Saturday, September 19, 2009

Miguel Cabrera's Shoulders Getting Narrow at the Wrong Time

It was in a fit of frustration, earlier in this unusual baseball season, when Tigers manager Jim Leyland tried his hardest to inflict a scolding on his star first baseman without naming him.

“It’s time,” Leyland said, while the Tigers were again laboring so hard to score some runs, “for the big boys to be the big boys.”

You can lose the “s” and thus the plural version of that phrase, for Leyland had one player and one player only in mind.

The “big boy” was Miguel Cabrera. Still is.

It was a time when Cabrera was padding his statistics without any real impact on his team’s won/loss column. Miguel’s done that quite a bit this year, actually—and that’s largely why the Tigers suddenly find themselves in a dogfight for a division that they led by seven full games an eye blink ago.

Leyland all but begged his slugger, when he made the “big boys” comment, to broaden his shoulders and lug the Tigers along for a period of time. It was a cry for help, the “big boys” comment was—literally and figuratively.

Cabrera is a wonderful talent. A freak of a hitter, when he gets it going, puts it all together—all that rot. He ought to have the shoulders of Atlas, not that of Ray Bolger’s scarecrow from Wizard of Oz.

Cabrera’s shoulders broadened for a scintillating couple of weeks in late-August, when the Tigers started to pile onto their division lead. But now they’ve become puny again.

There are plenty of suspects in the Tigers’ lineup against whom you can levy charges for aiding and abetting a popgun offense.

Curtis Granderson, the formerly exciting leadoff hitter, who used to slap doubles and triples all over Comerica Park’s vastness, but who has this season fallen in love with the long ball and now cannot hit left-handers to save his soul.

Magglio Ordonez, once a gigantic hero in this town, by virtue of swatting the Tigers into the World Series in 2006, and by winning the batting crown the following year. But Ordonez vanished on the Tigers for such long stretches that it was summarily discussed whether to cut him from the roster, like some commoner.

Gerald Laird, the good field, no hit catcher whose bat is where rallies go to die.

There are more of them who you have my permission to look at cross-eyed.

Gutsy third baseman Brandon Inge, who’d play until his body fell apart if you let him. But Inge’s heroics—playing on one good leg—could be argued are hurting the Tigers more than helping.

The Tigers—the first place, wobbly Tigers—have instead relied on the unproven and the young—the so-called “role players,” for assistance.

Rookie catcher Alex Avila wasn’t even supposed to be anywhere near Detroit in 2009, his big league debut penciled in for 2010, but the Tigers were getting nothing from the bats of Laird and backup Dusty Ryan. So in a moment of weakness or desperation—take your pick—the Tigers summoned Avila from the minor leagues.

And the kid who wasn’t supposed to be a Tiger yet ended up becoming a player on which the team relied for clutch hitting—shaming Leyland’s “big boys” in the process. Others, like Ryan Raburn and Clete Thomas, also became heroes when those paid the big bucks disappeared.

Oops—my bad. I pluralized big boy again, a couple sentences ago.

Miguel Cabrera—he of the big bat, big contract, and big expectations—has pulled another vanishing act, and at the worst possible time.

Cabrera’s talent is in rarified air. When he’s on, he’s a rightfully feared hitter who can break the spirit of entire teams. He has the goods to swing the bat of Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Howard. It is company with which he ought to feel comfortable.

But Cabrera is failing the Tigers now. Maybe it’s a lack of maturity or temerity, but Cabrera is proving to be a fraud in the broad shoulders department.

I’ve seen players of far lesser talent than what Cabrera possesses hunker down and pile the Tigers on their backs.

I thrilled to Kirk Gibson, who returned from the strike of 1981 as if a man on a mission. Gibby destroyed American League pitching in the second half of that divided season, batting a robust .375 from August 10 on, leading the Tigers straight into a truncated but no less real pennant race with the Milwaukee Brewers.

I remember Johnny Grubb—the Gentleman from Virginia—carrying the Tigers for several weeks in 1986 as the team scrambled to give the Boston Red Sox a run for their money.

Neither Gibson nor Grubb had anywhere near the talent that Miguel Cabrera has. Perhaps Cabrera has more of it in his left bicep than Gibson or Grubb had in their entire bodies.

But Kirk Gibson was the greatest money hitter I’ve ever seen in Detroit. By far.

Cabrera has a wonderful chance to own this town, right now. It’s all there for him. He should, by rights, be allowing his teammates to board him as he lugs them across the finish line, quite heroically.

The Tigers need a pick-me-up in the worst way right now. As I bash the keyboard, the Tigers have lost eight of eleven games and on most nights are looking feeble in the process. Their prized pitching staff is finally starting to show signs of wear and tear. And the offense isn’t there to provide the pitchers with quid pro quo.

Their once-mighty lead in the Central Division has shrunk to three measly games. The untrustworthy Minnesota Twins are up to their old tricks again.

This ought to be Miguel Cabrera’s time. This is when the genuinely great players rise to the occasion. This is where the “big boys” separate themselves from the mere mortals.

But this isn’t proving to be Cabrera’s time—unless you mean his time to gag along with his teammates as the air gets tougher to breathe due to all the heat of a pennant race that shouldn’t be happening.

Cabrera’s numbers will look moderately gaudy at the end of the season, at first blush. Folks outside of Detroit who don’t know better will look at his HR/RBI/BA and whistle, duly impressed.

They will not know the true story.

The story of a marvelous ballplayer who stared down the barrel of true greatness and blinked.

He’s no Kirk Gibson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

things are awfully close now!