The first two baseball memories I have to this day are Roger Clemens throwing a bat at Mike Piazza in the 2000 Subway Series and Miguel Cabrera hitting a home run off Clemens in the 2003 World Series between the Florida Marlins and New York Yankees. I’ll admit that just to antagonize my dad, a die-hard Yankees fan, I decided to root for the Marlins. There was no turning back for me: I fell in love with baseball and Miggy, at the time a 19-year-old boy, became my hero.
And how time has passed. Many expected Miguel Cabrera to become a star. A touted prospect signed for $1.8 million at age 16, Cabrera debuted at 19 in 2003 with the Marlins and in his first game hit a walk-off home run against the Tampa Bay Rays. That very same year he would hit a home run off Roger Clemens in the second game of the World Series, which the Marlins would go on to win in 6 games.
But boy, did he fulfill that destiny. In 2012, he won the MVP by becoming the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the Triple Crown of batting (leader in average, home runs, and runs batted in), something no one has accomplished ever since. 1 World Series, 2 MVPs, 1 Triple Crown, 11 All-Star Games, 7 Silver Sluggers, 5 batting titles, 502 home runs, and 3000 hits later, Miguel Cabrera is likely one of the 10 most complete hitters in Major League history.
In September, he became the 28th player to reach 500 home runs; today, he became the 33rd to reach 3000 hits. How many have reached both milestones? Only 7: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodríguez, Albert Pujols and now Miggy.
How many have reached both landmarks with, in addition, 2 MVP awards? Miggy joins Albert Pujols, Willie Mays and A-Rod. How many with 500 home runs, 3000 hits, and a .300 average? Cabrera, Hank Aaron and Mays. How many with 3000 hits, 600 doubles, and 500 home runs? Aaron and Pujols. How many with 3000 hits, 500 home runs, and a Triple Crown (even a sabermetric one, to appease the advanced stats lovers)? Miggy just inaugurated that club.
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After 5 years riddled with injuries, one can only wonder what would have become of Cabrera’s career with better health. Perhaps we would be talking about the best hitter in modern baseball history (who did not use steroids), along with Albert Pujols.
But for baseball and for Venezuela, Cabrera is more than an accumulation of statistics. He is an icon. The best athlete our country has ever produced–and proof that the American dream exists.
Scout Louie Eljaua discovered Cabrera on January 16, 1998, at age 15 in Maracay, when he was 6’2″ but had the face of a 10-year-old kid. From then on, Eljaua saw one of Cabrera’s great virtues: he knew how to use the whole field. He never necessarily looked to hit for power—it was a consequence of his technique. That day, Eljaua saw Cabrera’s show hitting to right field, center field, and left field. Line drives, homers; it was a batting buffet. Effortlessly, as if he were using a PlayStation cheat code.
Where did this habit of using hitting the ball to the opposite side come from? From his childhood. When he was 7 years-old, his uncle told him to hit the ball the other way. “Every time you pull the ball, you have to run a lap. So I hit the ball the other way,” Cabrera once told Sports Illustrated.
Eljaua’s scouting report is now in the Hall of Fame. Eljaua projected Cabrera to have 70 power and 65 batting ability on a scale of 20 to 80. “Instincts are those of a seasoned pro,” “has good balance and can drive the ball the other way,” and “Potential impact as a [major league] hitter.” And even if Eljaua was optimistic, he came up short.
Miguel Cabrera’s first years in America were not easy. He left without his family and didn’t speak a single word of English when he arrived—he could only order food at Burger King because he knew the menu in Venezuela and began to learn English by reading the newspaper.
After his first season in the majors—and winning the World Series—Miguel returned to Venezuela and found a country that surrendered to his feet. In The Beatles’ fashion, teenage girls swooned at the sight of his tanned face with a constant smile on it jumping onto the field wearing the blue of the Tigres de Aragua; he had to carry bodyguards everywhere he went. He was no longer José Miguel, el hijo de Gregoria. He was Miggy, el muchacho de la película (the boy in the movie, as he’s affectionately called in Venezuela) the pride of an entire country.
Venezuela is a country of shortstops. Aparicio, Carrasquel, Concepción, Vizquel, Guillén and many others who’ve made my country proud in the MLB. When my dad played ball, everyone wanted to be the SS and wear Aparicio’s 11 or Vizquel and Concepcion’s 13. When Miguel Cabrera reached the majors, everyone wanted to be a third baseman and wear 24.
I, being left-handed, had to settle for a bad imitation of his batting stance: legs slightly bent with the front foot forming a 45-degree angle, bat held high like a spearman ready to strike and his elbows forming a perfect 90-degree angle that would make Archimedes himself envious.
Unlike most modern players who prefer to make a small turn without lifting the front foot at the start of the swing, Cabrera generally lifts it inward, while transferring all his strength to the supporting foot and keeping his hips in balance so he can drive the ball freely to the field. Just like they teach you when you start playing tee-ball. If the pitch comes inside, Cabrera moves the lead foot and turns the front foot slightly to hit to the opposite side.
He knows how to adjust. He’s a natural. His teammates get annoyed with him because he often does not know how to explain how to make an adjustment or how to direct the ball. He just does it, like an ineffable divine gift. In the face of mystery, the appropriate attitude is contemplation and silence.
That swing worked very well for Miguel. Needless to say, it worked very little for me. But the comparison does not distress me: Miguel’s swing belongs to the Louvre because Cabrera is Robert Redford’s The Natural in real life.
Cabrera is the materialization of the American dream. Without knowing a word of English, but with a lot of hard work and natural talent, he left La Pedrera in Maracay, with a couple of stops in Miami and Detroit, straight to Cooperstown.
I write these words between inescapable tears and a lump in my throat because reaching 3000 hits is also synonymous with Miggy having only a few years left. He is no longer that kid with the perennial smile who played third base and left field with ease—and neither am I that kid who breathed baseball. Now he’s a veteran on a young team, with gnawed knees and an almost irreparably injured foot that have led him to split his time between first base and designated hitter. I am now a melancholic writer who remembers his tender childhood in another Venezuela to the rhythm of Miguel Cabrera’s swings.
Every milestone achieved is bittersweet because we are aware that the end is near: the last at-bat is about to come. But today, all Venezuelans, in the midst of our suffering—before which Miguel has always been a powerful voice in the United States—can smile with tear-filled eyes and say: Miggy is one of us.