Miguel Cabrera: Lucky to be in Detroit

Published: February 24, 2011, 12:37 am ET
Assistant Sports Editor

My favorite moment of last year’s Major League Baseball season was when Detroit Tigers fans gave umpire Jim Joyce a standing ovation a day after his blown call robbed Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game.

Galarraga had retired 26 consecutive Cleveland Indians batters last June and needed one more to notch perfection, something only 20 pitchers in MLB history had accomplished.

When Galarraga stepped on first base on the next play, a full step ahead of the runner, he and the almost 18,000 fans at Comerica Park thought he had become the 21st pitcher to record a perfect game, but Joyce called the runner safe.

“It was probably the most important call of my career and I missed it,” Joyce said after the game.

Joyce and Tigers fans spent the time after the game lamenting the call, but the next day Detroit fans did what they do best — they forgave him. Detroit manager Jim Leyland had Galarraga take the lineup card to Joyce before the next night’s game. Joyce and Galarraga exchanged hugs at home plate, and the umpire apologized for his dramatic error while the stadium applauded.

Late Wednesday, Feb. 13, Tigers’ All-Star first baseman Miguel Cabrera was arrested in Fort Pierce, Fla., on suspicion of drunken driving while he was on his way to spring training. Police spotted his car on the side of the road with the engine smoking. Cabrera smelled of alcohol and had slurred speech, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office said. He also took a swig from a bottle of scotch in front of a deputy, according to law enforcement.

“Do you know who I am?” he reportedly told officers. “You don’t know anything about my problems.”

A deputy kneed the slugger in the left thigh several times after Cabrera pushed into him, causing the first baseman to fall into the patrol car.

It wasn’t the first time Cabrera had a run-in with the police involving alcohol. Two years ago, the Tigers were trying to hold off the Minnesota Twins and clinch the American League Central title when Cabrera caused an uproar on the final weekend of the season.

Police arrived at Cabrera’s Detroit home at 5 a.m. on Saturday during the important weekend series after he got into a fight with his wife, who called 911. Cabrera was taken to a police station, registered a blood-alcohol content of 0.26 and had a bruised and cut left cheek.

That Saturday night, the slugger went 0 for 4 and stranded six runners in a 5-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox. The game started about 12 hours after Cabrera left the police station, and the loss caused Detroit to lose the AL Central title and a playoff spot to the Twins.

The All-Star first baseman signed an eight-year, $152.3 million contract with the Tigers in 2008. But while Cabrera is widely accepted as the best right-handed hitter in the American League, some baseball fans have questioned his work ethic and alcohol problems.

Last year, Detroit signed over-the-hill outfielder Johnny Damon to a one-year contract with the expectation that he would be a positive influence on the first baseman, and it worked. Cabrera went to rehab, and then showed up at spring training noticeably more fit and had the best season of his career. Most in Detroit, including general manager Dave Dombrowski, had thought Cabrera had gotten through the worst of his alcohol problems.

But Wednesday’s relapse shows that Cabrera has a long road ahead of him, and it is a process that neither he nor the Tigers should take lightly. The Tigers have made statements supporting Cabrera. They’ve also said they have no plans to void his contract, and it is hoped they really meant that.

Without him, the Tigers’ offense is significantly weaker, but the organization can’t afford to sacrifice Cabrera’s well-being to win a few more games. Cabrera is so unbelievably talented that he probably could have another poster year even while binge drinking. But how the team handles its slugger’s mental health is far more important than the health of the organization, even if the team is paying him more money than any other Tiger in history.

Cabrera is lucky that he plays in Detroit, and not in a more hostile environment like New York or Boston. While Detroit fans will miss seeing him in uniform through his recovery process, it won’t affect the way they view the slugger, as long as he is genuinely trying to get better. When he does return, I bet that he, like Joyce, will get a standing ovation. I just hope he takes the time to fully address his problems. Tigers fans will forgive him — it’s a city that specializes in hardship. All they want is for Cabrera to give them someone to root for again.

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