Henning: Miguel Cabrera’s 500th home run cements legacy as Detroit, MLB legend

Detroit News

With one more swing that was part baseball fury, part pyrotechnics, Miguel Cabrera dedicated another monument to one of the most gloried hitters in the 120-year history of Major League Baseball.

In the sixth inning of the Tigers’ series-clinching finale at Toronto on Sunday, standing at home plate against Steven Matz, Cabrera tore into a change-up and sent a line drive 400 feet over the wall in right-center. 

Home Run No. 500 was, in a holistic way, like the other 499 that the 38-year-old, right-handed hitting colossus has clubbed in his 19 big-league seasons. It was the product of a master craftsman whose ability to hit premier pitching — the single most difficult task in all of sports — has separated Cabrera from thousands of baseball mortals who could never match the plateau Cabrera reached nor climb heights Cabrera is yet surpassing.

His 3,000th hit may yet arrive in 2021, which would make him the first big-leaguer in history to reach both statistical summits in the same season. And that, in a very appropriate way, would be consistent with talents the game has rarely seen.

Even in Detroit, with its heritage of Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Al Kaline, what Cabrera has wrought since he first put on a Tigers uniform in 2008 has been unequaled in its drama and flamboyance, in its early continuity and endurance even after injuries began ripping into Cabrera’s prime seasons and twilight years.

Sunday was simply a single, quantifiable moment of greatness that through the past two decades has so often taken on an almost-celestial air for a man 6-foot-4, 270 pounds.

“He’s one of the best-ever,” said Jim Leyland, his manager in Detroit from 2008-13, a span that included two Tigers trips to the World Series, as well as Cabrera’s Triple Crown season of 2012. “He is obviously one of the best who’s ever played the game, no question about that. And I had the luxury to watch him for a long time.”

Cabrera became the first Tiger to reach 500 home runs while wearing a Detroit uniform. When he rolls up hit No. 3,000 he will become the first batter to collect his 3,000th hit as a Tiger since Al Kaline did it on Sept. 24, 1974.

Cabrera is a certain Hall of Fame entrant, probably five years after he retires, in keeping with minimum requirements long ago established by the guardians of baseball’s shrine at Cooperstown, New York.

The knocking down both 500 homers and 3,000 hits all but guarantees induction, which is why Cabrera’s feat Sunday was both a product of his long, lustrous years, and also something of an obligation. The 3,000th hit will complete the hoary batting ensemble players dream of reaching. So far, only seven have done it: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Pujols, and then, Cabrera.

All but Palmeiro are either in, or are headed for Cooperstown, with Palmeiro’s feats compromised by the alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs during a number of seasons.

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A game-changer

What will continue to be discussed, debated, dissected, and deconstructed will be how, precisely, Cabrera sculpted a career so unique. All of it. From swinging with such daunting fury his right-handed bat, to timing pitches of all speeds and gyrations, to hitting with extraordinary power baseballs into distant and varied regions of a ballpark.

“To me, the thing that has always stood out the most is his opposite-field power,” said Leyland. “That has been the most impressive thing about Miggy, to me. He could hit the ball out of Comerica Park to right-center field like it was a pingpong ball. You just don’t see that much. Not with the consistency he’s done it.”

“To this day, and as much by design, the one thing about him and Magglio (Ordonez, ex-Tigers batting champ and Cabrera teammate), they were never afraid to take a base hit to right field.

“He and Magglio are two of the few guys I saw who could take a right-hander’s sinker ball and hit a line drive to right field for a base hit.”          

There is a basic, elusive skill in hitting. It lies in seeing a baseball, speeding and gyrating with sometimes bedeviling swerves and darts, and putting a bat squarely on it.

The list of those awed by what Cabrera can do to a baseball includes, of course, opposing pitchers. Corey Kluber won two Cy Young Awards while pitching for the Indians from 2011-19. He also was a pitcher Cabrera tortured over, and over, and over again.

“You’re always aware that he’s coming up, that he’s waiting in the wings, and that he has this ability to change a game,” Kluber said. “I think that just his presence in a lineup affected the way you attack the rest of the lineup.

“He covers so many pitches. I tried anything and everything against him, and he, at some point, hit ‘em all. There was no point in trying to game-plan or scout against him. He can drive the ball the other way, or, if you make a mistake over the plate, you’re going to pay for that.

“If you try to attack and crowd him, he’s got that covered, as well,” said Kluber, who now pitches for the Yankees. “It’s his ability to do all of those things that makes it hard to go out there and have a specific game plan against him. He forces you to adjust, pitch to pitch.”

You naturally begin with uncanny athleticism when dissecting Cabrera. He has professional baseball in his father’s family bloodlines (two uncles played in the minor leagues), and his mother was a softball shortstop on the Venezuelan national team.

Miguel played soccer growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, and was such a force in volleyball he had an offer, as a teen, to play professionally in Switzerland.

But he signed with the Marlins and with a man, now Tigers general manager Al Avila, who then headed international scouting for the Florida Marlins. They got his signature for $1.8 million, a then-record for an international teen, even as the Dodgers were offering Cabrera more — a cool $2 million. Relationships that had already been established between Cabrera, Avila and the Marlins won out.

“They trusted that we would develop that kid,” Avila recalls of a family conviction that sealed the 1999 deal.

Cabrera was in the Marlins lineup at 20 and en route to a Hall of Fame plaque in Miami until the Marlins decided trading him would be better than paying him. The Tigers won the bidding with a six-player package in December 2007.

He was about to wear a Tigers uniform for a 16-season stretch that isn’t likely to run past 2023, when Cabrera will be 40, and his contract, which carries improbable kick-in extensions, will run out. The contract was the final stage in a $300 million commitment late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch offered Cabrera in 2014.

Ilitch’s decision to stamp Cabrera as a permanent Tigers superstar, to make him a monument to baseball in Detroit, and to also — yes — thank him for his presence, came by way of that exorbitant 2014 extension. It was fueled, in part, by his virtuoso seasons of 2012 and 2013, with 2012 a tour de force when he won the Triple Crown with a .330 batting average (.999 OPS), 44 home runs, and 139 RBIs. He hit even better in 2013: .348 batting average and 1.078 OPS but lost a second Triple Crown when Chris Davis of the Orioles slugged 53 homers and 138 RBIs to Cabrera’s 44 and 137.

How he converted his athleticism into such heavenly everyday performance at home plate is a topic baseball’s graybeards yet chew on. Leyland is happy to discuss.           

“I believe in his younger years, and then in his prime — especially his Triple Crown year (2012) — I think he saw the pitch quicker than most anybody else,” Leyland said. “Coming out of the pitcher’s hand, he knew if it was a fastball or a slider. Miggy recognized it.

“I think that’s key for all great hitters. All of them pick up the ball better than others. There’s obviously something special there. I mean, I’ve seen Miggy take balls, close to the strike zone, and never flinch. He never made an offer because he saw it so quick. He never even moved.

“That’s a special trait most guys don’t have.”

What his latter years have also displayed, in somewhat melancholy fashion, is what Cabrera might have been had abdominal, foot, knee, hamstring, bicep, and back issues not begun ripping into his powerful bat as early as 2013.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Leyland said. “One year he played for me, he basically had a broken bone in his foot. I think it just showed the toughness. There was a lot of stuff most people wouldn’t have been playing with. There’s no telling what he’d have done if he hadn’t had some of those things going on.”         

He might also have been able to stick at third base, although Cabrera’s ever-expanding size probably doomed long-term plans there. But it’s easy in 2021, after his many years at first base or as a designated hitter, to forget Cabrera originally was a left-side infielder — and early on in the minors a shortstop.

“I think what a lot of people don’t really realize is what a complete player he was at one time,” said Leyland, who oversaw a back-and-forth sequence as Cabrera began his Tigers years at third, then moved to first, before moving back to third (briefly), all before re-settling at first.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how good his hands, and how great his arm, were. He was a total package.”

Surefire Hall of Famer

Assemble all of the production, all of the superlative moments through nearly two decades of artistry, and what you have is a Hall of Fame player.

Probably on the first ballot, in that first year of eligibility, two national observers and Hall of Fame analysts agree.

“I think at this point he’s an easy Hall of Famer,” said Dan Szymborski, a senior writer for FanGraphs, ESPN contributor, and inventor of the ZiPS system that projects future  player performance. “He’s got the reputation for people who aren’t into stats, and he’s got the stats for people who do.

“I should be voting by the time he’s eligible (10-year BBWAA membership is required for Hall of Fame voting) and he’s a no-question yes from me.”

Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs and author of The Cooperstown Casebook, an unparalleled study of players past and present and their Hall of Fame credentials.

“It’s been arduous watching his glacial progress in recent years, through the injuries,” Jaffe said, “but I don’t think it will affect how he’s viewed by Hall of Fame voters.

“As with Albert Pujols (Dodgers superstar, formerly with the Angels and Cardinals), the final numbers and all of the honors he’s gathered — two MVP awards, four batting titles, 11 All-Star appearances — will overshadow any latter-day disappointments.”

Whatever the disappointments, whatever the fallibility the man has displayed on — and, most certainly, off — a baseball field during his years in Detroit and before, there was little to lament as his milestone home run set sail for the seats.

There was, rather, a signature act, etched with a flourish, all before this same pageantry is soon relived with Cabrera’s hit No. 3,000.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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