KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Only a precious few people will ever know exactly how it looked when Miguel Cabrera, one of baseball’s reluctant superstars, finally achieved history 45 years in the making.
Cabrera had slipped away to the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday night, where he waited out the final moments in his bid for the Triple Crown. Once everything that had to transpire happened, all the other possibilities played out, he could finally begin to celebrate.
Prince Fielder was there, along with Justin Verlander and a few other Detroit Tigers, all of them applauding one of the game’s great hitters.
“It was like, everybody said to me it was unbelievable,” Cabrera said. “They were excited to see this, enjoy this, be a part of something big, and winning, I feel better.”
Yes, the AL Central champs managed to beat the Kansas City Royals, 1-0, but the outcome of the game was secondary to the drama true drama that unfolded on the field.
Cabrera became just the 15th player to win baseball’s Triple Crown, joining an elite list that includes Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Cabrera topped the American League with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBIs, becoming the first Triple Crown winner in the major leagues since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Cabrera’s achievement wasn’t assured until the Yankees pinch-hit for Curtis Granderson in their 14-2 rout of the Boston Red Sox. Granderson had homered twice to reach 43 for the year, tied with the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton and one shy of Cabrera.
Cabrera went 0 for 2.
against the Royals before leaving in the fourth inning to a standing ovation. He finished the regular season hitting four points higher than Angels rookie Mike Trout, his toughest competition for AL MVP. Cabrera was the runaway leader in RBIs.
“I am glad that he accomplished this while leading his team to the American League Central title,” Yastrzemski said in a statement, pointing out that his Red Sox advanced all the way to the World Series when he won one of baseball’s most coveted titles.
The Tigers will have that chance when they open the postseason Saturday against Oakland.
“It was hard the last two days because everybody talked about it. I just had to focus, I had to go out there and do the job,” Cabrera said. “The hardest part was to go out there and focus and win games. I said, ‘If we win the division, everything would take care of itself.’”
Commissioner Bud Selig also offered his congratulations, calling the Triple Crown “a remarkable achievement that places him amongst an elite few in all of baseball history.”
The crowd at Kauffman Stadium gave Cabrera a standing ovation before he flied out in the first inning. He struck out in the fourth but remained in the game, allowing manager Jim Leyland to remove him with two outs to another standing ovation from thousands of appreciative fans.
Cabrera high-fived his teammates as he entered the Detroit dugout, then walked back to the top step and waved his helmet. When the feat became official, it was displayed on the center-field scoreboard to another standing ovation.
“I would say without question he’s enjoyed it. How could you not enjoy what he’s done if you’re a baseball player?” Leyland said. “I doubt very much, knowing him, that he necessarily enjoys all the extra attention, and all the extra conversations he’s had to have. It’s kind of out of his realm in personality, to be honest with you.”
Cabrera’s pursuit of history has occurred largely in the dark, though, overshadowed by thrilling pennant races, the sheer enormity of the NFL — even the presidential election.
An event that in other years might dominate headlines has been mostly cast aside.
“The entire baseball world should be here right now,” said Verlander, the reigning AL MVP, who may soon watch that award get handed off to his teammate.
Perhaps part of the void has to do with Cabrera’s very nature.
He’s not the boisterous sort, never one to crave attention. He would rather hang out with a couple of buddies than stand in front of a pack of television cameras, answering countless questions about what makes him one of the game’s most complete hitters.
“He’s not a talkative guy,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “One, he doesn’t speak English that well, but two, he lets his ability carry through.”
It takes a special breed to hit for average, power and in clutch situations, which is why there have been so few players to achieve baseball’s version of the Triple Crown, an honor roll that includes iconic players such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Williams and Rogers Hornsby each accomplished the feat twice.
Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez never accomplished it, failing to win the batting title, and countless other Hall of Fame players have fallen short of one of sport’s rarest feats.
To put it in perspective, consider horse racing’s Triple Crown.
The last thoroughbred to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the same year was Affirmed in 1978, more than a full decade after Yastrzemski’s magical summer in Boston.
Whether it’s on par with Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters, Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships in golf, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Brett Favre’s consecutive games streak at quarterback is open to interpretation, and perhaps some bar-room debate.
Those who have witnessed it firsthand certainly have their opinions.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said the Royals’ Alex Gordon, who has watched the drama unfold from his spot in left field. “Honestly, his numbers are like that every year. He has a great average, great home runs, great RBIs. He’s a guy who can pull this off, and it’s great for the game.”
Giants infielder Pablo Sandoval said he was particularly proud that the Triple Crown would be accomplished by a fellow Venezuelan. Cabrera is from Maracay, along the Caribbean coast.
“I’m excited for the country and for the fans that support us every single day. It’s a big deal in Venezuela right now,” Sandoval said. “It’s exciting, especially because of all the things that have happened in his career.”
Yes, it seems that every fairytale these days carries a troublesome footnote.
In Cabrera’s case, it stems from spring training last year, when he was involved in a drunken driving incident. According to authorities in St. Lucie County, Fla., Cabrera refused to cooperate, directed an obscene gesture at police and even dared them to shoot him.
The Tigers have been careful to keep him from having to discuss his personal issues, but by all accounts, Cabrera has been a model player ever since. This year, he is the Tigers’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player “who best represents the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.”
“This clubhouse wouldn’t be quite as good without him,” Leyland said.
While the Triple Crown was assured, the MVP award is not.
On one hand, Cabrera is on the footstep of history, having dominated the major statistical categories favored by traditionalists, the ones that count toward the Triple Crown.
On the other hand, Trout is being championed by new-school baseball thought, number crunchers who rely on more obscure measures such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement), derived from several other statistics designed to judge a player’s overall contribution to a team.
“When he’s over the plate, he can do anything. He’s the best hitter in the game,” Trout said of Cabrera. “I think his approach, the way he battles with two strikes — you leave one pitch over the plate that at-bat and he’s going to hit it. He had an unbelievable year.”
Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline said it would be “a shame” if Cabrera didn’t win the league’s most coveted award. Royals manager Ned Yost earlier offered a similar sentiment.
“I think they’re both fantastic players, tremendous players, both of them,” Yost said, “but if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he has to be the MVP, absolutely.”