How Miguel Cabrera’s epic 500-homer journey to history began in Venezuela

Detroit Free Press

Miguel Garcia gripped his hands on the steering wheel of a rental SUV. He had just picked up Al Avila from the airport in Caracas, Venezuela. They were headed to the La Pedrera neighborhood in Maracay, where a right-handed teenager named Miguel Cabrera lived.

For 90 minutes, Avila wouldn’t stop talking.

“OK, let’s see this phenom,” said the Florida Marlins’ director of Latin American operations, who later became the assistant general manager to GM Dave Dombrowski. “Let’s see how good he is. Let’s see if you guys are right.”

Louie Eljaua sat in the backseat. Garcia glanced at him through the rear-view mirror. In 1998, Avila was about to meet a player who would change his career.

It wouldn’t be as easy as just signing Cabrera, though. There would be a roster cut, a bribed neighbor, a concrete wall to jump, an injured wrist, friends for life and, of course, the home runs. So many home runs, culminating in his 500th homer on Sunday in Toronto, some 2,400 miles north.

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‘It was all business’

Eljaua locked eyes with Garcia and raised his hand, signaling: Take it easy. Don’t say anything.

“I guess they’re saying I was a little sarcastic,” Avila said nearly a quarter-century later. “I mean, I just told you to go out there and find some good players, and you come back and tell me you found the best player in the world, and you haven’t even been out there more than a few weeks. I was like, ‘OK, let’s go see your superstar 15-year-old.'”

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After stopping in Maracay, the Marlins trio — Avila, the director of Latin American operations; Eljaua, the Latin America scouting director; and Garcia, the Venezuelan scouting supervisor — drove 30 minutes to Cagua, where Cabrera was playing in a game.

“And then it happened,” Garcia said.

Cabrera crushed a home run to center field in his first at-bat.

“Al wanted to go back to the hotel to call Dombrowski,” Garcia said. “I said, ‘No, let’s stay back. I want to watch the whole game.’ He was like, ‘Oh no. We got to go, we got to go.’ There was a left-handed pitcher we wanted him to see, so we got him to stay. After the game, we had lunch with the Cabrera family. Everything started from there.

“That was the last time Al joked about Miguel Cabrera. After that, it was all business.”

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Trust is what Cabrera, now 38, and Avila have shared all these years. It’s part of the reason why Cabrera boasts the “Old English ‘D’ on his chest. The 14-year romance between Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers, for whom Avila is now the general manager, produced a roaring crowd at Comerica Park over an entire six-game homestand as he went for for his 500th home run.

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In the 19th season of his career, Cabrera crushed a change-up from Toronto Blue Jays starter Steven Matz in the sixth inning Sunday. He became the 28th player in MLB history and first from the Tigers to join the 500 home run club.

“Last week in Detroit was tough,” Cabrera said Sunday. “It was the first time in five or six years I’ve seen the crowd that excited and with that much energy. It was nice to see the energy back in Comerica Park. There was a lot going through my mind. I wanted to do it in Detroit. But it’s tough to hit home runs there. I just have to thank God I hit it here and got it over with. Now I can try to keep playing baseball.”

There is another milestone to track down: Cabrera is 45 hits away from 3,000, a club exclusive to 32 players in MLB history. Just six players have reached both plateaus: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.

“Miguel likes to be challenged,” Garcia said. “If you challenge him, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. He’s going to beat you no matter what. He has proven that all his career. He likes to be challenged, and when you do that, you better be ready.”

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Putting their jobs on the line

The reports from Garcia and Eljaua were encouraging, but Avila had his doubts because he needed to meet expectations set by Marlins owner John Henry.

Henry had told the front office to think bigger with their spending. He wanted the best international players, best draft-eligible players and best free agents, regardless of cost. He was opening his checkbook in pursuit of a World Series championship.

Shortly after Avila passed down Henry’s message, Eljaua brought him franchise-altering information. He had traveled to Venezuela, where Garcia lived, and evaluated Cabrera. Everything checked out. He didn’t expect 500 home runs or a first-ballot Hall of Fame resume, but he believed Cabrera could be an All-Star.

“It was kind of funny,” Avila said. “Like, I just told you this not too long ago, and all of a sudden you come back and you found the guy. Are you kidding me? I thought it would take a little more time, but sure enough, it was Cabrera. I ended up going, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this guy is really, really good.'”

“We all were asked by Dave Dombrowski if we would put our jobs on the line for a 15-year-old Venezuelan player,” Garcia said. “We all said yes. I remember one time we were having dinner, and Al said, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together. If we’re going down, we’re going down. But I’m putting my job on the line.’ Louie and I were doing that, too.”

Cabrera, at the age of 16, signed with the Marlins on July 2, 1999, for $1.8 million.

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For that kind of money, Avila expected Cabrera to be a “generational player,” as did the Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, among other teams. The Marlins and Dodgers were the final teams in contention; although the Dodgers offered at least $2 million, the trust Cabrera had formed with Garcia, Eljaua and Avila made the Marlins frontrunners.

“The day before, they actually told us, ‘OK, we’re signing with you guys,'” Eljaua said. “But we knew that it was going to take somebody to really overwhelm him to beat us. We had just gotten to know him so well. The family was great with us, too. They had no agent. The father and mother handled the negotiation.”

Avila remembers his flight back to the United States, after Cabrera signed his contract at a restaurant in Las Delicias when the clock struck midnight. On the plane, he sat next to Dodgers scout Camilo Pascual, who had failed to sign Cabrera.

“It was a good moment,” Avila said.

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‘My name is Miguel Garcia’

Garcia discovered Cabrera’s existence in late 1997.

Cabrera was 14 years old and belonged to Tigres de Aragua, a team from the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League. He played in the Parallel Baseball League, Venezuela’s equivalent to the U.S. minor leagues.

German Robles, the Marlins’ area scout, watched as Cabrera tried out for the Venezuelan national team. He then called Garcia to share what he found. That’s when the Marlins began a recruiting war with the Twins, the first team to scout Cabrera.

“He didn’t make the team,” Garcia said. “The people in charge of making the cuts thought that he wasn’t a very good runner, so they cut him. It was a huge advantage for the Marlins because he didn’t play that international tournament and wasn’t seen by a whole lot of teams.”

The first time Garcia saw Cabrera, he was playing in the Parallel League. His smooth swing smoked an opposite-field line drive single to right. Garcia looked around the ballpark to check if anyone else recognized the special talent.

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He spotted Cabrera’s father, Miguel Sr., pacing in the stands and went to meet him, according to Garcia’s recollection.

“My name is Miguel Garcia.”

“I know who you are,” Miguel Sr. replied.

“Good. I just want to ask you one question. Can we evaluate your kid more deeply, and if I bring my supervisor here, would you be willing to show him to us?”

Garcia got the response he was hoping for: “Yes, at any time.”

After the game, Garcia stood face-to-face with Cabrera. The kid wasn’t nervous, nor was he immature. He calmly told Garcia exactly what he wanted, which was to be just like Venezuelan infielder Dave Concepcion, who had played 19 years (from 1970-88) for the Cincinnati Reds. He said he would do whatever it would take to become a good ballplayer.

Garcia visited Cabrera at least five more times before Eljaua, his director, joined the recruiting efforts.

He learned Cabrera’s mother, Gregoria, used to be an infielder for the Venezuelan national softball team. His father was a former amateur pitcher and an avid baseball fan. Cabrera’s uncle, former St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguer David Torres, helped train him.

“It was baseball 24/7 in that house,” Garcia said.

The neighbor across the street was an inside source.

“I gave him Marlins souvenirs and stuff,” Garcia said. “Every time I would go into the house, he would come out and say, ‘Hey, listen, just to let you know, these teams came over and were talking to Mr. Cabrera.’ I was able to get information from him. That’s the type of talent you do whatever it takes to sign. I don’t think there will ever be another Miguel Cabrera out of Venezuela.”

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One of Garcia’s conversations with the future Hall of Famer was unforgettable. He asked Cabrera — 15 at the time — what he wanted to be in life, besides a replica of Concepcion.

“I want to be the best,” Cabrera responded. “What I’m doing right now is nothing compared to what I am going to do. You watch. I’ll play in the big leagues, and I’ll be a good one.”

Garcia couldn’t believe what he heard.

“Sometimes you’re talking to a kid, and they will say, ‘Yeah, my dream is to make it to the big leagues,’ but you don’t feel that desire,” he said. “Miguel was a guy that if you ask him to work out for you in the field behind his house, he will do it. You ask him to go to the stadium in Maracay, he will do it. He wasn’t picking and choosing. He would do whatever it takes, and he had that determination in life.”

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‘Up and over the houses’

Eljaua embarked on his relationship with Cabrera after Garcia made contact and before Avila got his introduction. It was Eljaua’s responsibility, if interested, to start the process of getting the heavy hitters from the front office involved.

A 6-foot concrete wall was the separator between a worn-down field and a poor neighborhood. Rocks filled the infield, and rust chewed away at the grandstand behind home plate.

And Cabrera was nowhere to be found.

“He lives right back over here,” Garcia said, pointing to the concrete wall beyond the first-base line. “He might be here in a few minutes.” Suddenly, Cabrera’s mother appeared. She greeted the two scouts, explaining her son had to take a test at school and would be late.

Ten minutes later, a kid hopped over the 6-foot wall. He made a difficult jump look easy.

It was Cabrera.

“He’s walking towards us,” Eljaua said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, he’s a big kid. Man, he doesn’t look like he’s 15 physically. He looks older.’ Now I see his face. He looked like he was 10 in the face. He still has a boyish look to him in the face.”

A fearless Cabrera shook Eljaua’s hand, looked him in the eye and apologized for being tardy. This surprised Eljaua, who was used to seeing international prospects intimidated by U.S. scouts.

“Just go ahead and get loose,” Eljaua told Cabrera, “and we’ll get it going.”

Cabrera began his workout at shortstop. His parents watched from the stands as Eljaua and Garcia gathered their notes. They knew Cabrera would eventually move to third base, but they liked his footwork, arm strength and “high baseball IQ.” (As predicted, Cabrera shifted to third base — and the outfield, due to the Marlins’ roster makeup — when he entered the big leagues in 2003, before transitioning across the diamond and eventually to designated hitter as the years caught up with him.)

“Wait until you see him hit,” Garcia said. “That’s his best attribute.”

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Cabrera smoked five line drives to right field, five more to center and another five to left. There was something different about the way the ball sounded coming off his bat. Thinking Cabrera had taken enough swings for the first round of batting practice, Eljaua asked if he wanted to take a break.

“I’m just getting loose,” Cabrera answered.

“All of a sudden, he just starts cranking balls, one after another, out of the park to all fields,” Eljaua said. “I was like, ‘This is the guy we were told to find.’ I’m just looking at this from a few swings in BP. … We finally had to shut it down because we ran out of balls. He hit them all out. It wasn’t a big park, but he was hitting them way out. There were houses on the other side of the street, and he was putting them up and over the houses.”

What Eljaua watched from Cabrera at 15 reminded him of a 17-year-old Alex Rodriguez. Eljaua observed Rodriguez at Miami’s Westminster Christian School before the Seattle Mariners drafted him No. 1 overall in 1993. The swings were different, but the “wow factor” — the bat speed and advanced approach at the plate — connected them.

Besides Rodriguez, Eljaua couldn’t make a comparison to Cabrera’s rare skills.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel that night to call Al Avila, who was my direct boss at the time, to tell him, ‘Hey, I got the guy for us to sign with all this money Mr. Henry said he would give us if we found the right guy,'” Eljaua said. “Al’s first reaction was, ‘Are you crazy? You just went on your first trip after you were told this, and you want to give it to the first guy you see? You’re going to get us all fired.’

“He let me have it pretty good. Now we look back on this and laugh, but I let him vent and tell me what he had to say. At the end of it, I said, ‘Al, just do me a favor. I’m coming back in two weeks to watch him play in a game. Come with me, and if you don’t like him, I’ll never mention Miguel Cabrera again. But I’m sure you’ll like him.'”

‘The greatest day’

On March 5, 1999, Garcia complied an official report about Cabrera (translated here by Tigers bilingual coordinator Carlos Guillen). At this point, Garcia had watched Cabrera in three games, including in 1998 with Avila.

In four months, Cabrera would become a Marlin.

“Physical description: Large frame, long legs, long arms, wide shoulders and big hands. He reminds me of Troy Glaus when he played in Venezuela three years ago.”

(Glaus had traveled to Venezuela in 1997 to play for La Guaira after the Los Angeles Angels drafted him No. 3 overall in the draft. He would go on to hit 320 home runs across 13 MLB seasons.)

“Abilities: Excellent instincts to play baseball. He has abilities to hit .300 and hit over 25 home runs in MLB. Good hands and wide reach for his height. He can solve a tight situation in such a cool-minded way, and he looks very mature for his age. He has the tools to become a Gold Glove winner at third base. Above average arm.”

“Weaknesses: Runs 60 yards under average (7.38 seconds) and from home to first base (4.76-4.80 seconds).”

“Summations and signability: He can be a first-rounder in the United States right now.”

Two months later, an all-or-nothing step in the recruiting process occurred.

The Marlins hosted a tryout for Cabrera at Maracay University, with national cross-checkers Murray Cook and Jax Robertson evaluating. The opinions they provided were influential in shaping the organization’s decisions, and if the Marlins were going to pay upward of $1.5 million in July 1999, everyone needed to be in agreement.

“The first round that Miguel hit that day was the worst that I have ever seen out of Miguel Cabrera,” Garcia said. “Watching the first round of BP, I’m saying to myself, ‘Hopefully, he’ll put everything together for the second round. Based on this round, we are not going to do anything with this kid.'”

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Cabrera walked to the dugout for a drink of water.

The Marlins’ trainer checked in and learned Cabrera, who hadn’t wanted to say anything, injured his right wrist playing volleyball at school the day before. The trainer taped Cabrera’s wrist and sent him out for the second round of batting practice.

Cabrera delivered.

“It was the best round I have ever seen out of a teenager,” Garcia said. “He hit balls out everywhere. He used the whole field. It was the greatest day.”

‘He’s going to be in Cooperstown’

Just over four years later, on June 20, 2003, Cabrera made his MLB debut.

Alex Gonzalez, a fellow Venezuelan, stood on second base after delivering a one-out double in the 11th inning against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Cabrera stepped to the plate for his fifth at-bat, facing right-hander Al Levine.

He belted the first pitch for a walk-off two-run home run to straightway center, giving the Marlins a 3-1 win in extra innings.

“It was a walk-off home run,” Cabrera would say 13 years later. “I was like 40 pounds lighter. Every time I see the picture from 2003, I say, ‘Oh Miggy, what’s wrong with you?'”

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Later that year, the Marlins beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. Cabrera hit a crucial opposite-field two-run homer in the first inning of Game 4, off seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, to help tie the series.

The Marlins paraded through Miami after Game 6.

“By seeing him playing in the World Series in 2003, that’s when I realized Miguel was going to be special,” Garcia said. “Not everybody can handle the pressure. It’s one thing to go and play in the World Series, but when you’re the Marlins facing the Yankees, and you beat them, that’s when you realize you can be good. That particular year, that’s when I started to dream about Miguel being a Hall of Famer.”

Cabrera wouldn’t be in Miami for long, with his departure preceded by that of Avila and Dombrowski to Detroit.

The Tigers — with Dombrowski and Avila leading the franchise — acquired Cabrera in a December 2007 trade. Since arriving in Detroit, Cabrera has earned two American League MVPs, seven of his 11 All-Star selections, four batting titles and five of his seven Silver Slugger awards. He secured the Triple Crown in 2012, becoming the 17th player in MLB history (and the first since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967) to lead his league in batting average, homers and RBIs.

[ Miguel Cabrera blasts Venezuela: ‘I’m tired of paying money’ to protect my mom ]

The awards, and Cabrera’s milestone 500th homer, are a triumph for Avila and the scouts, as well.

“We were right, and we did the right thing,” Avila said in 2021. “That was a great feeling, when he got to the big leagues. This guy just took off, so that in itself was really satisfying to see. He was arguably the best hitter in baseball. I think he was the best.”

Cabrera, meanwhile, has always remembered his roots.

“I come from Maracay, a little neighborhood called La Pedrera,” Cabrera said. “I never thought this would happen to me, so it’s really special. I say thank you to the team, thank you to the city for giving me this opportunity to be here.”

In May, Cabrera passed Omar Vizquel for most hits by a Venezuelan-born player. He also paces his country in runs, doubles, home runs and RBIs. Each milestone takes Eljaua back to cherished memories of scouting Cabrera in La Pedrera.

“He had some cockiness to him,” Eljaua said. “He was a little bit of a mischievous kid and liked to have fun. When we would go over to their house and visit, he was always playing with his little cousins. One time, Al and I were sitting there in the front yard. We look over and Miguel’s playing marbles with his 9-year-old cousin.

“He’s always kept that boyish quality to him. At the same time, it’s neat to remember those moments and see how he’s grown.”

More than two decades ago, Garcia and Eljaua picked up Avila from the airport to spark a year-long chase to sign Cabrera. They’re now celebrating 500 home runs — just as they did while watching a teenage Cabrera take swings in Venezuela.

“He’s a national hero,” Eljaua said. “He’s going to be in Cooperstown one day, and that’s going to be a big thing for his country.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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