"The Yankees' scout in Venezuela didn't like me," Cabrera said. "He said I would not play in the big leagues. He told my dad that, and he told other scouts too. I think maybe it was because I was playing shortstop and was tall. I was awkward. The other scouts said, You're going to move to third. He didn't see that."
Cabrera reached the big leagues in 2003, at age 20. He hit a walk-off homer in his first game and, that fall, a World Series home run off Roger Clemens of the Yankees. The next season he smashed 33 homers, becoming one of the 10 youngest players to hit that many. When he became too expensive for the Marlins, they shipped him to Detroit, where the relocated Dombrowski quickly signed him to an eight-year, $152.3 million deal.
So far this year Cabrera's career numbers dovetail with those of Aaron at the same age, including batting average (.314 to Aaron's .319), home runs (231, 253), RBIs (820, 863) and OPS (.936, .935). "He's the best hitter I've ever played with," says Tigers teammate Johnny Damon, who has played with Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. "Manny was the best two-out hitter, Alex has the perfect swing and Tex has all the intangibles. But nobody hits like [Cabrera]. I think he's been a good hitter who now wants to be great. I think he realizes that five years from now people could be talking about him among the best hitters ever."
When he was seven, the righthanded Cabrera would take BP with one of his uncles and drill line drive after line drive to rightfield. "He said, 'Hit the ball the other way,' " Cabrera says. " 'Every time you pull the ball, you have to run a lap.' So I hit the ball the other way."
That training and Cabrera's size (6'4", 255 pounds) and strength have given him, in Leyland's words, "the best opposite-field power of any player I've ever seen." In a batting practice session earlier this month, Cabrera laced 18 consecutive hits to rightfield over three rounds, then pulled the 19th about 450 feet into the leftfield seats. "Sometimes," Leyland says, "when he knows someone is watching, like somebody from the other team, a big broadcaster, somebody important, he'll just put on a show. He'll hit the ball out to straightaway rightfield, then right center, center, left center, left—like shooting three-pointers. It's amazing. There haven't been many players like him, and his best days are ahead of him."
The truth about the phone call that awakened Dombrowski nine months ago is that it did not come as a complete surprise. As Leyland says, "I knew there were some issues." Adds Dombrowski, "You hear things. And for me, with him that goes back for years. But a lot of guys go out at night and have something to drink. If you thought it was something of major, major consequence and you had proof of it, you would approach those things at the time. That never happened."
Everything changed the night Cabrera wound up drunk and in jail as his team's pennant hopes were flickering out. It was apparent even to Tigers fans that by this year he was a changed man. The spring training regulars in Lakeland, Fla., would stop Dombrowski and tell him, "Miguel is different. He stops and signs autographs and he smiles. He's never done that in the past."
Dombrowski too saw something new in Cabrera. "I find a definite difference in his attitude," he says. "He's much more open and has a smile on his face. He feels better physically, he feels better about himself, his family life is better."
Cabrera has become the fulcrum not only of the Tigers' lineup but also of their clubhouse. He has become a mentor, for instance, to rookie outfielder Brennan Boesch, who bats behind him in the lineup. "He calls me his bodyguard, which is funny because he weighs about 50 pounds more than me," Boesch says. "He's been more than a teammate to me. He's been a friend and a leader. The way he goes about his business is something I will try to emulate."
Cabrera is a big rig of a man, and the hugeness of his presence is now enhanced by the sense of purpose he projects. Yet there remains a youthfulness about him, a sense of a man not in full but in progress. There is, for instance, his boyish hobby of collecting autographed jerseys from other players (he has about 60) and his nervousness before the first game of every season.