It's baseball time.
For those of you who are not familiar with the general Detroit area, it's hard to explain how seriously Opening Day (yes, it gets its own caps!) is taken here. It's spoken of in the hushed, giddy tones normally associated with holidays where gifts are exchanged, and yet for Tigers fans this makes complete sense. For we have been gifted with the best present imaginable in the form of a career-locking contract keeping one Mr. Miguel "Try My Salsa" Cabrera in the Olde English D for the reasonable price of $300 million.
The national sports writers and MLB execs are outraged, baffled by such a thing, with ESPN's Keith Law and SI's Michael Rosenberg proclaiming it to be a deal of disastrous proportions, a suicide move by this particular American League charter team that will ruin everything everywhere forever. And they're missing the point completely.
The Albert Pujols comparisons have been flooding into these articles as the madness of such a deal, the biggest deal, is scoffed at, the notion of paying such cash to 40-year-olds being quite obviously ridiculous. As the refrain goes, you're supposed to pay players for the years they're going to play rather than the years they've already played. Now, normally I'd agree with that, but what the national press seems to be missing is that this is a fairly unique set of circumstances regarding this man and this city. This is the Detroit Tigers paying him what he is owed, as he has already given and given and given in a way any other fans would kill for.
Touching on two other recent mega-deals, Robinson Cano, the heir-apparent to Derek Jeter's Kingdom of the Yankees, the future-face of the most celebrated franchise in the sport (and, I might add, a player who has never led the league in any major offensive category) was asking for Cabrera-money. And when he didn't get it, he left for the next best thing without thinking twice. Albert Pujols was already the face of the Cardinals franchise when it was his time to negotiate, and while St. Louis couldn't afford to pay him what he was due - and unlike Cano, he was due - they did offer him the team, hoping he would stay in a city that loved him like they loved Stan Musial, for the price of what is still a lot of money, and part-ownership. And The Machine walked.
Now, this is not a critique of free-agency - there's plenty of money to go around, why wouldn't you take your talents to the highest bidder, I get it - but I think it does speak volumes that as the Cabrera deal (which I think everyone in Michigan knew was being readied years ago) unfolded this past Thursday evening, the accompanying rumor was that Miguel wanted to stay here and was willing to take less than what he was worth to be a Tiger for the rest of his career. For a man who is so good at baseball that baseball itself gave him a fucking crown to say that about your team, your city, your state... pay him. Pay him a billion, I don't care.
And that's the other thing, national sports beat - it's not your money, what the hell do you care? This is Mike Ilitch's present to Detroit, the most fabulous parting gift a person could give. The Series, that's a crapshoot - the ideas behind moneyball taught us many things, one of which is that a baseball post-season series is too small a sample size to accurately reflect the quality of a team (think of how razor-thin the ALCS was against Boston last year), so despite the assembly of great players and deep pockets, there's never a promise of a ring. Just as Tigers fans have left the playoffs feeling disappointed the past three years, think about the Yankees fans who have to watch their all-star team be dismantled by Detroit over and over again. So if Mr. I can't promise us a championship, he can at least promise us Miguel Cabrera, and I will gladly take that deal.
For let us not forget that this is entertainment - baseball is not restructuring our foreign policy nor housing the homeless, it's putting on a show. And nobody puts on a show like the Big Boy. This is what these outside writers are missing - because he's sticking with the team, city and state, you're not really paying him for his declining years, but you are in fact partially paying him for the years he's had. This contract is back-pay for the amazing things that have come before, the Triple Crown, the MVPs, the batting titles, the three-homer games, the walk-offs, the consistency. How do I love thee, future-statue man? Let me count the ways...
First, let's go back to 2009, remembering that we are supposed to judge a player by what he does between the lines—hate the artist, love the art. Let us recall that the Tigers were going to the playoffs, it was just going to happen. Hell, it would have taken an incredible set of circumstances for it to not happen, a confluence of events so unthinkable that...ah. Well, we know what happened. The team fell apart as it closed in on the finish line, collapsing three feet before the end of the race like a dusty hippopotamus with eight tranquilizer darts in its hindquarters. Cabrera showed up half in the bag during that last series against the White Sox, swinging at absolute garbage while the specter of a drunken domestic dispute threatened to derail any possible run to the playoffs. It was a terrible time, and indeed he was booed by the fans from the Twin Cities as he tried to make amends with the Detroit faithful during the infamous Game 163 tiebreaker. But it was not enough and the Tigers fell after playing what is known as the best regular-season game of the decade. Old faces left, new faces came in, Miguel was tethered to a personal handler, and unbeknownst to us, a new era of baseball began.
Because something happened in 2010, and that something is best represented by the six no-hitters thrown in that year, and a trend of pitching dominance not seen since the mid-1960s. Looking at the list of pitchers who grabbed Cy Young votes that season, it's not hard to see why: Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, David Price, Jon Lester, etc. all of whom were in some phase of their prime, and most of whom have continued to dominate the game. And that's just the American League. But despite this post-PED power-shift to the hurlers, Miguel began to post outrageous numbers, and by the end of the year, despite the team's .500 record and no entry into the playoffs yet again, he was closing out Comerica Park for the season with one last home run. The video for that can be found online, but it cuts out right before something important happens. It had been building quietly in the weeks leading up to this final home game, faint echos heard as the season wound down to nothing, and now, with this farewell shot, it took hold of the stands and finally exploded: “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
And sure enough, he should have been, for while the Tigers did not play for October, eventual-MVP Josh Hamilton did not play for September, sitting 'injured' for most of the month and protecting his .359 batting average like a real punk. 2011 saw the same performance from Miguel, and if it wasn't for Justin Verlander throwing the best AL season this side of vintage-Roger Clemens, he very possibly would have won the MVP again. So Mike Trout fans, don't come crying to me about the last two seasons. Tigers fans know this pain more than most.
But there is no use in thinking about what could or should have been, because then things started actually happening. 2012. Triple Crown winner. Second battling title in a row. MVP. Playoffs. 2013. Almost the same thing. Third battling title. MVP. Playoffs. All in this new golden age of the pitcher, where the fastballs are faster, the swings are bigger, and the strikeouts pile up like so many fallen soldiers at the Somme. It has been a sight to behold, and Detroit fans are fortunate to be able to watch it almost every single day. Those big trophies are great, but seeing how they came to be is even better.
And what do you see when you watch this Herculean figure go about his business? First of all, you're seeing Miguel play not the game of baseball, but his game of baseball. I'm excited he's back at first base this year not because of his poor defense at third or the diminishing risk of injury, but because he gets to chop it up with whomever ends up there. Watch him at first - he's talking the entire time, messing with the opposition, laughing and teasing and totally distracting the baserunner from what's happening in the game. He is basically playing the player, just as he plays the pitcher when he's hitting.
Watch him long enough and you start to pick up on what is essentially a master-class in acting. He'll purposefully take a fat, first pitch strike and step out of the box, shaking his head and mumbling as he adjusts his batting gloves and gathers his wits. 'Wow, what a pitcher,' you might think, but that's the thing - while you're thinking that, the pitcher himself is also suddenly thinking that, and Miguel knows he's going to see that pitch again. And when he does, he's going to have his way with it. He is the John Gielgud of baseball.
For me, I love the moments that unfold around mid-game or later, when the score is close and the opposing pitcher misses his spot and gives up a goofy single or a walk, and Miguel starts to walk from the on-deck circle to the batters box. Watch the pitcher's face - it's always the same. Watch as he rolls his eyes and shakes his head. Watch as he turns his back to the box, tucks his glove beneath is arm and kneads the ball between his palms like it will make a difference. It's as if he's closing closing his eyes in the hopes that maybe the boogeyman wearing #24 won't see him. Then watch as that pitcher's manager holds up four fingers from the dugout, or calls time to run out and say essentially the same thing, or just yanks him and goes to the bullpen all together.
Just as I love watching the opposing pitchers delay the inevitable in the hopes that a helicopter will appear overhead and drop a rope ladder next to the mound, I love watching the managers react too - there is great comedy here. The Central has been dealing with it for years now. Ron Gardenhire, a very fine baseball manager, has simply given up whenever Detroit's lineup rolls over to the 3-hole. He sits there and waits for the inevitable to happen, and then tries to manage his team around that eventuality. Same with Ned Yost, same with Manny Acta, same with even the relentless Ozzie Guillen. They've learned the hard way that there's nothing to be done.
And I know, I know - it's just the AL Central and people find it hard to take seriously, harharhar, but years from now, when we think of the successful American League managers and teams from this recent era that are not Jim Leyland and Detroit, we'll think of Terry Francona and his Red Sox, Joe Maddon and his Rays, Ron Washington and his Rangers. You know which managers love to intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera? Yep. They know he can beat you - he likes to beat you, and he likes to do it at moments when it will really ruin your day. He is a smiling Venezuelan raincloud, looking to pour down on your team's baseball parade.
To wit, let's go back to the 2011 ALCS against the Rangers. It's the bottom of the eighth inning, the game is tied, there is one out, the bases are empty. Empty. What does Ron Washington do? Four fingers in the air, take your base you monster, you're not going to beat me. True enough, the Tigers did not win that game, so well played, sir. And what happens when Wash doesn't do that? Well, the next game in the series it's the fifth inning, tie game, two outs, Detroit has a man on third and a man on first, but second sits wide open, just ready for the runner on first to trot on down following another intentional - I mean, two outs? Come on now. But they pitched to him, he smacks a double, Tigers win. Because he's a colossus. The story goes on and on, day after day, season after season.
We need only look to a few moments last year to see the brilliance. The 2013 season gave us the drama of two apex predators going head to head in a scene that instantly became baseball legend. Billed as a 'Clash of the Titans,' Miguel squared off against Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, two outs, Tigers down by two. For non-baseball fans who are for some reason still reading this, you didn't hit Mr. Rivera. He was as much a given as the law of gravity, and he's called the greatest because he made a living sawing his opponents in half. And when the biographies of him are written, his capstone season will be known for two things - his standing-ovation entrance at the All-Star Game, and this at-bat:
The video is all over the internet, easy to find, and it's such a splendid thing to watch unfold, but what is less easy to find is the next day, when Miguel did it again. Watch the difference in reaction from Mo in both games - the first time, he laughs as he is bested, the great gentleman of the game ever-gregarious in his victory-lap season, basically tipping his cap to the king.
Now watch his reaction from the next game:
If I'm not mistaken, I believe the great gentleman is mouthing the word "Goddammit." (Also, did you catch Girardi in both clips? Perfect example of what I was talking about above.)
Here's an adorable story for you. In most first-time confrontations, the pitcher has the advantage over the batter, and this was clearly the case last August as the Tigers got a look at Cleveland's new hotshot fireballer, Danny Salazar. Here is a pitcher who left me thinking, 'Well, he's going to be a thorn in our paw for quite some time,' as he mowed down our lineup with easy triple-digits. This included Miguel, one, two, and three times in a row, all in front of a Cleveland crowd excited to finally see something promising emerge from their ballclub.
Now, Terry Francona probably should have known better (in fact, he does know better) but I'm guessing he must have been really feeling it, watching this kid cruise into the 8th inning against the division leaders and neatly ahead in the score. It was like Terry was driving his new convertible around a subdivision, showing off for the neighbors. Probably he would have pulled Salazar after the 8th inning and let the closer mop up, making for a nice story in the news the following day - "Young-Gun Sends Tigers Packing!" the headlines probably would have read. Probably that is what would have happened, except with one out left to go to get to that point, the raincloud stepped back into the box. And the raincloud only needs to see your stuff so many times before this happens:
The Tigers end up winning, and the raincloud drenches the interior of Francona's sweet new ride. Hilarious. Tito, what were you thinking!? And yes, you heard the crowd correctly in that video, those wicked Detroit fans had shown up, bringing with them another smattering of "MVP!" chants. In Cleveland.
Or, to prove that quality at-bats don't always automatically equal big hits, how about this situation, exactly one month later. Bases loaded, two outs, tie game, the big fella at the plate. Royals pitcher, Wade Davis, fresh out of the bullpen and feeling good from having just struck out Torii Hunter, gets a full count (it's always a full count with Miguel) and blows some real gas at 97 miles per hour, putting the ball as close as humanly possible to the zone:
Any other player in the league swings at that pitch - it's so close and so fast, you're already starting your swing as the ball leaves his hand, especially given the pressure of the baserunning circumstances, and it is a testament to our guy that he just takes it - he just takes a walk! "Nice try, I guess I'll settle for one RBI this time."
I will leave you now with the infamous "Kruk Call" from early last season, in which ESPN color-man, John Kruk, suspects something might happen...
Now, that's great in itself, but the most important part of this clip is the audio on the replay towards the end - listen to that crowd, screaming like bloodthirsty Romans at the colosseum. And that game was in April! And it was raining! But that's what the outsiders don't get to experience, the way that roar was earned, over and over and over and over again, to a point where we will go in frigid Michigan April and get rained on to see it happen. He is our champion, our victor, and his heroics ennoble this rough patch of country in a way that nothing else does, and that is why he's worth every penny.
So paint the man's face red, stick him on a chariot, and parade him down Woodward in triumph. He deserves it.
And if you've made it to the end of this post, play ball you nerds!
It's baseball time.