As Miguel Cabrera nears history, let’s reconsider his spot among Detroit’s all-time greats

Detroit Free Press

You can make a case that for a four-month stretch in the late spring and early summer of 2013, Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera hit a baseball better than any other Detroit team athlete performed their sport in the history of this city.

And I would, until I remember what it was like watching Barry Sanders run. He, too, was the best in his sport for a time. He, too, is regarded as one of the best to ever do it.

Yet just four years ago this very newspaper conducted a very unscientific poll to determine the greatest athlete in the city’s history and neither Cabrera nor Sanders made the final round.

Gordie Howe and Ty Cobb did, which I fear says more about the age of our readers than their ability to discern all-time skill. Though who am I to say Cobb wasn’t a better hitter than Cabrera? I mean, maybe if he’d faced pitchers from all over the world who threw mid to high-90s heat all game long, he’d have put up the same outsized batting average and on-base percentages.

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Though I doubt it. And while I wasn’t fortunate enough to have watched Cobb in person — I missed by a few years — I’m guessing that human evolution would give the power nod to Cabrera.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Because here’s the thing: if we’re judging Detroit athletes by skill alone, then Sanders and Cabrera are together at the top.

But then sizing up an athlete’s place in a city’s pantheon isn’t merely about skill, right?

It’s about stories. And probably numbers.

Like how many times an athlete helped bring a title. Which explains Howe’s victory in the Free Press’ Tournament of G.O.A.T. in the summer of 2018: everyone loved Howe; he won every year, or so it seemed.

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Never mind that those titles came when six teams played in the NHL. I know, that isn’t fair, we’re supposed to consider the greatness of an athlete in the context of their time. From that gauge, Howe wins, sure, even though we have to acknowledge he wasn’t as skilled as Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov or probably Niklas Lidstrom.

There is romance in how we remember Howe, in how we remember so many great athletes who won. And if there is a knock on Cabrera, that’s it. He wasn’t part of a parade. Beyond that, when he got close — his 2012 Tigers made the World Series — he didn’t perform to his talent.

Or to our expectation.

The entire team didn’t, either. That helps.

Yet for all Cabrera’s singular greatness, for his Triple Crown and three consecutive batting titles — unheard for someone with so much power — for his geometry-defying bombs and must-see plate appearances, his most memorable postseason moments came in another uniform.

Still, when he gets one more hit he’ll become just the seventh player in major league history to amass 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, which makes him one of the best hitters in the history of the sport, which makes him one of the best hitters in the history of the Tigers.

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So, where does Cabrera fit on our list of all-timers in this city?

Let’s start with where he ranks among Tigers. If we count contact and power, he’s at the top. If we count just contact, he’s behind Cobb. If we count contact and power and a title? He’s behind Al Kaline and Alan Trammel.

If we count pitchers?

He might be behind Justin Verlander. Yes, he also won his title in another uniform. But he had a few more memorable moments in the playoffs, including a dominant, complete game shutout in Game 5 of the ALDS at Oakland in 2012.

Verlander had a similar performance the following year, also against the A’s, also in the win-or-go-home game. Each outing propelled the Tigers to the American League Championship Series.

Those kinds of nights matter in how we remember. They become part of a narrative. Stories are what endure.

Like Cabrera, Verlander was the best at his position in the sport for a time. Was his pinnacle as great as Cabrera’s? Close, but not quite.

Verlander talked more though. He made more commercials. He married a celebrity. None of these are value judgments. But he was part of the sporting scene in a way Cabrera wasn’t.

In that sense, neither Cabrera nor Verlander can match Sanders, or Isiah Thomas, or even Yzerman, who wasn’t known as the wordiest athlete ever but who captained three titles and ranked among the best players in the game at his peak.

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Besides, when you hoist the Stanley Cup over your head in front of a million people, you don’t need to chit-chat with reporters after every game and say yes to every commercial that comes along. Again, stories. They matter.

Winning matters, too.

As gifted as Yzerman was, he played in the (national) shadow of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. At his best, he was still the third-best forward in hockey.

At Cabrera’s best, no one was better. Ten years from now, though, that brilliance won’t be enough to move him past Yzerman on the reverence scale. Nor should it.

It takes a specific kind of circumstance to rise to the top of deification without a championship. Among the lordiest of athletes who’ve played here, only Sanders sits on the top shelf without the hardware.

He gets a pass because (duh) he played for the Lions. Also because he played football, a game everyone understands can’t be tilted alone. Baseball can’t either, but Cabrera’s ranking suffers a bit for the longevity of his career.

Sanders walked away in his prime. Cabrera is five years past his.

Baseball affords an athlete in decline the way no other team sport does, and that’s hurt the perception of Cabrera the last few years. Still, when he was rolling, few have ever been better in the history of this city.

And no matter where you ultimately slide him into your list, he’ll always have a stretch of pure, raw, unadulterated greatness that’s unmatched by all but one other athlete in this city’s history.

There is Sanders. And there is Cabrera. No two athletes have ever been better here in their respective sports.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.  

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