February 18, 2011 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Cabrera's career might be on the line in battle against alcohol

This is not Miguel Cabrera’s first losing bout with alcohol, and the raw question must be asked: Can the Tigers truly count on their superstar first baseman anymore? (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. -- On the most basic level, you have sympathy for Miguel Cabrera, fighting a battle he apparently is not winning, or stopped winning, or may never win.

That's the saddening, staggering part of this story, that it might not end as everyone hoped. Cabrera needs help again, and a serene spring training just got shattered with news of his arrest for suspicion of DUI.

It's not Cabrera's first losing bout with alcohol, and the raw question must be asked: Can the Tigers truly count on their superstar first baseman anymore?

Oh, they'll support him, as they should. GM Dave Dombrowski said Thursday the team would give Cabrera "tough help," and he fully expected the slugger in camp at some point. But it's impossible to ignore all the warning sirens, blaring now. I'd hope Cabrera at least would stop at a rehab facility before showing up, or face a suspension.

The legal issue will play itself out and the Tigers offered little as they awaited more details. The personal issue is the one that must petrify the team and Cabrera's family and friends. His teammates expressed shock at the arrest, which included charges of resisting an officer without violence.

"He's like a big teddy bear, always in good spirits," said catcher Alex Avila, who worked out with Cabrera in Florida during the offseason. "In his circle of people, he's pretty open. Honestly, as much of a superstar as he is, he's very down to earth, a normal guy."

Dark side

Perhaps it's a well-crafted façade of normalcy, hiding deeper emotional issues. If Cabrera fooled anybody before, he's not fooling 'em now. When he got into a domestic dispute late one night during the 2009 pennant race and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.26 — but wasn't charged — the Tigers backed him. He went through an offseason counseling program and declared himself alcohol-free, although he pointedly said he was not an alcoholic.

That may have been a more-telling denial than anyone realized. Late Wednesday, three days before the Tigers' first full-squad workout, Cabrera was arrested after police found him in his car by the side of a road in Fort Pierce. According to the report, he appeared inebriated, was belligerent and uttered the time-honored badge of arrogance: "Do you know who I am?"

It's a question Cabrera, 27, probably never has answered himself. He's well-liked by teammates and well-appreciated by fans. He was tremendous last season, finishing second in the AL MVP voting with 38 home runs and 126 RBIs.

But there's a dark side, obviously, and if it isn't killing him, it's threatening to kill his career. It surfaced in the physical altercation with his wife in October 2009. It could derail a Hall-of-Fame course, even as it potentially wrecks a Tigers season before it began.

The Tigers are in a tough spot because they need their cleanup hitter desperately, and they'll do everything possible to help him through this. But they'll always wonder if there's another misstep ahead. They invested a lot in Cabrera with that $153.3 million deal in 2008. Without him, they'd go from a division contender to a .500 team, although that wasn't in the front of their minds right away.

"I was shocked, I had no idea," Dombrowski said. "We fully support him in trying to get help for his situation, that's what you do for anybody. It's also tough help sometimes."

There can be no coddling here, no looking the other way. Teammates closest to him know it, too. Carlos Guillen, a fellow Venezuelan, knows how hard it is for popular players surrounded by friends and wanna-be friends.

"Yeah, I worry about him," Guillen said. "Sometimes you get people around you that aren't good for you. That's one thing he needs to learn, how to say no. You don't want to look back and say you could've been in the Hall of Fame, but you made two or three mistakes that cost you. You got a depression, it's not easy to get it out. It's every day for the rest of your life, not one year, not two years. He's a really good guy, but sometimes, he's not good."

Messy issue

The police report certainly described the "not good" Cabrera. He was so uncooperative, a deputy had to force him into the patrol car with several jabs of knee spikes into Cabrera's left thigh.

It's hard to imagine how someone so easygoing can careen so wildly, but then, it's hard to understand how alcohol can seize such control of a person. And let's be very clear on this — it is wholly Cabrera's responsibility, and he'll never conquer it until he recognizes it.

Last spring, he reported to camp in good shape and a great mood, and he declared, "I don't know how to explain, but it's not an alcohol problem." Two public incidents don't define a man, but at this stage, they define a problem. It's Cabrera's issue, but it's also the Tigers' very delicate and messy issue.

Jim Leyland declined to talk about it until he learned more. The Tigers are in fact-finding mode but there's little dispute this involved alcohol. The police report said Cabrera took a swig from a scotch bottle as the deputy approached the car.

Avila had been working out with Cabrera in Fort Lauderdale until about 10 days ago, and said the slugger was eagerly anticipating the season.

"There's no anger or animosity from us, your first reaction is for the person," Avila said. "Millions of people have problems with alcohol and drugs. It's something that can be overcome, but you need a lot of help."

And you need to admit you need a lot of help. At times, Cabrera carries the Tigers with the power of his bat. For three seasons here, he has been amazingly consistent, someone the team could count on. You hope those days don't end much sooner than they should.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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