Handle with care
For such a big star, Miguel Cabrera is still baseball's biggest enigma
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 1 MLB Preview. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 1 MLB Preview. Subscribe today!
MIGUEL CABRERA, THE REIGNING AMERICAN LEAGUE MVP and baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, is mad at me.
He won't say as much. In fact, he'll deny it when I ask him, straight up, at lunch in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in February. "I'm not mad," the Tigers third baseman mutters through pursed lips even though everything about his demeanor -- arms folded tightly over his stomach, eyes fixed on his crossed ankles, burly back slouched so low in his seat it'd take a bulldozer to pry him out -- suggests otherwise.
Before I managed to completely alienate one of America's most accomplished sports stars, Cabrera had been open and animated in sharing his journey from the pebbled fields of Maracay, Venezuela, to his recent standout season. This from a man who, while absolutely fearless in the batter's box, is also fiercely protective of his privacy and rarely opens up to anyone outside of a small circle of family and friends. Cabrera entrusted me with his story in part because he'd come to know me and my own American tale. Like Cabrera's, my family migrated here from a faraway place, arriving in limbo -- no longer a part of our old world, not quite at home in the new one. For a short while, I dwelled inside his bubble. Now I'm being shoved out by its keeper, who's either oddly paranoid or rightfully furious, depending on your opinion of my crime: asking him about his past issues with alcohol.
"Don't be mad, Miguel."
He doesn't respond. The interview is over. With 30 hours to go in my tour of Cabrera's world, my host will say nothing else to me aside from "hola" and "thank you." And in neither case will Cabrera look me in the eye.
ON A FROZEN January morning in Detroit, a bus full of Tigers sits outside the players' hotel. The team is heading out on its Winter Caravan, an annual meet-and-greet with fans at sites across the state. And we're all waiting on Cabrera.
He has earned the grace period, of course. The 29-year-old is coming off one of the greatest seasons in baseball's modern era, having led his Tigers to a runner-up finish in the World Series while also becoming the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to top the league in home runs, RBIs and batting average. And that hallowed Triple Crown is just the latest addition to a dazzling collection of achievements -- seven All-Star selections, two batting titles, two home run titles and a World Series win accrued over a 10-year career that has earned Cabrera every bit of his $152 million contract as well as the admiration of his peers, who in November voted him Player of the Year.
Now all eyes are on Cabrera, who arrives a few minutes late, dressed in a black hoodie and baggy jeans. A Tigers staffer facilitates a curbside introduction. "What's up, Miguel!" I yelp. "Hello," he replies. "Looks like I'll be bugging you for a while," I add. "Thank you," he says. That's it. Cabrera slaps five with his boys and claims the back row. I sit near the front.
I'd been warned that to strangers Cabrera is a man of few words. He loathes interviews and rarely ever warms up to outsiders. Still, Cabrera's reps felt that with all his success recently, the time was right for their client's first all-access profile. But first, they cautioned, I'd have to get him to like me. That's why I'm in Detroit -- to be likable.
With Cabrera inaccessible, I cozy up to centerfielder Austin Jackson and ask him about his teammate's shyness. "It's funny to hear that he's shy," he says. "With us he's the opposite -- each day he comes in with a smile and a great attitude." Justin Verlander agrees: "He's kind of guarded, but once you get to know him, he's a very jovial guy." Adds GM Dave Dombrowski, who's known Cabrera for 14 years: "We'd like to see him retire as a Tiger. He's a great player, but it's the way he handles himself, his smile, the way he is with the youngsters -- he represents your organization in fine fashion."
The consensus is clear: Cabrera is a goofy guy who plays baseball with unbridled joy, puts only family before team, respects his teammates and adores children. But he hates the spotlight.
Unfortunately for him, that's exactly what the Winter Caravan is all about. Its second stop is the North American International Auto Show, where the General Motors display area is teeming with folks eager to ask the quiet Tiger questions. How does it feel to be MVP? "Awesome." They laugh. How was it moving to third base? Cabrera points to his now-wide orbs. "See my eyes?" They laugh some more.
Cabrera's shift to third last season to accommodate incoming first baseman Prince Fielder was a huge hit with the locals. A first baseman since 2008, Cabrera began training for his new job immediately upon Fielder's signing last January, staying late to take grounders during spring training. "That kind of sacrifice for the good of the team rubs people in a good way, especially in a blue-collar town like Detroit," says Andrew Travis, 27, a fan. Nobody appreciated it more than Fielder. "For a superstar to do what he did for me, they have to have confidence in their skills and be willing to work hard," Fielder says. "I'll forever be grateful for Miguel's sacrifice."
This is why the Tigers adore Cabrera. "It starts with the fact that he's a great kid," manager Jim Leyland explains, "but don't kid yourself -- these guys are smart enough to know they're playing with one of the greatest players of all time. That's part of the equation."
Still, few of Cabrera's teammates truly know him. Even with Verlander, his teammate of five years, Cabrera can be prone to awkwardness. Traveling in a chauffeured SUV at one point during the Caravan, I watched the two men sit in stone-cold silence for nearly 10 minutes, the slugger twiddling on his phone. Finally Verlander lobbed an ice-breaker: "Whatchya watching?" No response. Another excruciating minute later, Miggy mercifully offered the pitcher his phone. On the screen was an image of Cabrera's baby son, a tiny bat in his hands. Verlander laughed heartily. "That's awesome," he said.
Back at the auto show, the rest of the team scatters to gawk at the latest rides. But Miggy couldn't look more bored. "Not a car guy?" I ask him. "Naw," Cabrera replies. I concur: "Waste of f -- ing money." He nods. "You curse so much," he says. Damn, strike one.
Cabrera eventually sees something he likes, a Jeep Wrangler Sand Trooper. My high school ride was a '92 Wrangler, I tell him, "the girls f -- ing loved it." Whoops, strike two. I'm toast.
But wait -- Cabrera's smiling. Then he floats a question out of nowhere: "You do archery?"
IT'S A WARM winter day in Fort Lauderdale, two weeks after the Detroit trip, and Cabrera is staring down a synthetic deer at Bass Pro Shops. He lifts his compound bow and lets the carbon-fiber arrow fly.
It hits the deer's "kill zone." If it were real, it'd be dead. "Mejor," Cabrera says. He's happy.
The itinerary for our two days together is vague but includes a lunchtime interview, dinner with the Cabrera family and archery, Cabrera's latest hobby. He used to play golf. He didn't enjoy golf because he is a terrible golfer. Miggy is a great archer. Miggy loves archery.
As Dombrowski put it, "Miguel doesn't like to be embarrassed." The GM was citing the extra work Cabrera put in at third base, but he could've been talking about any of Cabrera's pursuits. "When I do something," Cabrera says, "I don't want to be second best. That's the right way." And that way leads to a lot of overtime. While it is true that Cabrera is blessed with physical gifts -- a hawk's vision, a bear's legs, a pianist's hands, the torso of a lumberjack -- he is a worker and, says Dombrowski, "an encyclopedia of pitchers." Cabrera studies their hitting charts, intensely observes their pitches from the dugout and, legend has it, remembers every pitch by every starting pitcher he's ever faced. But there's a limit: He doesn't like game tape. It leads to overthinking, and he thinks too much as it is. "My wife says I don't listen when she talks," he'll explain, "but when people talk, I'm in my own world. I think, always thinking."
Cabrera doesn't overthink his archery. He picked up the sport last year, because hunting is a pastime of his kin, and kept at it because he found it relaxing. In November he spent the tense hours prior to the MVP announcement at this range with his agent of more than six years, Diego Bentz, who is with us this day to serve as communication facilitator and protector. But things are going well. I'd even surprised Cabrera earlier with my choppy but excellently pronounced Spanish. ("Mi espanol es baser.") He seemed confused, so I explained: I acquired English as a child, and when you're fluent in multiple languages early enough, you can nail pronunciation in any tongue. He nodded knowingly.
After several rounds, Cabrera extends his weapon to me. Then he hides beside a bench in the back. "He gonna kill us," he warns.
And he may be right. I lift the heavy bow and let loose on a wolf.
"Where did it go?" a clerk shouts. I have no clue where it went. Nobody does. "They can't find your arrow!" Cabrera howls. It'll be several minutes before the range's four-man crew locates the thing, high up the back wall. "Get the ladder!" This is embarrassing. "Good job," Cabrera says, once he stops cackling.
LIKE THE ARCHERY range, Islamorada Fish Company is a comfortable spot for Cabrera. The staff knows to give him a corner table where nobody can bother him. The plan, hatched with Cabrera's reps, is to play the interview by ear: If he isn't feeling it, hit pause, take a short off-the-record break. But Cabrera is feeling our first topic.
"Love movies," he says. "It starts when I met my girlfriend in Venezuela." That girl, now wife Rosangel, was 13 at the time. The teenagers spent most dates at the theater, and six years after they met, Cabrera, by that point a Marlin, returned to Venezuela to claim the only woman he'd ever loved. "Because we were so young," Cabrera says, "her family doesn't like it. But we said, 'This is what we want.'" Miguel and Rosangel wed in a church, "and when we return to U.S.," he continues, "we go to any movie. And we buy some movies." Translation of "some": 1,000 DVDs. Cabrera loves comedies. Rosangel prefers scary movies. "I get bad dreams," he says. "Like, Se7en -- o'my god, that's scary."
The Cabreras have three children: Christopher, 1; Isabella, 2; and Rosangel, 7, whom everyone calls Brisel. "When Brisel was born, I was 22." He laughs. "I was excited to play with her." If there is one thing that Cabrera does better than baseball, it's playtime. That includes years of goofy "conditioning drills" with Dombrowki's now-13-year-old boy, Landon, "paper baseball" with his baby cousins and, in South Florida, basketball with the neighborhood kids. But one playpen stands above the rest. "In Venezuela we always talk about Disney World," he says. "Now I go every chance -- a dream come true." Cabrera can't count the number of times he's been to the park, but his teammates say it's a lot, and sometimes he drags them with him. He buys his own Mickey T-shirts and waits in line with everyone else. "At Disney you can do anything," he says, still in awe. "So much fun."
The Tigers were right; Cabrera is a big kid. And kids like to hang with their own. "They're happy," he says. "They make you happy." And perhaps most important to Cabrera, their motives are easily understood. "They always speak the truth," he says. "Adults, no. When you grow up, people don't speak the truth. You can see, when you trust people, you help them." Then, he continues, "they do something bad." Cabrera isn't agitated when he says this and, in the moment, seems to be speaking to a litany of betrayals, the kind that come when you're young, famous and wary. Trust is a topic Cabrera returns to often. Trust, he will insist, is why his inner circle is limited to long-timers from Maracay. And trust, or rather the lack thereof, is why when Cabrera swings his last bat for money, he will move back there.
Jose Miguel Cabrera was raised in a small home with one bathroom, a kitchen and two rooms in a community of five homes where extended family lived. Cabrera bunked with his younger sister, Ruth, but preferred to spend most of his time with a rowdy brood of friends who threw punches on the diamond and called Cabrera cabeza tren (train head) for his large noggin. Cabrera disliked the handle but knew "if you get mad, they call you that every day. Can't show it."
Young Cabrera learned to keep his thoughts bottled up, and the older one isn't much different. His parents, he says, are divorced. His father, Miguel, ran an auto shop. His mom, Gregoria, was a longtime veteran of the national softball team but left her son's training to his uncle, David Torres, a former minor league baseball player. Cabrera was 15 when he tried out for Louie Eljaua, then a Marlins scout. Impressed by the boy's sure fielding, cannon arm and spring-loaded bat, Eljaua called scouting director Al Avila, who traveled to Venezuela to watch Cabrera play before phoning his boss. "This kid's a special talent," Avila told then-Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski.
At 16 Cabrera signed with the Marlins for $1.8 million. At 20 he smacked a walk-off homer in his big league debut. Four months after that, he was in his first World Series, squaring off against Roger Clemens. True to form, the Rocket began by firing a fastball past Cabrera's chin. The kid stared at the legend and then got to work, with two swinging strikes, another ball and two foul-offs before eventually driving the seventh pitch over the rightfield wall. "It still makes me smile," recalls Mike Redmond, his former teammate and the current Marlins manager. "I looked at Jeff Conine and said, 'This kid isn't afraid of anything.'"
When I ask Cabrera whether he was afraid facing Clemens, he shrugs and says, "Naw." Okay then, I counter, "What's your biggest fear on earth?"
"People. You can't trust people."
I ask Cabrera whether he'd been wronged by anyone in particular. Bentz lends a hand: "When Miguel gets on the plane for America, he's a kid dealing with a new language, culture, pressure. Then he wins the World Series. Now everybody wants something, here and in Venezuela. Miguel is loyal. He expects the same." Cabrera won't elaborate except to say that, for him, "baseball was easy. Outside is the hard part."
When Cabrera arrived in the States, he shared an apartment in Florida with five Latin American A-ball players. Back then, "I speak no English -- zero. You can't do anything because you don't go places where you have to speak. You go to eat, you eat same thing: Burger King, No. 3. They ask, 'French fries?' You say yes. They ask for size, you say yes. They ask, 'Medium or large?' You say yes." First he signed up for English classes. Later he devoured newspapers at the advice of Adrian Gonzalez, his Rookie-ball roommate. "People make fun of me because they say I see only the pictures," he says, "but I learn to see the words they say."
But just as Cabrera was growing more comfortable with the language, as well as the forgiving ears of his teammates, he was rejected by the Marlins. In December of 2007, after his fifth season with the ballclub, he recalls in a hushed tone, "I was driving and the GM and manager call me, tell me I was traded to Tigers. I ask, 'Why? I don't want to leave. I want to stay. I feel comfortable.' They say that's the way it is." Cabrera would come to love Detroit -- not the cold, but the "humble values" of the organization and the locals. But his discomfort with the reactions to his struggles with the English language still makes him nervous. Which is why, even though his English is just fine, distrust keeps him quiet. "If I say something wrong, it's a big thing on Twitter."
Bentz chimes in again. "This offseason is different," he says. "A lot of people are around him. You have to be careful."
I REPEATEDLY OFFER Cabrera a courtesy timeout. With each, he counters with, "I'm good." It'll be an hour before we order lunch, and when his meal arrives -- grouper with a baked potato -- he ignores it, and not because of his weight. Cabrera laughs at our obsession with his scale readings. "When they call me fat I only 255, and I weighed more [than that] when people say I'd lost 25 pounds!" (Little Gordito, as Leyland calls him, is at 268 now, and the skipper is fine with that.)
At various times, Cabrera and I bond over the similarities in our stories. When the Alipours left Iran for America, we sprinted to Disneyland every chance we got, and in those early years we dined at only one place -- Burger King. My empathy seems to comfort him, but he really doesn't need much prodding. "I trying to let people know me better," he says. In fact, he's gaining a reputation around the league for being an in-game chatterbox. Says one starting pitcher: "From the first pitch, he's talking: 'What's up, you want a base hit here?'" Adds a reliever: "He has the best personality in the game." And Cabrera puts it to good use in regular meetings with the Tigers' Latino prospects. "I talk about their girlfriend back home," he explains. "I say, 'Be a f -- ing man! If you no work hard, no get money, your girlfriend get happy with another man over there!'"
"After that meeting," he adds, "half the guys call their girlfriends and say, 'Tell me the truth, what are you doing!'"
Cabrera is on fire now, and we're laughing as much as speaking. But we've been speaking for two hours, and I have one last topic to discuss. I inform him of the coming questions in the same way I'd alerted his reps: Asking about a subject's warts is standard operating procedure for a profile, and I'd like to discuss his highly publicized wart, alcohol use. More than standard operating procedure, however, fans know very little about Cabrera outside of two high-profile alcohol-related legal scrapes.
In 2009, in the midst of a playoff race, he was detained after an altercation with Rosangel, and when tested by police, his blood alcohol level was 0.26, more than three times the legal limit. (Police could not identify an aggressor, and no charges were filed.) The morning he was released, Cabrera found Dombrowski waiting for him. "He continually expressed how sorry he was," the GM recalls. "At that point, it's tough love. You know he has a problem. You help him. But it starts with the player being willing to tackle whatever problem he has. He was at the front and center of that."
Cabrera entered counseling but relapsed in February 2011. According to a report released by the Florida state attorney's office, the trouble started at a restaurant in Fort Pierce, Fla., where Cabrera threatened staff. ("I will kill all of you and blow this place up!") Later a deputy came upon Cabrera's disabled vehicle on the side of the road. In front of officers, Cabrera defiantly swigged from a bottle of scotch, boasted, "F -- you! Do you know who I am?" and goaded, "Shoot me. Kill me." It took "three to four knee spikes" to get him into the car. Police charged Cabrera, who declined an alcohol test, with suspicion of DUI and resisting officers without violence. He pleaded no contest to the DUI, and the resisting charge was dropped. He was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay $1,436.23.
The guy I'd spent the day with was not the one in that police report. But those incidents, and how they re-emerge, help fuel his distrust of the world. Outside of hitting baseballs, these moments are the prism through which many people view him. Even last fall, during the Tigers' playoff run, much was made of Cabrera's wariness about attending Detroit's division title party even though nonalcoholic champagne was on the menu. And this spring, the Tigers brass has hailed Cabrera for dealing with the issue.
He looks surprised that I want to bring up the topic. I'm surprised he's surprised. I plow ahead anyway and ask him about the division title celebration: "My team want me in there. I tell them, 'Don't worry.' You don't want to give them reason to write something in papers."
Next I ask Cabrera whether he can handle being around alcohol. "I be around it," he says. "Let me tell you this: When you back home in Venezuela, everybody drinking." Venezuelans like to barbecue too. Cabrera regularly hosts Florida grill sessions for his Venezuelan friends. What about the alcohol? "I'm able to be strong and say no," he says. "It's not any problem with me."
"What led to that 2009 incident?" I ask. The question agitates Cabrera. He and Bentz converse in Spanish. "Go out and party, and I had a bad day in my house," Cabrera says finally. "You never get drunk?"
"All the time," I offer. Cabrera doesn't laugh. "What led to the 2011 incident? Another bad day?" After a second huddle with his agent, Cabrera says, "It was a wake-up call."
Bentz has heard enough: "What are you trying to tie in there?"
"I'm trying to understand what led to the incident."
"The engine blew up," Bentz says. "He was driving, and the car broke down."
"I'm talking about the DUI incident -- "
"That's the incident," Bentz interjects.
Looking back at Cabrera, I say, "Is this a problem you've solved?"
Bentz tells me to shut my recorder for an off-the-record chat. When I flick it back on, Cabrera says simply, "I don't drink." The interview is over, a waiter is summoned. I read the cues and thank Cabrera for his time. "Thank you," he mutters.
IT'S 7 A.M. THE next morning and I'm standing outside the weight room at Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center before Cabrera, Bentz and a third gentleman, the agent's associate. Late last night, word trickled down: My visit to Cabrera's home is off, there will be no dinner with his family, and even Cabrera himself is off-limits outside of two observation-only appointments, beginning with this morning's workout.
"Hola, Miguel," I say. Cabrera extends a hello back but won't make eye contact.
Maybe I pushed too hard, too soon. Maybe Cabrera is just a big kid who takes his ball and goes home when a visitor doesn't play by his rules. Or maybe that's not it at all. I challenged a man who hates to be embarrassed and possesses a pathological distrust of strangers. Cabrera allowed me inside his bubble, and now he fears I'll twist his words, very few of which were about his past drinking, into a story about his drinking. "This is why I don't do interviews," he'd said during our conversation at lunch. "Everybody asks this forever. All you want to know." And maybe he's right to wonder what the value is in letting us in. Maybe he's better off being a guy who knocks the hell out of a baseball and hopes that if he says very little, then one day his gifts on the field will push what has happened off it down the list of Internet search results.
The final appointment on our itinerary is an ESPN commercial shoot at the new Marlins Park to promote the network's MLB coverage. When Cabrera isn't being directed on the darkened field, which is swamped with sound engineers and lighting crew, he keeps to himself -- pantomiming his pull-up jumper or whispering to Bentz. Then, midway through the shoot, he receives a surprise visit from his old teammate, Redmond. After their chat, the Marlins skipper is still smiling. "Miggy's just always in a good mood," Redmond says.
After one last shot in the clubhouse an hour later, it's a wrap. "Thank you, Miguel Cabrera!" the director bellows. "Thank you mucho, everybody," Cabrera says as he bolts for the clubhouse door, leaving even Bentz and Bentz's guy behind. I give chase, hoping to have a word with Cabrera, or even a goodbye, but by the time I exit the packed clubhouse, my subject is 30 yards away and briskly moving down the empty tunnel. As he nears the exit, he turns and locks eyes with me. He holds the gaze for several seconds but says nothing. His face portrays no emotion. And then Miguel is gone.
ESPN The Magazine: April 1, 2013