing.

“It’s crazy,” Baddoo said. “I grew up watching him and playing him on my video games, so to be his teammate and witness it in real time, it’s amazing. I tell him that all the time, but I think he’s annoyed by it. I say, Miggy you know you’re the GOAT, and he says, ‘Oh shut up man, wrong person.’”

Baddoo’s laugh is contagious, and he’s one of the reasons the Tigers could spend this offseason, although it’s unclear how much. He’s also one of the reasons Cabrera is finding fun in the fray.

Cabrera, 38, is a complicated man and an emotional one, and he sometimes grumbles about criticism tied to his physical decline. The truth is, he’s played through more injuries and more rough times than almost anyone that ever wore a Tigers uniform.

“It’s really tough,” he said last week. “Something happened in the Olympics about Simone Biles, I understand what she’s going through because that mental part is a big part of the game. You try to do something to prove who you are, or to prove what you’ve done your whole career, and you lose your focus. It’s something that’s bothered me the last two, three years but I’m not gonna use that excuse. I need to do a better job when I hit and that’s the bottom line, forget about the milestones, forget about the numbers.”

Baseball is a numbers game but Cabrera has never been a numbers guy. He’s a slugger by nature but a pure hitter by trade, lining the ball to all fields, rarely swinging for the fences. As the expected 28th member of the 500-home run club, he needs 56 hits to reach 3,000, making him the seventh in the uber-exclusive 500-3,000 club.

In vast Comerica Park, Cabrera’s gap-hitting prowess is notable, even as the distant fences rob him of home runs. How many in 14 seasons here has he lost to the outfield expanses? Fifty, 60, more?

He’s mostly hid his frustration and just kept driving in runs. For all the early struggles this season, he’s raised his OPS to .700 and is 13-for-29 his past nine games. He’s not being gifted at-bats, he’s earned every one of them.

It’s more than a nostalgic show or a final bow. It’s a marker to define Cabrera’s Hall of Fame greatness. Teammates and fans are along for the ride, as participants and spectators, relishing the moments, and also the prospect of more winning rides ahead.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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