That’s baseball history right there,” says Verlander, the Tigers ace who won the MVP award the year before Cabrera. Verlander was such an outspoken spokesman for Cabrera’s MVP candidacy — he even ordered “Keep the MVP in the D” shirts — that it’s a wonder he didn’t have to file papers with the Federal Election Commission. “I’m getting chills thinking about it,” he says.
Of course, the only chills Cabrera is getting today, when asked to rehash those accomplishments, are a direct result of the weather. Trying his hardest to avoid any talk of himself on this frigid day in downtown Detroit, Cabrera is bundled up in a thick jacket and gloves. Put him in a snowmobile suit if you like. He’d probably still hit .300.
What Cabrera lacks in his autobiographical skills he makes up for with his playfulness. Few Major League Baseball players have as much fun while on the job as Cabrera — whether he’s snatching a “Fire Leyland” (Tigers manager Jim Leyland) sign from a fan while working an autograph line in Chicago only to eventually bust out a hearty laugh and hand the sign back, finding the closest camera and striking a funny pose with Prince Fielder (during a game, no less) or throwing batting practice to one of his teammates’ young children and raising his arms as if he’s won a World Series when one gets a hit. “When there are kids in the clubhouse before batting practice and stuff, he just kind of gravitates toward them and they toward him,” Avila says. “He’s a big kid; that’s what he is.”
The goofing around isn’t limited to his own ballclub either. Last April, when the Texas Rangers were in town and new pitcher Yu Darvish was on the mound, Cabrera flied out in the sixth inning and, while jogging back to the dugout, he appeared to mouth something to Darvish. Smack talk? “I think,” said Darvish through a smiling translator afterward, “he was asking me about a Japanese restaurant.” For grins and giggles, Cabrera even enjoys making a game out of something as dry as batting practice by attempting to hit home runs to each neck of the ballpark, moving from one foul pole to the other.
Baseball is said to be grown-ups playing a kids game. But too many players lose sight of that in a tsunami of agents, endorsements, contract negotiations and hangers-on. Not Cabrera. He adores the game, his teammates and especially his fans. He feels guilty if he misses even one kid seeking his autograph. He also gives back, via children’s charities. And he does it all — on the field and off — with a 1,000-watt smile that could light up the North Pole during winter solstice. “He’s fun to manage,” says Leyland, who’s had his fair share of great players on his teams over the years, including Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla. “He’s a big teddy bear.” Cabrera, though, is much smarter than your average teddy bear.
In recent years, baseball has, in many ways, been taken over by technology. Yet Avila says he can’t remember ever seeing Cabrera in the team’s video room — outside of the pre-series hitters meetings, of course. According to Avila, Cabrera can remember, without the benefit of the printed scouting report, how each opposing pitcher got him out in the past, then make the necessary adjustments. Rod Allen, an analyst for the team since the Tigers were awful and setting an American League record for losses in a season (119 in 2003), says Cabrera is so smart when it comes to opposing pitchers that he’ll sit on the bench and tell teammates that next time up, he’s looking for a specific pitch and not swinging until he gets it. Often he gets it and, often, he destroys it.