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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.