Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera opens up in return to Miami, where legendary career began

Detroit Free Press

MIAMI — Miguel Cabrera turned around and fixed his eyes on the scoreboard.

A walk-off home run to center field off right-hander Al Levine in his MLB debut on June 20, 2003 — more than 7,300 days ago. A sliding catch in left field. Another home run, and another home run, and another home run. A diving stop at third base, and then a few more home runs.

A subtle smile appeared on Cabrera’s face as the video tribute, produced by the Miami Marlins, replayed his epic battle with seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series.

“It was here that I started (my career) and was given the opportunity to play in the big leagues,” Cabrera said in Spanish. “I signed in 1999, and in this last year, for me to be here is something extraordinary. I’m really happy.”

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The rookie Cabrera beat the veteran Clemens — unfazed by the matchup, even after an up-and-in fastball nearly hit him in the face — and blasted an opposite-field home run. The final clip showed a 20-year-old Cabrera running from the outfield with his right arm in the air in celebration of winning the 2003 World Series.

It’s his only World Series championship in 21 MLB seasons.

“I had a lot of luck in winning in my first year in the big leagues,” Cabrera said. “I’m very grateful and happy that happened. As you play more games, as you face more players, you gain more experience, and your level of play increases a bit more.”

Cabrera returned to Miami on Friday for the Tigers’ first road series against the Marlins since April 2016. The 40-year-old — a future Hall of Famer with more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs — spent his first five seasons, from 2003-07, with the Marlins before playing his final 16 seasons, from 2008-23, with the Tigers.

His final game is scheduled for Oct. 1 in Detroit.

“I have never thought of giving up,” Cabrera said about the timing of his retirement. “I have never thought of throwing in the towel, but instead to keep fighting, regardless of the others who say, ‘Why doesn’t he retire?’ My time has come to retire this year, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Before Friday’s series opener, Cabrera held a 21-minute press conference in front of more than 50 reporters. He opened up about his five-year career with the Marlins, a fellow superstar from Venezuela, his final season, his future in baseball and a missing piece of his legacy.

Yes, Cabrera plans to stick around in some capacity.

“I want to stay in baseball,” said Cabrera, who has considered working in the Venezuelan Winter League and the Tigers’ organization. “Hopefully, that will happen. I’d like to continue helping young guys grow and develop their game. We’ll see. I try to live day to day to day. Don’t think in the past, don’t try to control what you can’t control right now. Let’s hope everything works out and good things come in the future.”

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The flashbacks to Cabrera’s five years with the Marlins were another reminder of the player he used to be in the prime of his career. A lot has changed — from his physique to his performance — but his infectious smile, childlike laughter and love of the game remain the same.

A multitude of injuries — most notably, chronic pain in his right knee — sparked the downfall of his on-field production in the late 2010s. Cabrera, once a feared hitter who combined consistent contact and power, is hitting .245 with one home run and 15 RBIs through 59 games in his final season.

“In terms of my performance, I don’t know if it’s due to all the injuries I’ve had during all this time and not paying attention to my body when I was in pain and continuing to play,” Cabrera said. “Back then, nobody said anything because I was producing, but as time goes on, the body wears down, the knees wear down.”

When Cabrera was a teenager, fellow Venezuelan Andrés Galarraga — a first baseman who played 19 MLB seasons, from 1985-2004 — said he believed the kid from the La Pedrera neighborhood in Maracay would break all his records.

Cabrera leads Venezuelan-born players in hits (3,134), doubles (617), home runs (508), RBIs (1,862) and runs (1,541). He is the greatest Venezuelan in baseball history. Those legendary numbers began piling up in 2003 with the Marlins.

Can you believe it’s been 20 years?

“Yes, I can believe it,” Cabrera said. “I can feel it, too, in my body.”

An acclaimed Venezuelan baseball reporter, Mari Montes, asked Cabrera to predict who would break his records, just like Galarraga predicted Cabrera would dethrone him in the history books.

Cabrera interrupted the question.

It was the only question he interrupted at the press conference.

To him, the answer is obvious: Ronald Acuña Jr., a 25-year-old outfielder from the Atlanta Braves. He already has 683 hits and 143 home runs across 615 games over a six-year MLB career.

“The talent that Acuña has exceeds a very high level,” Cabrera said. “I had the opportunity to see him in Detroit. He had some (hard-hit balls) like those that hadn’t been seen in years. It’s like that with (Juan) Soto, with (Shohei) Ohtani. It makes you want to buy a ticket for those players.”

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The Marlins honored Cabrera before Friday’s series opener with a pregame ceremony, inviting Cabrera and his family on the field. Former Marlins players and teammates Jeff Conine, Álex González, Wes Helms, Omar Infante, Martín Prado and Aníbal Sánchez joined him on the field, too.

Cabrera received a custom-designated, hand-etched humidor and cigar box as well as a one-of-a-kind customized bottle of Santa Teresa Bicentenario Ultra añejo rum, Cabrera’s favorite rum.

“It’s incredible that (my Venezuelan countrymen) take the time to share those moments with me,” Cabrera said of the gifts and recognition on his farewell tour, “and we can treasure that memory for the rest of our lives. But we’re going to wait and see a little bit. Maybe this (series in Miami) will be No. 1.”

For Cabrera’s first plate appearance Friday, the Marlins played “Pa’Que Retozen” by Tego Calderón as the 21-year MLB veteran strolled from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. It was his original walk-up song when he debuted in 2003.

That first June night, he went hitless in his first four at-bats before hitting the winning home run in the 11th inning. On Friday night, however, Cabrera finished 0-for-3 with a hit-by-pitch.

The Tigers lost, 6-5, to the Marlins in the series opener at loanDepot Park, dropping to 12 games under .500 and remaining 7½ games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. The Tigers — operating as sellers as the trade deadline approaches — would need something approaching a miracle to advance to the postseason, which hasn’t happened since the 2014 campaign.

The playoff drought is a reminder of what’s still missing from Cabrera’s legacy.

“Winning a championship with Detroit,” he said.

Nonetheless, the Cabrera-centric celebration in Miami is set to continue Saturday with the Marlins’ Venezuelan Heritage Celebration. There will be another on-field pregame ceremony, and 19-year MLB infielder Dave Concepción — Cabrera’s favorite player growing up — will throw the ceremonial first pitch.

The entire three-game series, which Cabrera described as a weekend-long fiesta, has been dedicated to one of the greatest right-handed hitters to play the game of baseball.

He stood the test of time.

The end is near, but Cabrera is savoring every moment.

“I always imagined being consistent in my career,” Cabrera said. “I never imagined 20 years like this. But my mind was always focused on being consistent in what I do, trying to do my job and producing. That’s the important thing at this level of baseball.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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