Henning: Miguel Cabrera’s march to 500 was a grind that makes one appreciate greatness

Detroit News

Stash this sight, this high-arcing shot beyond the right-center field seats at Rogers Centre in Toronto, alongside that forever image of Magglio Ordonez in 2006 parting the heavens with his bomb-blast home run, which sent the Tigers to a World Series.

Or, better yet, honor this triumph separately, in a hallowed place by itself, Sunday’s  tension-extinguishing moment when Miguel Cabrera lashed his 500th career home run — the first player to hug the 500-homer summit while playing in a Tigers uniform.

It was a change-up, on a 1-1 pitch, from Jays pitcher Steven Matz. It came with one out and no one on in the sixth inning. Cabrera’s bat was a blur. It caught the pitch on the nose. The ball, like so many he has hit in his 19 MLB seasons, disappeared into the opposite-field heavens — into Rogers Centre’s blue balcony seats.

He seemed to take it in stride, the same loping strides he displays on any home run.

But this was hardly from the mainstream, as even those ever-classy Blue Jays fans displayed with a standing, applauding ovation, appreciating the history and their moment to share in a man’s Cooperstown-bound glory. They were thanked with a curtain-call wave from Cabrera, who savored this moment even if it came on the road and not at Comerica Park.

Cabrera for the past 11 days had been putting himself and Tigers fans on baseball’s version of a torture rack. No home runs. Lots of at-bats that were exercises in tension. All as he and the Tigers cosmos, and all of baseball, waited for him to become the 28th man in 121 seasons of big-league baseball to stand atop the 500-homer summit.

For the man who delivered Sunday’s blast, Sunday was sweet deliverance from a season and a month that for him, and for his team, has had about it a daily grinding subtext: Cabrera’s march to 500 homers and his simultaneous close-in on 3,000 hits. Another 45 hits and Cabrera will have it.

The suspense and anticipation as Cabrera moved toward 500, in a string of tormenting at-bats toward 500, was fun stuff only baseball can deliver. But the letdown after each missed chance, after another game minus a Cabrera bomb, made this an exhausting and even irksome series of interruptions, updates, and dashed hopes.

Tigers fans were switching channels — TV and radio — and streaming live shots on their laptops and cell phones. MLB TV steadily cut to Cabrera’s at-bats during telecasts of other games.

Detroit was dealing with the Cabrera Watch in tense, tingling fashion. Lots of tickets to Comerica Park during last week’s Indians and Angels were bought with history in mind — being able to see Cabrera’s milestone blast and to say through the years that, you bet, I was there for his 500th.

You could practically see him exhale Sunday as he loped around the bases. Reaching this baseball version of a penthouse suite had been an obvious monster for Cabrera, especially last week in Detroit. Thousands had spilled through Comerica’s gates, hoping so deeply they would be there as Cabrera racked up this remarkable milestone testifying to a Hall of Fame-bound player’s power and persistence during his 19 big-league seasons, the last 14 of which have been spent in Detroit.

But it instead came on the road, at Toronto. And one had to ask instantly: Did getting away from the crowds relax him, in just that most minute of ways? Did it help him ease the nerves, keep his poise, and time his swing with the precision home runs demand?

Oh, he had taken his time finishing this safari for 500. And no one but Cabrera knows how difficult were these days and hours as he tried to make one swing against one pitch push him past the 500 finish-line.

Cabrera had last homered 11 nights ago at Camden Yards in Baltimore. He rested the next day in Baltimore, missed in last weekend’s bids against the Indians at Detroit to grasp 500, then missed again against the Angels, who didn’t want always to pitch to him during a three-game disaster for the Tigers.

He never came close to a home run Friday and Saturday at Rogers Centre. Sunday, after a groundout and strikeout, percentages triumphed.

Snipping the ribbon on 500 could give way to that bigger trophy later this season.

If he can swat 45 more hits during these final 36 games, he’ll be the first big-league hitter in MLB history to have won 500-homer and 3,000-hit crowns in the same season.

After sweating through the last week-plus, fans will recharge for the final days of Cabrera’s 3,000-hit hunt, but that is weeks from now, at least.

That, too, will be an exercise in anxiety for Cabrera — perhaps less so, because the simple reality is that getting a base hit is easier and a more frequent event than putting a ball into the seats.

But, ah, hunting that 500th was a beast.

Hitting is hard enough without knowing history is waiting for you to execute that which is not so easily achieved — bash a major-league pitch 400 or so feet. Even for a batter with Cabrera’s crust, every trip to the plate is a nervy, unsettling experience. You’re aware to your marrow that a crowd, and not only a home audience, is bracing and hoping and relying on your, personal, singular act. You know, as Cabrera knew, that MLB TV was cutting in from every game everywhere to catch a potentially momentous swing.

This can turn a seasoned artist into a hitter who can find that history’s beckoning is making a mess of identifying a pitch you must swat, on the screws, with all of two-fifths of a second to decide whether it’s a pitch to attack or dismiss.

Is it any wonder these 500-homer waits can be so excruciating for all parties?

Fixate instead on Sunday. On the man. On the achievement. Remember that in athletics, as in any of life’s endeavors, it is an imprint you seek to leave. A happy and inspiring one.

Cabrera can take double satisfaction in knowing his footprint will be for the ages. Mike Ilitch, the late Tigers owner, understood that very fact when he sought seven years ago to make Cabrera a fixture at Comerica Park for the remainder of his playing days.

Ilitch understood legacy. Understood how deeply and indelibly a baseball player wearing Tigers togs can affect a community for generations.

He wanted Cabrera to be that level of historical Tigers player, minus any chance his remaining years would be, from a Detroit perspective, sullied by him wearing another uniform.

He paid hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that not only would Cabrera be in a Tigers jersey the night he pounded homer No. 500 and lashed hit No. 3,000, but that he, too, would be a man and megastar of unquestioned Tigers heritage when he joins that list of sculpted heroes that rest along the outfield corridor at Comerica Park.

You thought again Sunday about how it all came about.

There was that Tuesday evening, Dec. 4, 2007, at Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the Winter Meetings. The Tigers had learned the night before that Cabrera could be theirs if a six-player package pleased the Marlins.

By the next day, the bubbles had become a boil. The Tigers weren’t yet saying a word, but Al Kaline stepped from the team suite. There was a grin on his face that would have extended from Tiger Stadium’s left-field line to the right-field chalk.

“A lot of stuff going on,” Kaline said, half-chortling, but spilling not a single bean as he, in his own inimitable way, made clear that Detroit baseball was about to welcome a guy who would fit nicely with the rest of a hoary cast from the past 120 years: Cobb, Gehringer, Greenberg, Heilmann, and, yes, one Albert William Kaline, not that No. 6 would have said it that memorable evening.

Kaline has been gone 16 months. But along with the rest of a Tigers sphere that believes in baseball immortality, he was there Sunday, hugging Cabrera on behalf of everyone whose connection to baseball in Detroit is joyous, and eternal.

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

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