Miggy looks back on Triple Crown, tips cap to Judge

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Has it really been a decade since Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown?  

The throne the Tigers designed for fans still sits on the concourse at Comerica Park. The highlights from that clinching night in Kansas City still seem fresh, with a younger Cabrera flaring balls out to right field with ease. 

Next week marks the 10th anniversary of that memorable run. The chase that Yankees star Aaron Judge is putting on for a Triple Crown this season is bringing it all back for Cabrera. 

“It’s going to be great to watch,” Cabrera said a few days ago. “He’s about to make history. He’s going to break the American League [home run] record, and for the Yankees, that’s really big. That’s special. It’s unbelievable.” 

No hitter in either league had won a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski batted .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBIs to lead the 1967 Red Sox to an American League pennant. Cabrera wasn’t leading in any of the categories heading into the All-Star break that year, and while he took over the lead in RBIs and batting average down the stretch, he had a fight on his hands to catch up in home runs. He homered just nine times before June 1, despite a ton of run production. 

Cabrera wasn’t thinking of that at the time. While he was climbing the batting leaderboards, the Tigers had ground to make up in the AL Central standings for most of the season. Detroit led the division by itself in just two days from April 24 to Sept. 24, and those days came in July. The Tigers had a three-game deficit as late as Sept. 18. 

“Back in the day, I was like focused about making it to the playoffs,” Cabrera said. “So that helped me a lot. I didn’t think about what the other guys were going to do, this or that. I was worried about, ‘Oh, I have to do my job here because we have to win these games.’ So it kind of helped me to not think too much about the average or the Triple Crown.” 

By contrast, the Yankees have led the AL East since late April, and Judge has been on a record home run pace for nearly as long.  

The other factor that Cabrera said helped his case was the lineup around him. The Tigers had signed Prince Fielder that winter following Victor Martinez’s season-ending knee injury, and his presence behind Cabrera in the lineup gave opponents a threat for consequences if they were to put Cabrera on base. 

“I think my best two years were with Prince,” Cabrera said. 

Said then-A’s manager Bob Melvin at the time: “When he’s going good, it’s very difficult to have to deal with him. And with the guy behind him, it makes it even more difficult.” 

Not until Oct. 1, when Cabrera hit his 44th home run at Kauffman Stadium to take over the league lead from Josh Hamilton, did he allow himself to think about the Triple Crown. 

“I was like, ‘Damn, I might win this,’” Cabrera said. 

Cabrera batted .333 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs that year from Sept. 1 on. It was his only month with double-digit homers, and six more RBIs than he had in any other month that season. Hamilton, who hit 21 home runs in April and May and seemed on a record pace, hit .245 with seven homers and 16 RBIs from Sept. 1 on. Curtis Granderson, Cabrera’s former teammate, homered nine times in that stretch. He homered twice on the final day to catch Hamilton, but fell one shy of Cabrera’s total. 

Justin Verlander vividly recalled that final day when sharing stories about his former teammate last year ahead of his 500th career home run. 

“As a starting pitcher, I wasn’t pitching that day, didn’t have anything to do,” Verlander said. “There were a few of us who were monitoring if there was anybody else who could possibly catch him that day. I was really nervous. I asked him for something from that game, because I think it’s pretty rare in this game when you reach a milestone like that that you know may never happen again. I’m like, ‘Miggy, man, no matter what, can I get anything from this game? I don’t need you to sign it. I just need something from you to remember this by.’ 

“[Manager Jim] Leyland did a great job of taking Miggy out of the game once we realized everything was secured, gives him the spotlight. And when he came in the dugout, he gathered his stuff, and he wasn’t emotional or anything, he was just happy-go-lucky. And he grabbed his helmet and gave it to me. I didn’t expect it to be then, I expected it to be later. And I still have it. I cherish it.  

“After that, we sat in the locker room, and we had the game pretty in hand or we clinched the playoffs, so they took a few of the guys and we went into the locker room, had a few cigars and took it all in. Miggy didn’t do a lot of talking, but we sure let him know about special it was to us. Miggy doesn’t really like to talk too much about that stuff, so Prince and I did the talking for him, like this is so [freaking] cool. 

“I’ll never forget that, after this man completed a feat that I don’t even know too many people thought was possible. To be able to be part of something that is that rare and special, as an outsider, that was special to me.” 

Not since Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio in 1937 had a hitter batted .330 with 200 hits, 44 homers and 139 RBIs in a season. Nobody has done it since.

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