Toronto — It was getting excruciating, trudging into the ninth game since he hit home run No. 499. He had gone 4 for 31. The last three games, he hadn’t hit a ball in the air, let alone out of the park.
Then, in the sixth inning Sunday at Rogers Centre, Blue Jays starter Steven Matz, after he’d gotten an ugly swing with a fastball, decided to throw a change-up and Miguel Cabrera made history out of it.
The ball left his bat at 104 mph and flew on a line 400 feet over the wall in right-center — home run No. 500.
He was hugged and high-fived as he trotted back into the Tigers’ dugout and given a rousing, standing ovation by the Blue Jays faithful, which Cabrera stepped out to acknowledge with a rare road curtain call.
“It was a good feeling,” Cabrera said after the Tigers celebrated a series-clinching 5-3 win over the Blue Jays in 11 innings. “It was a very nice thing because it tied the game. That was big for us. We were trying to win the series and get out of here 2-1.”
Cabrera admitted that the strain of the chase was wearing on him.
“A lot,” he said. “Last week in Detroit was tough. It was the first time in like five or six years I see the crowd that excited with a lot of energy. It was nice to see the energy back in Comerica Park. But there was a lot of things going on in my mind because I wanted to do it in Detroit. It’s tough to hit home runs there.
“But thank God I hit it here and got it over with and now I can try to keep playing my baseball.”
Cabrera is the 28th player in Major League Baseball history to reach the 500 home run plateau and the first player to accomplish the feat since David Ortiz in 2015 and his friend and mentor Albert Pujols in 2014.
He is the first in the 121-year history of the Detroit baseball franchise to do it wearing a Tigers uniform and he got a champagne shower in the clubhouse afterward. Manager AJ Hinch gathered the team together and gave a toast — saying at the end, “All of us in this room will remember this day for rest of our careers.”
“I just thanked him for letting us be a part of this,” Hinch said. “We’ve seen him do some tremendous things this year. The names he’s passed on the hit total, being the Venezuelan hit king, 500 home runs.
“We’re just so proud for him and his family. A career accomplishment like this is so rare. We may never get to be a part of something like this again. We have no idea who will be the next person to pass these big numbers. It’s just a really cool experience for our team.”
Jeimer Candelario, who has forged a tight bond with Cabrera the last few years, was the first to greet him after he crossed home plate.
“When he hit that ball, I knew something special was about to happen,” Candelario said. “History was about to happen. And for me to be a part of that is a blessing. And it helped us win a game, too.”
Hinch did his best these past 10 days or so to keep the focus on the team and off the chase, so as to minimize the undeniable pressure that was building with every homerless game.
“I gave Miggy the floor after the game and just thanked us,” Hinch said. “He wanted this for us as much as we wanted it for him. He saw the stress around the team, even though it was unspoken.”
Candelario said his teammates felt it, too.
“We all wanted it so bad for him,” Candelario said. “Getting to 500, he’s worked really hard for that and he wanted to so badly and he wanted to contribute to a team win. He’s a gamer and he’s going to do his best to help the team win.”
But afterward, Cabrera said whatever stress he felt was for more for what he was putting his family and teammates through.
“It’s not just for me,” he said. “The people around me, this team, my teammates, the organization, the city of Detroit, my coaches from throughout my whole career, the people from Venezuela, my family — it’s really big.
“It’s special for my country and for my family that I was able to do this. I am really happy. But at the same time, I’ve got to stay focused and keep doing what I’m doing, keep trying to get better and help my team win more games.”
The ball landed near the Tigers batting cage under the right-center stands. It was retrieved by bullpen catcher Tim Remes and delivered to Cabrera.
“I didn’t know if it was going to get out,” Cabrera said. “I say, ‘Come on, get up, get up.’ I play at Comerica Park. Every fly ball in that part of the park is an out. I’m glad I hit that ball here. I hit that ball at Comerica Park and it’s two outs.”
The quest was both exhilarating and exhausting. He hit two home runs on July 29 and the Tigers installed the home run and hits counter next to the big scoreboard at Comerica Park. That’s when it started to feel real.
He hit another homer on Aug. 3 and No. 499 on Aug. 11. Then, with the largest and liveliest crowds Comerica Park has seen in three years, Cabrera went empty in a seven-game home stand.
Then, after a rough couple of games in Toronto, Matz threw him a change-up off the plate and Cabrera clobbered it.
“Miggy is living proof that legends exist,” Hinch said during the chase. “They’re not just in your mind. This is in front of us every day. This matters.”
Cabrera, a Venezuelan native, began his big-league career in 2003 at age 20 with the Florida Marlins and his first home run — a walk-off in the 11th inning off Tampa Bay’s Al Levine — came in his fifth at-bat.
He came to Detroit in a trade in 2007 and produced six straight seasons with at least 30 home runs.
But as he got closer to 500, he tried his level best to keep the focus on the team and off of himself. Once the Miggy Milestone counter went up, though, and he saw the energy his chase created, he started to embrace it.
“It’s kind of awesome,” he said. “I come from Maracay, a little neighborhood (in Venezuela) called La Pedrera. I never thought this would happen to me. So it’s really special. I will say thank you to the team, thank you to the city for giving me this opportunity to be here.
Among Venezuelan-born players, Cabrera is the all-time hits and home run leader.
“He is the most important player to come out of Venezuela,” countryman Victor Reyes said. “I am very proud of what he’s done in this game, very proud to be his teammate.”
The best part for Cabrera, he said on more than one occasion the last two months, is that his home runs are contributing to victories. It’s not been an empty chase for personal accolades.
“It’s not just about changing the numbers (on the Miggy Milestone counter),” Hinch said. “I think the style of play and us winning series, winning months, winning homestands — that all matters to him. He’s rode with this organization a long time and he’s seen some rough patches here.
“Now there’s enthusiasm. There’s some youthful talent. There are expectations to win every day. I think that contributes more to Miggy being so upbeat than even the home runs. … The chase for the numbers are contributing to the wins and that’s what he wants.”
It’s what late owner Mike Ilich envisioned, too, when he signed Cabrera to an eight-year, $248 million contract extension before the 2014 season. Ilitch knew what the latter years of that contract might look like, paying him $30 million and then $32 million at age 38, 39 and 40.
He knew the extension would be maligned throughout the industry, and it has been, especially these past five seasons when injuries and age have sapped his productivity. But Ilitch not only wanted to reward Cabrera for the four batting crowns, the Triple Crown, the two MVP seasons, he wanted him to represent the Tigers when he went into the Hall of Fame.
The energy his quest for 500 home runs, and continued chase of 3,000 hits, helps to validate Ilitch’s vision.
“To see what Miguel is doing night in and night out, chasing milestones, delivering special moments for all of us — not only for all our wonderful fans, but also his teammates,” said Tigers president and CEO, and Mike’s son, Christopher Ilitch. “That’s been just incredible and I think everybody is getting excited about it.
“I think it’s brought a level of respect for the tradition of the game and what Miggy has done to forge his place in the history of the sport. It’s been great to watch and we’re proud to have Miguel as part of our organization and some day go into the Hall of Fame as Detroit Tiger.”
His teammates have been as engaged in Cabrera’s quest, sometimes more than he is.
“He gets mad at me,” rookie Akil Baddoo said. “In the clubhouse I’ll be like, ‘Yo Miggy, you know you are the GOAT, right?’ And he just says, ‘Shut up, man.’ He doesn’t like it when I compliment him all the time. I told him that I played him in Home Run Derby in MLB the Show (video game) and he said, ‘Wrong person.’
“And I just go, ‘All right Miggy, I’ll shut up.’”
Truth is, though, even if sometimes he plays the grumpy uncle to the younger players, he’s been energized by them.
“They make fun of me,” Cabrera said. “Every time I pass somebody (on the all-time list) they don’t know who it is because they’re so young. They learn the names. Like yesterday somebody told me I passed Babe Ruth’s cousin (laughter). They started making jokes about that.
“That’s cool because they feel proud, too. I feel proud to play next to these guys. I see these guys get so much better every day and I’m excited about what we can do this year and next year.”
Cabrera is the first Venezuelan to hit 500 home runs and he joins a prestigious list of players within the 500-club born outside the United States: Pujols, Sammy Sosa , Manny Ramirez and Ortiz from the Dominican Republic and Rafael Palmeiro from Cuba.
He’s hit 362 home runs with the Tigers, which ranks behind only Al Kaline (399) and Norm Cash (373).
He’s also hit 13 postseason home runs.
When he reaches 3,000 hits (he at 2,955) he will be the seventh player ever to achieve 500 homers and 3,000 hits. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Eddie Murray and Palmeiro comprise that exclusive club.
“This is a huge accomplishment for him, his country and for everything he’s meant for baseball in Detroit,” Hinch said. “And obviously for Team Venezuela. He’s represented that country with extreme success.
“Miggy is very grateful and very much a team-oriented. But I wanted to thank him for allowing us to celebrate him. It’s a very big deal.”