A telephone call at 6:30 a.m. on the final Saturday of the 2009 season awakened Tigers president Dave Dombrowski. It was the Birmingham, Mich., police, calling to tell Dombrowski that his franchise player, first baseman Miguel Cabrera, was in jail and extraordinarily drunk. "You can come get him," an officer said, "or let him stay here."
"No, I'll come get him," Dombrowski replied.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland likes to say that Cabrera has "a great face, a happy face." It is childlike, even now that Cabrera is 27 years old and one of the most feared hitters in baseball, a legitimate Triple Crown candidate who is following the statistical footprints of Hank Aaron. Cabrera has the smooth, plump cheeks of a cherub and a patch of whiskers on his chin that would need the company of many others to qualify as a full-blown beard.
Dombrowski has known this face well—since Cabrera was 16 and, at the time, one of the most expensive international amateur free agents in baseball history. It is also the face of the Tigers' franchise. But the visage Dombrowski found in jail was worn, tired and, following a domestic dispute that night with his wife, Rosangel, scratched.
"He was in bad shape," Dombrowski said. "I knew it had already reached that point where he needed help. But as I told him first, 'Let's get you some sleep.' Because that's what he needed first and foremost."
Cabrera's blood alcohol level was 0.26—high enough for three people to be over the legal limit, the equivalent of someone his size drinking 15 pints of beer in five hours and, based on how long it takes alcohol to leave the body, enough to require 17 hours for Cabrera to completely sober up.
Drunk, jailed and excoriated: a Triple Crown of shame. That hardly seems how the tale of an MVP-quality season by a friendlier, more self-assured player should begin. But to understand why Cabrera has become a better ballplayer ("by far," Leyland says) and a happier person this year, you have to begin with that colossal bender, which took place at a hotel bar among friends from the White Sox and eventually led to a 911 call from Rosangel, who told police that her husband hit her after he returned home. (No charges were filed.) Since then, little about Cabrera has been the same—especially, he says, his drinking.
"I don't feel different physically, but I feel like for the first time in my career I know what I want," Cabrera says. "I want more from baseball. I want the MVP. I want to go to the playoffs. I want to win the World Series."
In his first two seasons with Detroit, after a December 2007 trade from Florida, Cabrera hit .308, drove in 230 runs and won a home run title. Yet privately, teammates and opponents wondered what Cabrera could do if he took his job more seriously. They need wonder no more. Cabrera (.346 average, 22 homers, 77 RBIs) came within two home runs of becoming the first player since Aaron in 1957 to lead his league in the Triple Crown categories at the All-Star break. In addition to batting and RBIs, Cabrera led the AL in slugging and OPS and carried a career-best 19-game hitting streak.
Perhaps most revealing, he has licked his careerlong problems in day games. Having entered this season batting only .296 in those as opposed to .318 at night, a fitter, better prepared Cabrera was hitting a robust .341 in daylight and .351 at night at the break. "He used to give away at bats all the time," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge says. "Now I can count on one hand the at bats he's given away this year.