How Miguel Cabrera surprised us en route to Triple Crown history
Despite a career long on achievement, Miguel Cabrera has often been overlooked
This season, he used a steady second half to win the batting, homer and RBI titles
Cabrera could win an MVP award, but true appreciation may not come till later
It is part of baseball's endless charm that history can be made anywhere at anytime by almost anyone. Who, when this season began back in March halfway around the world, could have imagined that a pitcher who had to win his job in spring training and lost it by mid-season would throw a perfect game? Or that a slugger who missed most of last season with injury would do something Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth never did and hit four home runs in one game? Or that a team that had been in first place only one day before, more than six months ago after playing in Japan while 28 other teams were still in camp, would become the first ever to make up a five-game deficit with nine games to go and win a division title?
In a season that will be remembered for its surprises, we probably should have seen the last and most long-awaited piece of history coming long before Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera left Wednesday night's game in Kansas City with insurmountable leads in the American League for batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBIs (139), the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.
Cabrera has been so good for so long -- he entered this season having already led his league in each individual Triple Crown category at one time or another and had posted six .300 seasons, seven 30-home run campaigns and eight 100-RBI years -- that it should have been just a matter of time before he did something truly unforgettable.
The truth, though, is that history did not take place Wednesday night in Kansas City -- and not just because Cabrera did nothing memorable in his 0-for-2 evening. No, this piece of history happened Tuesday night in Kansas City, and last Wednesday night in Detroit; it happened in Minnesota in August and Boston in July; Pittsburgh in June, Oakland in May and always, always in Detroit. It happened against left-handed pitchers and right-handed pitchers, in day games and night games, in cold weather and warm weather. It happened over the course of six grueling months.
Winning the Triple Crown is a testament to everyday, not one-day, greatness. Cabrera won it this year because he had a great day in a lot of the 161 games he played this season.
That greatness should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Cabrera pound major league pitching with amazing consistency since he first debuted with the Florida Marlins as a baby-faced 20-year-old in 2003. After an impressive rookie season for the eventual world champions that year, Cabrera embarked on a path of brilliance that may yet end in Cooperstown. In his nine full seasons he has averaged .321/..399/.567 with 34 home runs and 118 RBIs per year, and overall since 2004 he ranks first in RBIs, third in batting average, fourth in hits and slugging percentage, fifth in home runs and seventh in on-base percentage.
Somehow, though, Cabrera managed to sneak up on everyone this year. The only attention he got the first half of the year concerned his move from first base to third base to make room for newly acquired Prince Fielder. He was not voted to start at third base for the American League in the All-Star Game. He didn't pass Mike Trout, his rival for this year's AL MVP award, for the league lead in batting average until Sept. 7. He trailed Josh Hamilton, who seemed to put away the home run crown when he hit four back in mid-May in Baltimore, in the home run race until Sept. 22. And he didn't truly wrap up the Triple Crown until he went 4-for-5 with just three days to go in the season.
His teammate Justin Verlander, who knows a little something about triple crowns, said earlier this week that Cabrera's achievement wasn't getting enough attention and perhaps he was right. Cabrera had to compete not only with Trout and Hamilton and with his own impressive credentials -- as SI.com's Cliff Corcoran noted, this season was not even Cabrera's personal best -- but with a jumbled and expanded pennant race that sucked up most of the oxygen in the sport by having roughly half the teams remain in contention until the final week.
Cabrera will soon get plenty of attention, first under the microscope of the coming postseason in which he will try to lead the AL Central champion Tigers to their first World Series title in 28 years, then, perhaps, in November with the long-overdue Most Valuable Player award that he stands an excellent chance at winning. The true appreciation may not come this year though, and maybe not for several more years as more and more great hitters come and go without ever approaching this accomplishment.
There is no telling when Cabrera will finally get his full due, just as there is no telling when his great season truly began. Perhaps it was on April 7, the second day of the season, when he got the first hits, home runs and RBIs of what would become a crowning campaign. Perhaps it began even before then, like on a warm morning in Lakeland, Fla., in early March. Exhibition games had not yet begun, his teammates had all retreated to the clubhouse eager to make their afternoon tee times and Cabrera went to take extra batting practice.
While waiting for him to emerge, one of his coaches talked about how Cabrera, like a lot of exceptional hitters, could sometimes seem bored while playing defense. Surely he has never been bored in the batter's box. And no one who enjoys seeing a great performer at work or history being made will ever be bored by watching him or the game he plays so well.
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