The very best players make a manager want to change the rules. Specifically, one rule: that pesky requirement for a lineup, which mandates that each hitter take his turn from him. When Miguel Cabrera is on your team, the waiting is the hardest part.
“I wish he could have come to bat every inning,” said Jack McKeon, 91, on the phone this week from his home in North Carolina. “He’d hit a sacrifice fly, he’d hit a home run, he’d get a base hit, even to the point where he hit the ground ball that what’s-his-name booted in the Bartman game. He was the catalyst. Something good was happening with this guy.”
Cabrera was 20 years old, playing for the then-Florida Marlins, when his bouncer flummoxed Chicago Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez in the fateful sixth game of the 2003 National League Championship Series. The error helped turn Steve Bartman — a fan who deflected a foul ball down the left-field line earlier in the inning — from a footnote to a focal point as the Marlins stormed to the World Series with wins in Games 6 and 7.
At the time, Cabrera had collected only 84 career hits in the regular season. On Saturday, with a single against the Colorado Rockies at Comerica Park, he became the 33rd player in major league history with 3,000.
After he collected three hits on Wednesday to get to 2,999, Cabrera’s pursuit of 3,000 hits was delayed by an 0 for 3 performance on Thursday (and an intentional walk late in the game that raised some eyebrows), as well as rain postponing Friday’s scheduled game against Colorado. The feat finally came in the first inning of Saturday’s game, which will be official after the top of the fifth inning.
Cabrera’s first hit was fitting: a two-run, game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th inning on June 20, 2003, in Miami Gardens, Fla. He had hit 502 homers entering Saturday’s game, making him one of the rare players to appear on two of baseball’s most prestigious lists.
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Only six others have amassed 3,000 hits and 500 home runs: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Of that group, Cabrera had the best batting average (.310) and on-base percentage (.387) ahead of Saturday’s games.
Cabrera’s figures will change, and very likely decline, before he retires; he is signed with Detroit through 2023. But for now, they underscore Cabrera’s skill as a pure hitter. He is not a free swinger, exactly, but his aim is to hit his way on base. Only two players with 500 homers (Sammy Sosa and Ernie Banks) have fewer career walks.
Cabrera won four batting titles in a five-year span, from 2011 through 2015. Only two other right-handed hitters in the integrated major leagues, Roberto Clemente and Bill Madlock, have collected four batting titles. As great as they were, neither Clemente nor Madlock ever hit 30 homers in a season. Cabrera has done it 10 times.
Cabrera was 16 when the Marlins signed him from Venezuela for $1.9 million in 1999. Four years later, with the Carolina Mudcats, he tore through the Class AA Southern League with a .365 average and a .609 slugging percentage in 69 games — yet he played mostly third base, and Mike Lowell was established in Miami.
That did not worry McKeon, who had taken over as manager in May. His team had some promising young pitchers but needed more thump in the lineup. McKeon would find a place for a bat like Cabrera’s.
“I knew he couldn’t play third because we had Mike Lowell, but I’ll put him in the outfield — don’t worry about it, we’ll find out,” McKeon said. “And he took to left field like nobody’s business.”
Cabrera had played only three games in the minors in left field, but he started there every day in his first week in the majors. In October 2003, McKeon shifted Cabrera to right field. He had never played that position, but started there for seven of the Marlins’ last 10 postseason games, on their way to a World Series victory over the Yankees.
Cabrera’s at-bat in the first inning of Game 4, in Florida, foreshadowed the greatness to come. Roger Clemens fired a first-pitch fastball at 94 miles an hour, high and inside, a classic brushback from a self-styled gunslinger. Cabrera stared back at Clemens, hung in for seven pitches, and drilled another 94 mph fastball — up and off the plate — over the fence in right-center field.
“It didn’t scare the guy,” McKeon said. “I wasn’t intimidated. This guy was confident and he knew he had the ability to do it.
For the next 13 seasons, Cabrera would show it with remarkable consistency and durability. He came to bat more than any other major leaguer from 2004 through 2016 — and produced at the highest rate, too. Of the 104 players with at least 5,000 plate appearances in those seasons, Cabrera had the best on-base plus slugging percentage: .968.
He did most of his damage with the Tigers, who traded six players for him and the left-handed pitcher Dontrelle Willis in December 2007. Two of the players — outfielder Cameron Maybin and the left-handed pitcher Andrew Miller — would have long careers. But the deal was a coup for the Tigers, who would win four consecutive division titles and an American League pennant in Cabrera’s prime.
In the afterglow of his 2012 triple crown season, the Tigers rewarded Cabrera with an eight-year, $240 million contract that would not begin until 2016. The deal was an overreach; Cabrera’s production of him inevitably declined, and he has been roughly a league-average hitter the last five seasons. The Tigers fell in the standings and are still rebuilding.
But the contract, if nothing else, ensured that Cabrera’s milestone moments would happen for the Tigers, the team that benefited most from the promise he showed at age 20. McKeon never altered the fundamental rules of baseball, of course, but he sure was right about Cabrera.
Something good, indeed, was happening with that guy.