There’s a tragic side to Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera’s brilliant career. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

Like a lot of you who couldn’t be at the Detroit Tigers’ games toward the end of Miguel Cabrera’s chase for 3,000 hits, I recorded every game on my DVR so I could relive the moment if I missed it. Of course, I missed it. But only by a few minutes. After I saw the headlines, I raced to my DVR and watched the whole thing.

I rewound it and watched it again. And a third time. The brilliance of that controlled opposite-field slash. Former teammate Jose Iglesias rushing over to congratulate him. Fans’ cell phones poised like soldiers ready for the moment. I showed it to my wife and told my kids about it.

JEFF SEIDEL: Miguel Cabrera and Al Kaline tied together forever by more than their hits

But amid all those smiles and hugs on the field, I found myself growing strangely sad. Despite all of Cabrera’s on-field brilliance and exuberance, he largely remains a mystery to the reporters who chronicled his career and to the fans who cheered him on.

And that is a tragedy.

Part of an unfinished sentence

What do we really know about Miguel Cabrera, either as a person or as a player? Tell me one meaningful story that gives us insight into what makes him who he is on the field or as a person.

The fact is there aren’t any. Sure, he’s one of the greatest hitters who ever lived. And he’s a big kid. Ugh, yes, for heaven’s sake how many times did we hear that refrain over the last week? Miggy’s just a big kid. He’s silly and expressive with his teammates and with some opponents.

But what does that really tell us about him? It feels like part of an unfinished sentence. Miggy’s a big kid and … what?

[ Where Miguel Cabrera had the most hits, and who was most successful against him ]

And that’s the beguiling part. It feels like there’s something else there. Because how could there not be with such a baseball-hitting savant? Does he grind through tape for endless hours? Does he even know what tape is? How does he approach the batting cage? Is he superstitious?

Actually, once he gathered up about a dozen used batting gloves in his locker and I asked him what he was going to do with them. He said he was going to get rid of them. “No more hits in these,” he said with definitive surety, like they were spent batteries.

And believe me, I tried, we all tried, to talk to Miggy. Sure, with a request at the right time, he would sit down with a reporter for a few minutes. But I’ve never read a fruitful profile of him based on his own words or thoughts. Stories about Cabrera are often told through surrogates like coaches, teammates and opponents. But those stories are limited to merely marveling at his hitting majesty.

The most revealing thing I’ve ever heard or read Cabrera say about himself came in a Sports Illustrated interview with former Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg during his Triple Crown year in 2012.

“People don’t realize a lot of things about me,” Cabrera said. “A lot of things, they don’t know.”

Gee, I wonder why, Miggy.

Let me be clear about this: Cabrera has every right to share as much or as little of his life on and off the field as he chooses. Everyone, especially a star athlete, has a different threshold for how much privacy they want to keep.

But that still doesn’t keep Cabrera’s closed-off nature from being tragic, because he is a transcendent figure in one of the world’s best and most loyal sports towns. A town with a storied baseball franchise whose fans have wanted to embrace him to the fullest extent but were kept at arm’s length.

[ ‘Win this division’: Miguel Cabrera sets grand Tigers goals in wake of 3,000th hit ]

Miggy and me

My former bosses once suggested that, since I speak Spanish, maybe I could try to connect with Miggy by conducting an entire interview with him in Spanish. I occasionally spoke a little Spanish with Miggy, but I got the sense he didn’t appreciate that a reporter could understand his, shall we say, sometimes colorful banter with Latino teammates.

Besides, a common language doesn’t mean much when it comes to forging meaningful connections. It’s really about shared culture. I’m a fluent Spanish speaker, but I have an obvious American accent that exposes me as someone who didn’t grow up in Latin America. To a native Spanish speaker, I have all the elocutionary elegance of the Hulk trying to order escargots de Bourgogne at a French restaurant.

The baseball clubhouse is one of the most fascinating and daunting places in American sports. It’s a difficult room to negotiate because you must understand its rhythms, which depend on the season and a player’s performance. Some of the famously generous and accommodating Tigers I’ve covered were Brandon Inge, Alex Avila and Torii Hunter.

But Cabrera was the definition of mercurial. He might be yelling at the top of his lungs, playfully arguing with a teammate, then quickly turn sullen when approached by a reporter. He might get a huge hit to win a game, then dodge reporters entirely. He could be asked a mundane question and suddenly launch into a serious and thoughtful discussion that continued for several minutes.

[ Miguel Cabrera and the 3,000-hit club: Where the Tigers slugger ranks all-time ]

I’ve never been around another athlete who was harder to read than Cabrera. Maybe he should pick up poker after he hangs up his spikes.

While I could never count on Miggy to be helpful, I can honestly say he was never a jerk. I never felt he was mean or callous, even if he was shooting me or someone else down cold for an interview.

Nine years ago, I had the great idea of having my boss order me to cover a promotional appearance at a Livonia Meijer to launch Cabrera’s Miggy Salsa, which helped benefit his foundation and charitable work. About 100 fans showed up. As for media, it was just me and a local TV reporter who obviously had angered his boss for some reason.

We tried a little playful banter. Nothing. We asked if his salsa was better than Justin Verlander’s Fastball Flakes. He said he didn’t know. It felt like dragging an anchor through quicksand — at an event to promote his product!

Why the detachment?

I fully understand absolutely no one has sympathy for the media.  And I’m not around the team every day, so my experience may not be the same as someone who is. But I’m also not aware of a penetrating interview he’s given at any point in his career.

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And if Cabrera holds a grudge against the media for reporting various unflattering aspects of his personal life over the years, that’s totally his right. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame him. But there’s never been an explanation that has helped us understand his detachment, or his animosity, or his hostility, or who knows what?

It’s a damn shame. No, it’s a tragedy. Because the man who gave Detroit the considerable gift of his generational brilliance deserves to be appreciated to the fullest extent. Instead, Cabrera will be gone soon, never forgotten but also never remembered as well has he should have been.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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