When the news came on December 4, 2007 that the then-Florida Marlins were trading Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers, my first thought was not the impact of such a move on the American League Central, the division that the Tigers share with my hometown Kansas City Royals.
No, a 13-year old me first thought when I heard the news that the deal was constructed in Dave Dombrowski’s hotel room in Nashville (the site of that year’s winter meetings), “hey, my family was just stayed there last week!”
Nonetheless, I do remember that trade being a big deal in the baseball universe. Cabrera was already a superstar at 24 years old, and Willis had won 22 games and finished runner-up in the National League Cy Young Award voting two years prior.
Alas, the D-Train derailed, crashed, and went up in flames upon arriving in Detroit, and all six prospects that got shipped to Miami all wilted in the South Florida heat. The one thing that did go right in that deal, though, was one Jose Miguel Cabrera, who led the AL with 37 homers in his first year in the Motor City and did not slow down for nearly a decade.
As a Royals fan in that era, it was incredibly frustrating to see. I loathed every time the TV camera showed Miggy on deck, especially if there were runners on base. I knew that something bad was likely going to happen to my team very soon.
At the same time, it was breathtaking.
I cannot pinpoint when I first began to truly appreciate and genuinely like Miguel Cabrera. Maybe it was just the fact that he did not take the game so seriously. He was a man who was not above giving a kid a high-five or batting gloves during the game or swiping batting gloves from Shohei Ohtani’s back pocket as they stood at first base (that happened last week). It always struck me how he played the game with a sheer joy that was on display much more often than most players. There is a reason why YouTube videos exist of just Miggy just having fun.
What I do remember vividly, though, was watching the final game of the 2012 season. It was a night game at Kauffman Stadium with the Tigers in town, and Miggy was playing with the first triple crown in 45 years on the line. He had the home run and runs batted in crowns locked up and the last domino to fall, Mike Trout coming up short in the batting race, had just fallen when the top of the fourth inning came around.
Mid-inning, Cabrera was pulled from his third-base position, and the Kauffman Stadium crowd gave him a standing ovation. Miggy even gave them a curtain call. Watching that game I remember thinking, “our fans are giving a standing ovation to the superstar on a team that just owned our whole division. This man truly is something special.”
Even as the Royals and Tigers dueled for potential postseason berths in 2013-15, Cabrera continued to be one of my favorite non-Royals, even if he hit a walk-off homer in a crucial 2013 game the night before I left for my freshman year of college or was a key cog in a team that won the AL Central by a single game over the Royals the following year.
Maybe the biggest indication of how much I admire and respect Miguel Cabrera came in arguably the least admirable moment of his career, a brawl he started on August 24, 2017 against the Yankees. At the time, I had just graduated college and was working as an intern in the media relations department for the Royals. I was actually in the press box at Kauffman Stadium when I saw the footage on MLB Network for the first time.
I recall standing next to beat writers and broadcasters and people who are much more well-known than me. Our reaction was all the same: mouths open in sheer disbelief, because like me, all of these consummate professionals who actually knew him also admired and respected him.
“Miguel Cabrera started this?! How could it be him?!”
As the years went by, other familiar faces that I grew seeing in the AL Central came and went. Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle, Joe Mauer, Travis Hafner, Max Scherzer, and, eventually, Francisco Lindor, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, and others all moved on in one form or another. Meanwhile, Cabrera re-upped in Detroit and so he remained, playing out what quickly became an albatross of a contract, falling from a most valuable player candidate to little more than a fading reminder to better days.
In the years since, the race towards 3,000 hits and 500 homers slowed from a sprint to a crawl, hampered by injuries, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the beating that came at the hands of the undefeated champion that is Father Time. The final 40 homers to 500 took nearly four years. 3,000 hits may have to wait until 2022, a season in which Miggy will turn 39 years old.
Cabrera has been a shell of his former self for years now, which we are all aware of, but one thing has not changed. On July 24 of this season, Detroit trailed Kansas City 9-8 with Cabrera coming up with two outs in the ninth, representing the go-ahead run. I was watching the game with my dad, and, when he stepped in the box, we said the same thing: “I would rather have anyone up right now but him.“
Alas, Miggy walked, and the game ended one batter later. The Tigers would be swept in the series. Ironically, though, Cabrera launched into a hot streak where he hit .386 and swatted home runs 495-499 in a 13-game stretch.
The final coronation took another nine games and 11 days, which unfortunately included the entirety of a six-game homestand, so the historic homer took place on Canadian soil in front of a reduced-capacity crowd in Toronto instead of his home fans in Detroit. Regardless, the journey was completed on Sunday when Miggy became the 28th player to hit 500 homers.
The end is undoubtedly soon for him, and when Miguel Cabrera decides to hang it up, it will not be the same when Detroit comes to town and there is a lack of a certain pudgy, smiling, and somehow still somewhat baby-faced number 24 on the other side of the diamond. Of course, it will be strange, since Cabrera has been a Detroit Tiger for more than half of my life at this point.
Regardless, now is not the time to ponder the end. It is time to celebrate what he has done in the present, honor all he has accomplished to get to this point, and fondly remember how awe-inspiring it has been to see arguably the best right-handed hitter of the 21st century.
Am I relieved the milestone homer was not against the Royals? Yes. Would I have still cheered even if it was against the Royals? Absolutely. I am happy for him either way. Congratulations Miggy, you’ve earned it. Not just number 500, but also the cheers. There will be at least one coming from Kansas City.
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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images