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Sunday, March 4, 2012
Whole lot flying around at Tigers camp

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The manager sat at his desk on a windswept Sunday morning in March, a blank lineup card in front of him.

In the 3-hole, Jim Leyland then wrote the name: "CABRERA."

And in the 4-hole: "FIELDER."

Prince Fielder, Delmon Young and Miguel Cabrera
Prince Fielder, left, and Miguel Cabrera, right, are two of baseball's best power hitters.

The manager has scribbled out a lot of lineup cards in his day -- more than 3,000 of them, if you're counting at home. But even he had to admit it was fun scribbling out this one, with those two names hitting back-to-back.

"Yeah, it's kinda nice to stare at that a little bit," Leyland said, "before you go on."

Like the rest of us, the manager of these mighty Detroit Tigers doesn't know yet where the 2012 edition is heading. But there's an excellent chance that wherever it is, the men in the middle of his lineup card will write the script.

There are only two active players in their 20s in this entire sport who can say they have 200-plus career home runs and at least a .900 OPS. The Tigers will be running both of them out there this season. And no, we would not be talking about Clete Thomas and Danny Worth.

It'll be Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder sitting in the pilot and co-pilot's chairs now, gang. And it oughta be quite a ride.

Not that there aren't questions. Big questions.

Is Cabrera really going to be able to play third base the way a team with World Series dreams would want it played?

Is Prince going to be able to adapt to a whole new team in a whole new league, with a nine-year, $214 million contract hanging there, needing to be justified?

And is this defensively challenged infield, particularly at the corners, going to catch enough ground balls for the Tigers to fit all the other pieces together into the kind of puzzle they think they're in the midst of assembling?

These are questions all of us know-it-alls will be asking for weeks. Maybe months. Or at least until the Tigers stretch their lead in the AL Central to 30 games, at any rate. But the manager is ready for those questions. Every darned one of them.

"The bottom line is this," Leyland said. "No matter who's playing third, who's playing center, who's playing first, if you win, nobody talks about anything, other than how good your team's doing. If you don't win, it's because I didn't take somebody out, because I played this guy there, because I didn't hit for this guy. But I don't care about stuff like that. I like our team."

Then again, there wasn't a whole lot not to like Sunday, on a day the Tigers bombed the Braves 18-3 in their much-ballyhooed (well, in Lakeland, anyhow) Grapefruit League home opener.

The Tigers whomped nine home runs (yessirree, NINE) on a gale-force pitcher's nightmare of an afternoon -- six of those homers in two innings off one of the great pitching prospects on earth, Atlanta's Julio Teheran.

And in Teheran's first encounter with the artist still known as Prince, he found out what that $214 million hubbub was all about.

In Fielder's second trip to the plate in front of his adoring Polk County fan club, he mashed one of the most eye-opening home runs of the day -- a rocket that hit a third of the way up a light tower in right field. No truth to the rumor the tower shook for the next 45 minutes.

Asked afterward if he was worried that the Tigers might send him a bill for breaking their light tower, Fielder replied: "That's all right if they do. I hope I do it again. That's all right. They can just take it out of my check."

Yeah, it's true, as his manager noted about 17 times after this game, that the wind was roaring out to right field. But that, said Prince, was "not my fault. I didn't tell the wind to do that."

As prodigious a blast as it may have been, though, the question was: Was it even Prince's most memorable home run of the spring so far?

A few days ago, in batting practice on a back field beyond the confines of Joker Marchant Stadium, you might have heard that Fielder squashed a gargantuan home run that disappeared into the pine trees of Tigertown and came to rest more than 200 feet beyond the fence in right-center field.

It was so insane that the Detroit News' Tom Gage asked eyewitnesses where it finally stopped traveling, then measured to determine that spot was 611 feet from home plate. Yeah, 611.

OK, so the hops were included. But still -- 611 feet?

"At my age," Leyland quipped, "I don't even walk that far."

Asked Sunday if he believed that he'd hit a ball 611 feet, Fielder replied: "Absolutely not."

I can't wait to take BP in major league stadiums. I can't wait to see where all the balls go.

-- Miguel Cabrera

"But if that's what HE [Gage] wants to believe," Prince decided, upon further review, "I'll lie with it. But it absolutely didn't happen. …

"Next thing you know," Fielder said, throwing out one final addendum, "I was 5 when I was hitting home runs at Tiger Stadium. That didn't happen, either."

(Pause.)

"I was 7."

And that DID happen. Which is one of the parts of this Prince in Motown saga that's so cool. Twenty years ago, when Prince's father (Cecil) was the Tigers' resident heavyweight masher, his kid was already becoming a legend -- even to the other legends of Detroit city.

"I remember him taking batting practice and swinging the bat at that early age," said a Hall of Famer by the name of Al Kaline. "And I just said, 'Oh my God. I hope he's not going to play in the same league as kids his own age.'

"He had incredible bat speed, even back in those days," Kaline went on. "I can't remember anybody I've ever seen in all these years who, that young, could hit a ball with the speed he swung at."

For the record, Kaline's big league debut came 59 years ago. So by "all these years," ladies and gentlemen, we're taking in like 11 presidential administrations.

So Kaline has been enjoying this view for a long, long time now. And he's taken great joy not just in watching Prince this spring, but in admiring the exploits of Fielder's entire batting-practice hitting group: Prince, Cabrera, cult-hero thumper Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young.

"That may be," Kaline pronounced, "the best crew I've ever watched hit in batting practice. I watched them before our Florida Southern exhibition game. And it was who could hit the ball the furthest. They were hitting them over the berm, over the batting cages. I was worried about people who were across the runway, getting hit with a ball."

Hey, as well he should have been. Even Cabrera, one of the great BP monsters of our time, says he's in awe of his group.

"Unbelievable," he said. "I can't wait to take BP in major league stadiums. I can't wait to see where all the balls go."

But Fielder's arrival has made Cabrera's life tougher in other ways. And by that, of course, we mean: On the other side of the ball.

It's been five years since Cabrera last played third base regularly. But when he learned a few weeks back that Prince was about to displace him at first base, he was the first to raise his hand and volunteer to head back to third, from whence he came.

"I think it's important for this team," he said Sunday, "because we signed Prince and I don't want to be a DH. So I want to do this. I know I've got to do it because it's the only chance I've got to be in the infield. And I want to play the field."

So he's spent hours and hours this spring trying to re-train himself to play third base. But on Sunday, on the first ball hit to him in a real exhibition game, he clanked a roller to his left for his first E-5 since Leyland moved him off of third and across the diamond, two weeks into his first season as a Tiger.

"I thought it was good the way I moved and got in front of that ball," Cabrera said. "I was just too quick with my glove. But that's OK. The best way I'm going to learn is to get as many plays in as I can. I don't care if I make a lot of errors down here. I want to get as many days [at third] as I can because that's the only way to learn."

Cabrera has been out early every morning, working with infield coach Rafael Belliard -- on footwork, on getting better balance before he throws and on Belliard's No. 1 tenet of being a good third baseman: Concentration.

"Every play over there," Belliard said, "you've got to be ready. At third base, the ball gets there very quick."

And Belliard says he's happy with what he's seen so far. Not so much because Cabrera reminds him of Scott Rolen, or even Brandon Inge. It's because of the passion Cabrera has brought to his Third Base 101 class.

Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera is playing third base this spring for the first time since the 2008 season.

"He wants to, and that's big," Belliard said. "He says, 'I want to do it because I know I CAN do it.' It's not, 'THEY want me to do it.' That's a big difference."

And as long as Cabrera is willing to commit to the job, Leyland is willing to commit to him. The manager reiterated Sunday that he has no intention -- none -- of taking Cabrera out late in games for defense.

"He's a star," Leyland said. "And I'm not taking my star out. I'm not doing it. I think that would send the worst message I could send to Miguel Cabrera. And I'm not doing it. … I think that sends the wrong message to our psyche. This is our team. This is what we're going to go with. As I said at [Fielder's] press conference, we're going to monitor things. But that's the way it's going to be.

"All the second-guessers can have a good time with it and talk about it, and I don't blame them. It's a legitimate conversation. I'm not running from it. They can have a lot of fun with it. But that's just the way it is."

You never know, obviously, if "The Way It Is" will be "The Way It Will Be," forever and ever. But the season itself has a way of determining that. All Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have to do now, to keep it "The Way It Is," is hit enough and win enough to keep the second-guessers from drowning out the decision-makers.

And as those Detroit Tigers were sending nine home runs soaring into the Florida breeze on Sunday, who among us could say that wasn't a definite possibility?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter @jaysonst.