LAKELAND, Fla. — Miguel Cabrera stood in front of his locker Monday morning in the clubhouse. He was asked about the biggest difference between his first spring training, as a baby-faced non-roster invitee with the Florida Marlins in 2003, and his final spring training.
“I don’t remember anything,” he said.
His final spring training is officially underway, and the Detroit Tigers‘ 2023 season will be highlighted by an incredible farewell tour for one of the best hitters in baseball history. Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, notched 500 home runs in 2021, 3,000 hits in 2022 and now embarks on the last hurrah of a legendary career.
Midway through the next question, Cabrera interrupted a reporter and provided an answer to the inquiry regarding his first spring training. It has been a long time — 20 years, to be exact — but he hasn’t forgotten all the details. After all, that spring training happened to be the beginning of his magical rookie season, when he helped the Marlins win the 2003 World Series.
“Different car,” he said. “I have a better car now.”
Then, Cabrera started laughing.
“Maybe a rental car,” he said.
Everyone around him laughed, too.
At one point, he snatched a TV reporter’s microphone and started doing a mock interview: “Hi, I am Miguel Cabrera, from ABC.” He joked about possibly becoming a reporter when he officially retires. (He previously shared his ambition to coach with the Tigers.) Once again, Cabrera started laughing. Everyone around him laughed, too.
He deals with chronic pain in his right knee, which has only gotten worse while diminishing his performance for several years. Still, the former two-time American League MVP does his best to maintain his childlike love for baseball. It’s not always easy, but he loves to play. Everyone involved in the game — fans, teammates, coaches and opponents — will miss his infectious laughter and constant smile when his career concludes after this season.
But his playing career isn’t over yet.
This is only the beginning to an epic final chapter.
“I’m gong to go out there and be me,” Cabrera said. “When they give me a chance to play, I’ll play. I don’t know what my role is going to be this year, but I’m open to everything. Hopefully, if I can hit, I’m going to be in the lineup.”
Down the road, Cabrera will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Opposing teams will celebrate his legacy this season through elaborate farewell gifts, pregame ceremonies and commemorative videos. Historically, those traditions have been reserved for the best of the best, like Derek Jeter, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols.
Cabrera refused to request gifts and ceremonies.
“It’s nice if they do something. It’s nice if they don’t do it, either,” Cabrera said. “Some guys always want to be in the middle of everything. I don’t want attention. I don’t want any distractions for our team. I look forward to beating (other teams). If they’re going to give me something, they’ve already given me a lot of hits. That’s enough for me.”
Cabrera, who says individual numbers aren’t his priority, is one of three players in MLB history with at least 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 600 doubles.
The others: Pujols and Hank Aaron.
Cabrera, unlike Pujols and Aaron, has a Triple Crown on his résumé. He achieved the award in 2012 by leading the AL in batting average (.330), homers (44) and RBIs (139). Only one player — nicknamed “Miggy” — has earned a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Last season, Pujols completed his playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals. He hit 24 home runs — the most since his 2016 season — and played 109 games in the regular season, plus two games in the postseason.
Cabrera, who will cash in $32 million this season, hasn’t hit more than 16 home runs since the 2016 season, and he hasn’t appeared in the postseason since 2014. The 2023 season marks the final year of his contract.
“Hopefully, I can finish my career like that,” Cabrera said. “Hopefully, I can help the team to go to the playoffs. (Pujols) had a chance to compete. I hope we can go out there, try to compete every night and try to win more games.”
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Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, whom Cabrera deeply respects and often confides in, shared his thoughts about the franchise icon’s upcoming farewell tour. Hinch, a baseball lifer, has watched from afar as other players received the royal treatment.
On Monday, Hinch referenced Cabrera’s greatnesses in the first team meeting of full-squad workouts.
“We’re going to cherish our time with Miggy, but we’re also going to let him be a player, a contributor and himself,” Hinch said. “I know he doesn’t want a lot of attention. He’s going to get it anyway from fans, the organization and his teammates. I think his contribution to the Tigers needs to be celebrated.”
President of baseball operations Scott Harris, a newcomer to the organization, hopes young position players, in particular, treasure the moments. He specifically mentioned Colt Keith, Justyn-Henry Malloy and Parker Meadows, but his message undoubtedly applies to every youngster in spring training and the big leagues this season.
“Most of these young hitters will never play with another surefire Hall of Famer, another Rushmore-type player in an organization,” Harris said. “I hope they’re constantly picking his brain. … I hope they’re attached to his hip all spring and soak up that wisdom. The overwhelming theme is we should feel lucky to have him.”
Cabrera seems to be on the same page.
“I look forward to enjoying this season and trying to help the young guys,” Cabrera said, “and trying to help our team win more games. That’s my focus this year. I don’t want any distractions. I don’t want any videos or any stuff. I want to do my job. That’s it.”
In 2022, Cabrera did his fair share as a designated hitter before the pain in his knee became borderline unbearable. He struggled to rotate his back knee in the batter’s box while trying to attack pitches, leaving him unable to generate power.
He hit .308 with a .718 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 70 games through July 6. After that, he hit .160 with a .455 OPS in his final 42 games.
He landed on the injured list in early September due to a left biceps strain.
But his right knee, more than anything, gave him trouble last season.
“I was very worried last year,” Cabrera said. “Right now, I feel confident that it’s not going to happen again this year. I need to do my work and do everything to get my knee stronger. Hopefully, I can go out there and play more.”
Cabrera feels as healthy as he can entering his final spring training. If it were up to him, and if his body held up, he wouldn’t hesitate to play all 162 games this season. This is a game he has loved since childhood, a game he has played professionally since competing for the Marlins in the Gulf Coast League in 2000.
But his clock is finally winding down.
There are 222 days until the Tigers’ season finale.
It’s time for one last dance.
“I hope I can go out there and try to do what I can do,” Cabrera said. “We’ll see how spring training goes, and the World Baseball Classic. The manager has the last decision. If I can hit, I think I will be in the lineup. Let’s see what happens.”
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera begins final chapter in historic career