An incredible journey for Miguel Cabrera

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
10:30
AM ET
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The MVP is in San Juan, Puerto Rico, these days, working his special baseball magic for Team Venezuela. But it tells you something about Miguel Cabrera that the Detroit Tigers are as acutely aware of his absence as they are of his presence.

Asked what he would miss most about his Triple Crown winner over the next week or two or three, while Cabrera is off at the World Baseball Classic, his manager, Jim Leyland, got that inimitable twinkle in his eye and quipped:

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
Mark Cunningham/MLB/Getty ImagesMiguel Cabrera has won the American League batting title in each of the past two seasons.
"You miss those three-run homers. I'll tell you that."

But in truth, of course, it isn't those homers he'll miss at all. Not in the Grapefruit League. What the manager admits he'll really miss is a guy who "lights up the room" every morning, just by walking into his own clubhouse.

"He's got a good face," Leyland said of Cabrera. "He's always fun to be around. He lights up the room when he comes in. And he's the best offensive force in baseball. That's not so bad, either.”

The funny thing is, the outside world doesn't know that Miguel Cabrera. The world sees the hulking figure who hits in front of Prince Fielder. The world sees a gifted hitter who has already done things with a bat, at age 29, that very few men have ever done.

But the upbeat vibe the MVP gives off these days has been a shockingly well-kept secret, even within the sport he plays and conquers.

Just one example: Asked the other day what surprised him most about his first spring training with the Tigers, Torii Hunter gave a shocking answer:

"How Miguel Cabrera is so freaking happy," Hunter said, laughing uproariously.

When you cover sports long enough, you learn to anticipate many of the answers you get back when you ask a question. But I didn't see that answer coming.

And it's an answer you certainly wouldn't have heard a mere two years ago, when Cabrera arrived in spring training under very different circumstances.

Days earlier, he'd been found by police on the side of a road in a broken-down 2005 Range Rover, a bottle of scotch on the front seat, according to the police report. He'd been arrested on a DUI charge, placed in what Major League Baseball categorized as "a multifaceted, professionally administered program" to address the "misuse of alcohol."

And there is no better word to describe Miguel Cabrera at that time than "embarrassed." Embarrassed by all the good he'd undone with a painful, public lapse that left his future hanging precariously over a ledge he'd chiseled all by himself.

That wasn't five years or 10 years ago, friends. That was just two years ago. Spring training, 2011. The lowest of all of this man's lows.

And now here he is, not even 800 days later, riding about as large a wave as any man in his sport could possibly ride:

Winner of the first Triple Crown in almost half a century. The first Tiger to win back-to-back batting titles since Ty Cobb. A man the great Al Kaline described this week as "the No. 1 right-handed hitter I've ever seen."

From that to this in two years. What a journey. What an incredible journey.

In most years, if Cabrera had won an MVP award with that remarkable plotline lurking in the background, that would have been the story. Wouldn't it?

Instead, the nation became so consumed with the Cabrera-versus-Mike Trout new-age/old-age MVP debate/civil war, we seemed to forget all about the amazing journey of the man who won. So let's take a few minutes to consider it now.

"You almost can't describe it," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' president and general manager who has watched, and overseen, every step of that journey. "I think it just shows the growth of human beings. It's sort of an explanation of life in many ways, because life's not easy at times. People have difficulties and have problems. And it's how you deal with those issues that's important.”

Dombrowski isn't permitted to speak about the specifics of how Cabrera dealt with his demons. No one in baseball is. It involved entering a program that included counseling and constant supervision. It involved doctors, baseball people and folks who spend their lives helping others battle various addictions.

You have to tip your cap to him because he's dealt with those [alcohol] issues, full speed ahead and head on. And I tip my cap to him because again, to me, it really does symbolize life, and what life is about.

-- Tigers president and GM Dave Dombrowski on Cabrera
But more than any of that, the success of the program depends on the commitment of the troubled human being involved. And for two years, Miguel Cabrera has been true to that commitment, not just to following the rules but to changing his life.

"You have to tip your cap to him because he's dealt with those issues, full speed ahead and head on," Dombrowski said. "And I tip my cap to him because again, to me, it really does symbolize life, and what life is about."

So regardless of whether you thought Trout should have won that MVP election or Cabrera should have won it, wouldn't this be an excellent time to take a step back from that debate, just for one moment, and consider the journey of one man's life?

It's not for any of us to say that it was that national embarrassment two years ago that served as the turning point in Miguel Cabrera's life or career. We barely know a single detail of anything that has happened to him off the field since.

But that shouldn't stop any of us from being able to utter these three words: What … a … story.

It was only a little more than five years ago that Cabrera got traded from the Marlins to the Tigers. It was an astonishing trade at the time. But looking back on it, it appears that Miguel Cabrera couldn't have landed in a more optimal situation, for every reason.

"It's been unbelievable, man," Cabrera said last weekend, on his final day in camp before departing for the WBC. "When I was in Miami, I didn't want to go from Miami when they traded me. But I got traded to a great organization. They've been great to me. I fit perfect on this team for the last five years."

He finds himself surrounded now by other players with big personalities and bigger names, men whose profiles somehow remain much larger than his: Justin Verlander, Fielder and Hunter, just to name three. So there has been very little pressure on Cabrera to be something he's not.

He is also surrounded by one of baseball's most diverse group of teammates. More than 25 percent of the Tigers' 40-man roster comes from his native Venezuela. Nearly half is of Latino heritage. So there's a comfort level to be found, for a man like this, that exists in few other clubhouses.

But Dombrowski and one of his top assistants, Al Avila, also go so far back in time with Cabrera, well before his trade to Detroit, that they have known him now for almost half his life. Both worked for the Marlins when Cabrera was first signed, back in 1999, at age 16. So there's a special affection and appreciation for him within this franchise that's unlike anything he would have experienced just about anywhere else.

So in many ways, Cabrera has been lucky to find himself in this place, at this time in his career. But over the past two years, he has been especially fortunate to be working for people who care about him in such a meaningful way.

Dombrowski says, though, that the support Cabrera has received has nothing to do with either his talent or their history together.

"As an organization, you have a responsibility to help someone under any circumstances," Dombrowski said. "But also you have it particularly if they're willing to help themselves. You try to help them. And it doesn't matter if they're a superstar or a utility infielder. I think that's just a responsibility that you have."

Well, however it has worked, and for whatever reasons, the bottom line is, it's hard to imagine it could possibly have worked any better for Miguel Cabrera.

How important was that journey in leading this man to the season he had last year? Again, that's for none of us to say. But Cabrera could not be more appreciative to have experienced all he has experienced -- and where.

Asked whether he could possibly have achieved what he has achieved anywhere else, he found no reason even to contemplate it.

"I never think like that," he said. "I believe I'm with the right people, in the right organization. So why do I have to think about what would have happened if I played somewhere else? I don't have time for that."

He is also past the point of rolling back the clock to reflect on last season anymore. If he's still thinking about that, he said, "I'm going to do nothing this year." So it's time to look forward, he said, to think about what he and his team will do next.

OK. Let's do that then. When his GM was asked where he thinks Miguel Cabrera goes from here, Dave Dombrowski summed it up in one word: "Cooperstown."

And there's no reason to think he's wrong.

Cabrera won't even turn 30 until next month. But he has already spun off nine seasons in a row with more than 25 home runs, a slugging percentage north of .500, a batting average north of .290, with more than 175 hits and at least 65 extra-base hits. Only one other player has had nine straight seasons like that at any age: Albert Pujols.

Cabrera also is working on nine consecutive seasons with an adjusted OPS-plus of 130 or better. Here are the names of the only other players to do that before age 30:

Cobb (11), Mel Ott (11), Mickey Mantle (10), Rogers Hornsby (10), Hank Aaron (9), Jimmie Foxx (9), Tris Speaker (9) and Pujols (9).

That phrase, "Cooperstown-bound," describes every one of them.

"He's a much better hitter than I ever was," said Kaline, a 15-time All-Star, former batting champ and Hall of Famer himself. "He's a much stronger hitter than I ever was. … You don't ever see him have a really bad at-bat. He might make outs or not hit the ball hard. But it's not like he ever gets fooled."

"He's a pleasure to watch," Dombrowski said, the admiration oozing out of him. "It's almost like an honor to watch him play. You just hope people don't take him for granted as they watch him."

For the next week or two or three, while he's away at the WBC, the folks around the Tigers won't have that pleasure. But as they've come to learn about their favorite MVP, that isn't all they'll miss.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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