10 behind-the-scenes stories of Miguel Cabrera’s greatness with the Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Miguel Cabrera was in a slump — about five years ago — and Al Kaline walked by in the clubhouse.

Kaline squeezed Cabrera’s shoulder as if to say: “You’ll get through this. I know what you are going through. I have confidence in you.”

“Oh, Mr. Kaline,” Cabrera said. “I need some of your greatness.”

Cabrera always addressed the late Tiger great as “Mr. Kaline.” Pure respect.

Cabrera grabbed Kaline in a bearhug, trying to squeeze some of Kaline’s greatness out of him. Kaline slapped Cabrera’s back in a bro-hug that should have gone straight to the Hall of Fame.

MORE FROM SEIDEL: Here’s why Miguel Cabrera’s 500 home run milestone means so much for Tigers

“You are the greatest hitter in Tigers history,” Kaline used to tell Cabrera.

But Cabrera wouldn’t accept it — perhaps out of modesty or maybe disbelief. Cabrera has always been a student of baseball history. He appreciates records and milestones and greatness of the past.

The moment between Kaline and Cabrera showed how much Cabrera respected the past, how much he wanted to produce and wanted to be great. It showed how much all of this means to him.

You could see it again on Sunday afternoon — the pure joy on his face — after he hit his 500th home run and inched closer to 3,000 hits.

Cabrera has climbed into elite territory:

He is just the 28th  player in MLB history to hit 500 homers;

He is the sixth player born outside the United States to reach 500 homers, joining Cuba’s Rafael Palmeiro and the Dominican Republic’s Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz.

And he is the first player to do it wearing the Old English D. (Eddie Mathews had 503 when he was dealt to Detroit in 1967 and Gary Sheffield hit No. 499 with the Tigers in September 2008 before being released the following spring.)

[ How Tigers, MLB used ‘security program’ to authenticate Miguel Cabrera’s 500th home run ]

But stats are one thing. To me, the stories behind the numbers are more interesting. And here are some of my favorites that reveal Cabrera’s personality, his drive and how he got here.

The work ethic

It was Feb. 16, 2013.

On a cool, gray, wet Friday morning in Lakeland, Florida, Cabrera went through a workout several hours before the Tigers’ first official practice of spring training.

“We are going to do a lot of the same stuff — the same program — we did last year,” Cabrera said.

That’s the secret to his success.

Repeating what works.

In 2012, Cabrera arrived early for spring training, and I vividly remember him working on a field with his assistant, taking ground balls and working up a sweat before the Tigers’ first practice.

HOW IT ALL STARTED: How Miguel Cabrera’s epic 500-homer journey to history began in Venezuela

That season worked out pretty well for him — he won the American League MVP, the Triple Crown and led the Tigers into the World Series.

But after that magical season, he dissected his strengths and weaknesses and realized he had areas to improve.

He wanted to improve his quickness.

“My first step — side to side,” Cabrera said. “My goal is to be consistent, try to go out there and play hard every day, try to help my team win, try to push myself to get better every day.”

The fun-loving special agent

You see Cabrera laughing in the dugout.

Or playfully messing with a runner at first base.

And that’s who he is, even off the field.

In 2017, Cabrera toured the FBI gun vault in the McNamara Federal Building in downtown Detroit, and I got to tag along. The hallway was full of FBI agents, and the walls and tables were covered with guns.

Pictures were not allowed — secrecy and all.

There were rifles, machine guns, a vast assortment of pistols and even a sub-machine gun from the 1930s.

“Wow!” Cabrera said.

[ Miggy after hitting 500 home runs: ‘I’ll always thank God for this moment’ ]

His eyes sparkled like a kid as the Tigers made a Winter Caravan stop at the Detroit FBI field office. Cabrera had a spring in his step as he walked around, wearing an FBI cap.

“After I’m done playing baseball, I can move here,” he said with a smile. “Special agent!”

Special Agent Miggy?

Would he work some undercover assignments?

Or would he handle the investigations?

“Both!” he said, beaming. “Complete agent!”

Cabrera still has that fun, youthful, playful personality.

He had a bounce in his step as he walked through the hallways of the FBI, learning how agents investigate cases, putting on orange glasses and seeing how bones or other evidence glows in the dark under a special light.

“I have a couple of friends now,” he said. “I know people now. Be careful, you. I know people.”

The systematic approach

When Cabrera was in his prime, I used to stand in front of the dugout and watch Cabera take batting practice every chance I got. Because it was a thing of beauty.

I remember trying to memorize every detail, knowing I was going to be writing about it when he goes into the Hall of Fame.

His routine was always the same. He’d start out spraying the ball to right field, barely using his legs. In the next round, he’d amp it up and hit nothing but line drives. It was like he was slowly building steam, working on technique, like an artist perfecting his craft.

Before long, Cabrera was hitting line drives off the right-field wall. Just flicking them long distance without much effort.

And that approach has influenced several young players.

[ Tigers legends congratulate, praise Miguel Cabrera after his 500th home run ]

“He had a plan, he knew what he was doing,” said Riley Greene, the Tigers’ 2019 first-round pick. “He hit every ball the other way on a line probably, 100-plus exit velo. He knows what he’s doing. And he has a plan whenever he’s in the cage.”

Spencer Torkelson, the Tigers’ 2020 first-round pick, watched Cabrera and walked away with the same lesson.

“I have a good story about his cage routine,” Torkelson said. “I wasn’t there. It was a couple of years ago, apparently. And I don’t know who it was in the cage with them. But he was hitting ground balls, you know, to the right side and line drives to the right side. And they asked Miggy, ‘ Hey, why are you hitting everything like on the ground or line drive to the right side?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to be a good hitter’ and he kind of laughed. I’m like, yeah, you know, he’s a pretty damn good hitter. So I’m gonna start hitting balls to the right side in batting practice.”

An amazing home run derby

In February 2012, I was on a back field at TigerTown, watching Cabera take batting practice for the first time with Prince Fielder.

Fielder deferred to Cabrera, letting him hit first. And it turned into a private home run derby, as each player slammed massive homers.

Anything you can do, I can do better.

It wasn’t a competition, really, just an incredible display of power. Righty, lefty. Righty, lefty.

Fielder smashed a ball high over the center-field fence. “Nice and easy, my friend,” Cabrera said.

[ How Miguel Cabrera stacks up with the other members of the 500-homer club ]

Another Fielder home run landed at least 450 feet away, smashing into the trees high over the right-field fence, shattering a branch and prompting Cabrera to scream: “You hit that alligator!”

Eight months later, they were in the World Series.

And Cabrera had his Triple Crown.

A desire to win

Speaking of that World Series, how the heck did that team lose?

Whoops. Sorry. How did that get in here?

After the Tigers were swept by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, I went to the clubhouse.

Then-general manager Dave Dombrowski walked around the Tigers’ clubhouse, shaking hands, patting backs. And Cabrera was by his locker.

“I think we never find our confidence at home plate,” Cabrera said.

Cabrera hated losing. You could see it in his eyes.

OLD BASH BROTHER: Prince Fielder on Miguel Cabrera’s 500 home runs: ‘One of the greatest of all time’

His secret to success

In 2014, after Cabrera reached 2,000 hits, I walked around the Tigers clubhouse, asking coaches, players and front office folks a simple question: “What impresses you the most about Miguel Cabrera?”

And everybody said something different.

“I can’t get the words out to express it,” Kaline said. “I can’t fathom how one person can be this good for such a long period of time. I guess the answer that most people give is the way he uses the whole field, and he hits with power and gets base hits even though he can’t run well. He’s not a speed demon.”

Cabrera was just the ninth player in MLB history to get hit No. 2,000 before he turned 31, joining a list that is impressive on its own: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron, Joe (Ducky) Medwick, Jimmie Foxx, Robin Yount and Alex Rodriguez.

“In my mind, he’s a Hall of Famer right now, even if he doesn’t play another game,” Kaline said. “I’m not going to put him up as the best all-time hitter. Not yet. But if he continues to do it for another couple of years, I have to put him up in that category.”

Torii Hunter had a different answer.

“You know what?” Hunter said, letting out a sigh. “I’ve had a chance to see something different with this guy. It’s the way he carries himself. With all the accolades — Triple Crown, MVP, big contract, everything — this guy is so humble and so charitable and so down to Earth.

“And another thing: He works hard. Behind the scenes, he is in the cage and working hard. Things you don’t see. But you see the results. Trust me. He’s doing some amazing things behind the scenes. He works his butt off.”

[ Not every great Miggy home run was a milestone. Here are some of our faves ]

Cabrera would have won a second Triple Crown in 2013, but for Chris Davis’ 53 home runs — 20 more than his previous career high. So I asked Davis the same question.

“I can only pick one?” Davis responded. “The thing that impresses me the most is the balance when he hits. It’s something we don’t talk about a lot. Being a bigger guy, you see guys falling all over the place. But he always looks like he always has his feet under him.”

Joba Chamberlain, who pitched against Cabrera for years before joining the Tigers, talked about his ability to adjust. “The other day, a reliever came in, and he threw a 0-1 curveball, and Cabrera swung and missed,” Chamberlain said. “Then, he got the base hit off a curveball to center. The adjustment that he made in that at bat, it’s tough to explain to people, but it’s that kind of adjustment that is so impressive.”

Advice to a youngster

In June 2019, Cabrera sat in the dugout unable to get up the steps because of a huge wrap around his right knee as Riley Greene took batting practice in Comerica Park for the first time.

“He’s 18? For real?” Cabrera screamed after Greene jacked a home run.

Another swing. Another home run.

“Leave him here!” Cabrera screamed, within earshot of several members of the Tigers front office, who were all watching intently. “We need him!”

Greene had just signed a $6.1 million contract.

“Yeah!” Cabrera screamed.

After Greene was done and picked up balls — a small moment that Kaline said he loved — Greene walked to the dugout.

“I can’t come up,” Cabrera said.

So Greene went down the steps to meet Cabrera, and they shook hands in the dugout.

“Congratulations!” Cabrera said.

“Thank you,” Greene said.

“Are you really 18?” Cabrera asked.

“Yes,” Greene responded, smiling.

“You’ve got some pop,” Cabrera said. “You’ve got a really nice swing.”

“Thank you.”

“Really nice separation, so that’s good.”

“Thank you.”

“See you soon,” somebody said.

“What month?” Cabrera said and laughed from his gut. “See you later.”

Ironically enough, it will probably be next summer, soon enough to team up with Cabrera.

FUTURE STATE: When Tigers fans can expect to see Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson

Playing with kids

One small moment that said everything about Cabrera, and it happened in 2012.

It was in the middle of the AL Central race. In the middle of his pursuit of the Triple Crown. And Cabrera went out to take batting practice, and he spotted Fielder’s two sons. They ran up to him, “Miggy! Miggy!”

Cabrera performed a handshake with the boys, the same silly handshake he did with Fielder after home runs, big plays and victories. Hand slaps. Front. Back. Silly gestures. Lots of smiles. End with a hug.

As he waited to take his turn in the batting cage, Cabrera hit the boys soft, easy pop-ups on the grass behind home plate, and then, 5-year-old Gage Brookens joined the group. His grandfather is Tom Brookens, then the Tigers’  first-base coach.

“I got it, I got it,” they screamed, trying to catch the ball, their gloves stabbing into the air.

Cabrera broke into a giant smile.

At one point, Gage got hurt, colliding with one of Fielder’s sons. Cabrera walked over to the boys and took a knee — right there in the middle of batting practice. Comforting Gage, making sure he was OK.

Seriously? There was the best hitter in baseball, tending to a banged-up kid.

On his way to the World Series.

And he was playing with some kids.

That is the essence of Cabrera. Loose. Fun-loving. Just an overgrown kid, who became MLB’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.

Miggy on Miggy

There has to be a reason. There has to be an explanation for his greatness.

Maybe, as a child growing up in Venezuela, Miguel Cabrera used to stay up late at night and hit balls against a wall.

“Did you do that, Miguel?” I asked him.

He looked at me like I was crazy.

“Did you take an old bat and hit tires to strengthen your wrists?” I asked.

He shook his head.

He said, simply, he was born this way.

“Thank God,” he said, and shrugged.

OK. I’ll buy that.

On April 18, 1983 — the day Cabrera was born in Maracay, Venezuela — God created one of the best hitters in baseball.

The smooth swing. The amazing power and balance.

“I don’t enjoy talking about me,” Cabrera said. “It’s very embarrassing to talk about yourself. Ask me about somebody else.”

Outside the clubhouse, I saw Cabrera’s father, whose name is Jose Miguel Cabrera — the same as his son. (Turns out Miguel’s first name is Jose but he goes by Miguel. Who knew?)

We needed an interpreter and Al Avila, then the Tigers’ assistant GM, helped out.

I asked Cabrera’s father about watching his son hit his 300th home run, becoming only the 14th player in major league history to reach that plateau before turning 30, according to research by STATS LLC.

“Very proud,” said Jose Miguel Cabrera.

He was a man of few words, just like his son.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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