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Once in a Lifetime

In October 1988, I fell in love with baseball.

Being born and raised in England, I didn’t know much about the game.  I knew that batters had to hit the ball and not be caught, I knew there was something called a home run and I knew that Babe Ruth was a big deal, and that was pretty much it.

So when one day I found myself watching a one hour condensed show on Game 1 of that year’s world series, I didn’t really understand about starters vs relievers, had no idea what a closer was and the terms pinch-hitter and walk-off were as familiar to me as sanskrit.

And yet, when Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate to deposit Dennis Eckersley into the seats in right and win Game 1 for the Dodgers, I instantly fell in love with baseball and he became my personal baseball hero.

The Oval Cricket Ground in London

The Oval Cricket Ground in London, with unusual dimensions

Fast forward six years.  When I moved from England to Detroit, one of the things I was looking forward to most was seeing my first live MLB game.  By that time, I’d been playing softball for several years, and traveling to softball tournaments in the U.S., but had never seen a game live, with the exception of an exhibition game at The Oval in 1993, when a group of what were predominantly minor leaguers from the Mets and Red Sox were sent to London to try and rustle up interest in Europe in the aftermath of the 1993 strike.

So imagine my delight on arriving in Detroit when I found out that Kirk Gibson was playing for the Tigers.  Admittedly he only played for them for a couple months before retiring, but I got to see him play.  Indeed, I got to see him hit his last home run.

Last Opening Day at Tiger Stadium

Last Opening Day at Tiger Stadium

I’ve been a Tigers fan since the first moment I walked into old Tiger Stadium in May of 1995.  And to be honest, being a Tigers fan was tough.  We sucked in the 90s.  The ball park was usually three quarters empty.  When there was a good crowd, more than 50% were Indians fans who made the drive from Cleveland because all the Tribe’s home games were sold out.

But there were a few things to remember.  Watching Tram and Lou play together for the last time, being at the game when Sparky suddenly decided to pinch hit for Cecil and everyone knowing that meant he’d been traded.  But for the most part, the team was so lousy that my memories are of how wonderful the stadium was, and hearing Ernie Harwell’s voice echoing through the stands.

I moved back to England for several years after 1998, but I always followed the Tigers through the wonderful new invention of the internet.  I even flew over for Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, leaving England on Friday, watching the game on Saturday and flying back Sunday, landing at 7.30 Monday morning and going straight in to work (where I was a complete waste of space all day long).

When I finally moved back to Michigan, the Tigers were a better team.  Their owner, Mike Ilitch, was taking the same approach to the Tigers that he had taken for 15 years with the Red Wings – he wanted to build a winner.  And it was with that in mind that in the same year that I moved to Michigan, someone else moved here as well.  That man was Miguel Cabrera.

I remember everoneone thinking that this was a good move for the Tigers.  Miggy was in his mid 20s at the time and had already become a star, but I don’t think anybody, ANYBODY, knew that the kid who had just arrived was going to turn into arguably the greatest hitter any Tigers fan had ever seen.

Miggy’s first few years were impressive.  His first season as a Tiger he hit 37 homers with a .292 average, enough for Tiger fans to take him to their hearts.  And while over the following 3 years he always hit 30 HR, always hit over .300, and always knocked in 100 ribeyes, he never started an All-Star game.

Cabrera's 2011 arrest. AP Photo/St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office

Cabrera’s 2011 arrest. AP Photo / St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office

His on field heroics were occasionally marred by somewhat ugly incidents from his personal life.  An altercation with his wife in 2009 after a night of heavy drinking which led to a poor on field performance in a key game caused a few complaints.  His DUI arrest in early 2011 caused a few more.  And, to be honest, we had all seen careers fall apart before when a player was immature.  Would Miggy be another MLB cautionary tale of wasted opportunity?

But in 2011, everything started to change. and it started with Miggy’s journey towards getting sober.  And that first year was not easy.  The Tigers made the playoffs and while Miggy hit a career high .344 to win the A.L. Batting Title, his power and production numbers were down, barely scraping into the 30HR / 100RBI club.  Don’t get me wrong, these are still very good numbers, but when the 2012 season began, many Tigers fans were anxious to see which Cabrera would show up – great Miggy or still-troubled Miggy.

As it turned out, neither showed up.  Instead we got God Miggy, as Miguel Cabrera truly began his quest to become arguably the greatest Tiger of all time, and the most feared hitter of his generation.

Despite the numbers he started to put up, fans around baseball still failed to recognize him as being truly a great player when they voted Adrian Beltre the All-Star Game starter at 3rd base.  To be fair to Beltre, Cabrera had only just moved from 1B to 3B when Prince Fielder arrived in Detroit, so he was not immediately familiar at the hot corner.  As such, it seemed he would have to do something superhuman to get his name recognized in the upper levels of the stratosphere.  And as the season progressed, we slowly became aware that superhuman was what we were seeing.

It had been 45 years since anyone had achieved baseball’s offensive holy grail, the Triple Crown.  Some commentators had talked about the fact that Cabrera had a shot as early as July, thought without any real conviction.  However, as the season ground into the dog days of August, the wistful handful of comments became a steady flow, then a torrent, and then a flood.

Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown Tribute 2012

Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown Tribute 2012

It pretty much went down to the final day. Cabrera had an unassailable lead in Runs Batted In, but could still conceivably have been caught in Home Runs (by New York Yankee and former Tiger Curtis Granderson and Texas slugger Josh Hamilton), and in average (by  Angels rookie phenom Mike Trout).

When the season’s final game arrived, Tigers Manager Jim Leyland didn’t cop out by sitting Cabrera to protect his average, he played him.  And though Miggy was hitless on the night until replaced to a standing ovation in the 4th inning, he finished the season with a .330 average and 44 home runs, just enough to become only the 3rd living Triple Crown winner.

He was, rightly in my opinion, named the A.L. M.V.P., beating Mike Trout in a battle of old school vs sabermetric analysis and the question then became what would he do the following year.  The answer should have been clear when Miggy abstained from a clubhouse pennant celebration even though the dowsing champagne was non-alcoholic.  This was clearly now a complete baseball player, and one with singularly sharp focus and dedication.

As I write this in mid-August 2013, it has become clear that we are seeing a grandmaster at the very height of his powers.  While second in HR to Baltimore’s Chris Davis (39 vs 44, though the gap is closing), Miggy leads the A.L. in RBI (117 to 113) and average (.358 to .335).  People are talking about the possibility of a second straight Triple Crown (which is possible), and a second straight MVP (which at his current pace is likely, barring injury).

Last night, Cabrera smacked his 39th homer of the year, a walk-off solo shot to lift the Tigers 6-5 over the Royals at Comerica.  At the end of the on-field interview after the home run, as Cabrera walked back to the dugout, the interviewer handed back to the studio by saying  “Fellas, he is the best hitter on planet earth”.

The jury is no longer out on who is the best hitter in the game.  It’s not even worth talking about.

Miggy

Cabrera started at 3rd base in the All-Star game for the first time this year, and the vote wasn’t even close.

Opposing managers almost without exception identify him as the best hitter in baseball.  His peers are no less effusive.  And play by play announcers and color analysts from Joe Buck to Ken The Hawk Harrelson are filled with admiration.

I hope the fans in Detroit, and baseball fans around the league, truly appreciate what they are seeing here.  Because what they are seeing is a player performing at a level that people will still talk about long after we are all dead..and…gone.

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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Baseball, Sports

 

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The Ballpark with Thomas, my son

I don’t often get back to Michigan, at most maybe once a year

We’ve lived in Britain since ’98 and Motown’s a long way from here.

But in August last year, 2006, we came over for a 3 week stay

To visit my in laws and while we were there, we saw the Tigers play.

With friends on Sunday afternoon for the Tribe game.

On a brilliant Sunday with several friends, my daughter, my son and my wife,

Detroit beat the Tribe in the very first ball game my son had seen in his life.

They were giving out ‘Pudge’ bats to kids that day, and Tom still has his at home

And later that week I went out and bought him the very first mitt of his own.

He didn’t know which hand to wear it on, but was eager to give it a try,

So I taught him to get down behind a ground ball and use both hands to catch a pop fly.

We watched all the Tigers games live on Fox, and SportsCenter for all the best plays

And I told him stories of great former players like Ty Cobb, and Gehrig, and Mays.

Then as we were watching TWIB one day he said to me out of the blue:

“Dad, can we go see the Tigers again, but this time just me and you?”

There were only a few days before we went home but I said that I’d try just the same

And managed to get us a couple of tix for the Thursday night Rangers game.

As we drove downtown on I-75, he just couldn’t sit still in his seat,

And he talked about Pudge (his favorite player) and of Zumaya bringing the heat.

We arrived just in time for Rangers BP, and found a spot near at the wall

Where we both put out mitts on and patiently waited for a chance to catch a fly ball.

Tom waits patiently at the wall

I told him that once, a few years before, I’d caught a home run at a game,

And also that catching a ball was quite rare, but he wanted to try just the same

After 25 minutes we’d had no luck at all so I said “Shall we go to the store?

We can buy you a cap”, but he looked up and said “Can we wait just a few minutes more?”

So we stayed by the wall near the foul pole in right, with all the hits going to left

But Tom wouldn’t budge and he stared towards home with his mitt clutched tight to his chest.

Then a lefty came up and I prayed for a ball that was inside, and that he might pull it –

And right at that second he turned on a pitch and it shot towards right like a bullet.

It started out looking like going to our right, but then started curving a lot.

And I know from its flight it was going to be close and that this would be our only shot.

Loud shouts of “INCOMING” came from behind but no way would I let this one drop.

I reached out my arm above my son’s head, and the ball hit my mitt with a pop.

Tom spun around quickly and stared at the seats to see where the missile had gone

And was ready to charge off and look for his prize, but then he heard me say “Hey, Tom!”

He looked up at me and I’ll never forget that look of pride and love

As I stretched out my hand with the baseball in it, and dropped it into his glove.

Tom's patience is rewarded

Shouts of “Nice catch Dad!” came from all round, and Tom’s grin was about a mile wide

And as long as I live I’ll always remember, and get kind of choked up inside.

That wonderful night when Tom got his ball, and to cap it all off the Tigs won!

I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect night at the ballpark with Thomas, my son.

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2012 in Personal

 

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