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 off of it.
The ball left his bat at 104 mph and flew on a line 400 feet over the wall in right-center.
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.
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.
Gary Sheffield and Eddie Mathews, both of whom spent just two seasons in Detroit, are the others in the 500-homer club with Tigers ties.
“Miggy is living proof that legends exist,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “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.
Cabrera, who came to Detroit in a trade in 2008 and produced six straight seasons with at least 30 home runs, has done his level best to keep the focus on the team and off of himself, but since the All-Star break and as he drew nearer to the magic mark and as he saw the energy his chase created, he began 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 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.
“No matter what happens with him, he’s still going to go down as one of the best baseball players ever,” pitcher Michael Fulmer said. “I’m honored to call him a teammate for this many seasons.
“It’s been unbelievable to being a part of this.”