© 2012 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
KANSAS CITY -- In the ultimate sign of respect for a visiting player, Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera received a standing ovation from the crowd at Kauffman Stadium as he stepped into the batter's box Wednesday night. Then, he stepped into history.
With a .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBIs, Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to achieve the Triple Crown, leading the American League in all three categories. Save for a two-homer game from ex-teammate Curtis Granderson to climb within one home run, it was essentially a victory lap.
For the crowd in Kansas City, the players on the field and fans watching everywhere else, it was an appreciation. For Cabrera, it seemed to be a realization.
"Unbelievable," Cabrera said. "I don't believe this happened right now. I didn't believe three weeks ago it was going to happen. I didn't believe this was possible. But you always dream. Thank God I got an opportunity for this dream to come true."
Cabrera repeated his batting title, becoming the first Tigers player with consecutive batting crowns since Ty Cobb won three from 1917-19.
But it's the Triple Crown that earned the accolades. Major League Baseball's 12th such feat since the RBI became an official stat was the first by a Latin-born player. No one had done it since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
"It is an honor to congratulate Miguel Cabrera on earning the Triple Crown, a remarkable achievement that places him amongst an elite few in all of baseball history," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "Miguel has long been one of the most accomplished hitters in the game, and this recognition is one that he will be able to cherish for the rest of his career in baseball and beyond. As the Tigers prepare for the postseason, we have a global stage to witness Miguel's talent, which will go down as one of the hallmarks of Major League Baseball's extraordinary 2012 regular season."
Like Yastrzemski, Cabrera pulled away from his closest competitors with a playoff race pushing him. Unlike Yaz, who said he wasn't aware he had done it until the very end, Cabrera was enveloped by the attention in the final days.
Unlike Cabrera, Yastrzemski didn't have two generations of history since the last one. He didn't have any gap at all; Frank Robinson had accomplished it one year before.
"I would like to extend my sincere congratulations to Miguel Cabrera on winning the Triple Crown," Yastrzemski said in a statement. "I am glad that he accomplished this while leading his team to the American League Central title. I was fortunate enough to win this award in 1967 as part of the Red Sox Impossible Dream Team."
Said Robinson: "Miguel has been outstanding all year long by coming to play every day, showing his discipline at the plate and making the most of his great talent. For me, earning the batting title over Tony Oliva, who we played against in the last series of the year, was the hardest part, and for Miguel, I am sure it was even more challenging, given all the specialized relievers in the game today."
Never had baseball gone this long without a Triple Crown, but Yastrzemski's standard held up far beyond the year of the pitcher in 1968. It somehow made it through the '90s, past the millennium and into a new golden age of pitching.
Once Cabrera took the skills that had already allowed him to win the batting crown, home run and RBI titles and applied them with consistency, history was no match.
It was a feat five years in the making for Cabrera. He was a month into his Tigers career, having just hit one of his trademark opposite-field home runs the night before, when Jim Leyland laid down a challenge for him.
"I want to see him bear down every at-bat for one week, show me what he can do," Leyland said on a Friday afternoon in a smelly hallway of the Metrodome in 2008.
Leyland had seen Barry Bonds raise and lower his concentration level according to the situation when he was managing in Pittsburgh. But for him, the focus he saw out of Albert Pujols was the best he had ever seen.
That's what he wanted to see out of Cabrera, then a National League transplant who had just turned 25.
"I think when the situation becomes big, he zeros in. He locks in," Leyland said that day, "but I want to see what he can do if he locks in every at-bat. There's no telling what he could do. This guy's a special talent."
It's no longer potential. It's etched in history.
"I don't think he gets what just happened," Prince Fielder said. "He's the best of all time."
Fittingly, Cabrera took a moment to thank his manager, remembering that early challenge.
"He's one of the guys who pushed me every day to play hard," Cabrera said after Wednesday's game. "He pushed me to go out there and play hard every day, don't throw away any at-bats. I said thank you for pushing me that way to go out there and do better."
This is the potential so many saw in Cabrera, from Leyland to Carlos Guillen, from Verlander to former teammate and mentor Magglio Ordonez. This is the talent, the quick bat and opposite-field power, Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila saw when he was the Marlins scouting director signing Cabrera more than a decade ago, and when he talked over hypothetical trades with the Marlins to get him to Detroit at the 2007 Winter Meetings.
This is the potential. And yet the results are beyond what so many imagined.
The results are enough to make Leyland -- who absolutely hates comparing players -- think of Bonds, and think of Cabrera, and pause.
"I've managed a lot of players, and some great ones, but I've never seen anything like this," Leyland said.
Bonds owns home run records and batting titles. He never did this. Amazingly, he never won a home run title and a batting crown in the same season.
Pujols came close in 2009, taking his bid into the final days before falling short in batting average and RBIs.
The potential was there for Cabrera. It just took a little time to come together.
Cabrera was a 24-year-old wunderkind when the Tigers traded for him, signed him to one of baseball's richest contracts, and placed on his shoulders the aspirations of a World Series. With that came the championship dreams of an aggressive-spending owner and the hopes of a city that needed some hope in the midst of economic calamity. And Cabrera probably wasn't ready for all of that. Not many kids that age are.
He has grown into the role of superstar, personally and professionally, learned how to deal with the attention and the pressure.
When the Tigers lost the AL Central tiebreaker game to the Twins in 2009, again at the Metrodome, Cabrera sat at his locker inconsolable. He was a giant of a man, hunched over, sobbing, feeling like he had let the team down. He hit .280 with 21 RBIs in 33 games after Sept. 1, a good stretch for a lot of players, but statistically his worst month of the season. A domestic incident in the season's final weekend had become national news, and put his personal life in the papers.
When the Tigers celebrated their first division title in 24 years last September on a Friday night in a cramped clubhouse in Oakland, Cabrera sat by himself with a bottled water and a cigar and watched everybody else party. The look on his face showed he was clearly content, and maybe a little bit relieved that his team had done what he was brought here to do.
He didn't just produce last September, he thrived.
"That's just the sign of a great player," Justin Verlander said. "If there's pressure, they do better. He realized in the last month that he had the chance to win a batting title and what did he do, hit .450 or whatever."
He was exaggerating, but not by much. Cabrera hit .429 in the final month to win his first batting title, adding it to his home run title from 2008 and his RBI crown from '10.
He already had won all three Triple Crown categories, just in different seasons. The list of other active players to do that starts with Pujols and ends with Alex Rodriguez.
This is the year Cabrera put it all together, literally and figuratively, personally and professionally. For him, the end might have been the sweetest of all.
While the Tigers celebrated another division title Monday night, champagne flowing in the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman, Cabrera was off to the side, but he wasn't hiding. He was in Leyland's office, his young daughter in his arms, while owner Mike Ilitch and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski sat with Leyland and the coaches and enjoyed the moment.
He took the field early that day, before the Tigers took batting practice, and said hello to just about every Royals player and coach near the batting cage. He talked hitting with Johnny Giavotella, and he hugged Royals coach Rusty Kuntz, a former coach with the Marlins. Then he went 4-for-5.
Then he came out the next day, the letdown game for most teams that clinch a playoff spot, and went 2-for-3 to pretty much clinch the batting title.
"I always like to play," Cabrera said. "I cannot sit down and see what's going to happen because it's boring. You're going to see me there, having fun and playing hard to win games."
To watch Cabrera's demeanor on the field the past two weeks, it was impossible to tell he was in a playoff race, let alone a chase with hitting history. In the midst of a Twins scoring opportunity during Sunday's pitching duel, with speedy Ben Revere on third, Cabrera caught a popup behind third base, turned his head, snuck a suspicious look at Revere and smiled. Revere laughed out loud.
Nobody on the Tigers, and maybe nobody in the game today, has a reputation for working harder and setting high standards than Verlander. He wouldn't have gotten to this point in his career otherwise. What Cabrera has done leaves him in awe.
"It's surreal, unbelievable what he's done this year," Verlander said. "It's amazing to me how he continues to get better. You look at his numbers in the past, and he's like the best player in the game, and yet he turned it up to another level this year somehow."
For someone with so much weight of his team's fortunes on his shoulders, he has gotten precious little individual credit for it. It isn't just about MVP voting; Cabrera has never even been voted to start an All-Star Game. He started last year only because Justin Morneau was hurt.
It says something that so many star players, many of whom have met Cabrera, have talked so glowingly of Cabrera as he closed in on the feat. Josh Hamilton, whose own personal struggles have been well-chronicled, was neck-and-neck with him for the home run crown, and even he was pulling for him.
"I enjoy watching guys succeed at what I do," Hamilton said last week. "What a great accomplishment that would be."
The journey has been pretty amazing, too.