February 19, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers throw support behind Miguel Cabrera, but not without conditions

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, talking with Tigers catcher Victor Martinez during spring training workouts in Lakeland, Fla., on Friday, dismissed suggestions of a clubhouse disruption and said he expected Miguel Cabrera to have “the biggest year of his life.” (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. -- This has to be tough and embarrassing for Miguel Cabrera, and the Tigers have to be tough about it. Welcome him back? Sure, and that's their plan.

But now, the bond cannot be unconditional. And the guy who must deliver as much tough love as anyone is Magglio Ordonez, a fellow Venezuelan, a highly respected veteran and one of Cabrera's closest friends.

Ordonez stood in the sun Friday and firmly delivered the words Cabrera needs to hear. Whenever Cabrera shows up for spring training, they're the words Ordonez plans to personally deliver.

"He's the franchise player, and he understands they're building the team around him," Ordonez said. "He needs to pull everything together. He's our superstar and we need him acting like a superstar."

Someone has to honestly and strongly address the issue, because there's too much at stake. Cabrera is an unreal talent with a too-real problem involving alcohol. He cannot maintain this level of personal irresponsibility, with two public incidents in a year-and-a-half. The recent arrest in Fort Pierce, Fla., was especially troubling for his combative behavior and his alleged swig from a bottle of Scotch in front of the deputy.

Cabrera probably would hit 35 home runs no matter what demons he was battling. That's not the issue, and the Tigers must treat this very seriously. They need him to get better, not just drive in runs, because the link between addiction and production almost always frays, left untended.

Faith in superstar

Cabrera is only 27, old enough to stop acting like a kid, young enough to straighten himself out. Players and team officials were unsure when they'd see Cabrera next — the first full-squad workout is today but his appearance is pending the fallout from his DUI arrest — but they passionately defended him.

Jim Leyland dismissed suggestions of a clubhouse disruption and said he expected Cabrera to have "the biggest year of his life." Brandon Inge declared it wouldn't be a distraction, and the team would make Cabrera's return as comfortable as possible.

Ordonez sounded like a wise teammate and a puzzled friend. But the theme doesn't vary right now. The Tigers are supporting their superstar, partly because they absolutely need him, and partly because they like him.

"I'm not worried — I know he's going to pull everything together," Ordonez said. "He did it last year and he was good. I don't know his personal life, if he has a problem or not. But I know he's a good guy and a great teammate and a very nice person."

That's the mandate then: Be a great teammate and a very nice person, and a good husband and father, too. Oh, and act like a superstar. We know it can be done because, well, Cabrera has done it.

Last year was, arguably, his finest, finishing second in the AL MVP voting to Josh Hamilton, another star who overcame personal problems. Cabrera's rebound came after an awful end to the 2009 season, when in the middle of a pennant race, he got into a physical altercation with his wife after drinking all night.

Ordonez saw plenty of Cabrera this past offseason, training together every day at 8 a.m. in Fort Lauderdale. Ordonez made the assumption anyone would — if the guy is working hard and showing up early, he can't possibly be out at night.

Maybe Cabrera wasn't. But the pattern is growing, and Ordonez could make the strongest connection with him. Cabrera has talked about how much he respects Ordonez, who's 10 years older and an enormous hero in Venezuela.

Ordonez's and Cabrera's lockers are side by side in the Comerica Park clubhouse, not by accident. Asked if he could break through to his friend, Ordonez said he has tried, and will keep trying.

"I talk to him, but you can't talk to a person unless he listens," Ordonez said. "I trained with him and I didn't see anything different, but I don't know where he goes after we train. I'm going to support him because he needs support, and he's also my friend."

He must get help

The Tigers are in protection mode right now, and it's understandable. It's what teams do.

But it cannot obscure the real issue. They cannot simply hope to milk as many three-run homers out of Cabrera as they can. I know that's how it works in sports — if a guy is producing, overlook everything else.

This is on Cabrera, obviously, to seek treatment or get some sort of help. It's also on the Tigers to demand it, to show him how much he's needed and appreciated in ways other than handing him a bat. It can't just be about the numbers, even if that's how many view it.

"To be dead honest with you, most of baseball is like that," Inge said. "If you don't produce, people will think something's wrong. And if you do produce, they won't care if something's wrong.

"The big part for him is to not care what people think. We're here to help him block out anything that can be a distraction. Baseball is his life, and being back around his family, the team, he'll be fine."

Cabrera doesn't necessarily need to care how fans or media react.

But if he wants to keep being successful in this game, in Detroit, he has to care what teammates think.

The Tigers have to tell him what they think, in a brutally straightforward manner. That's from Dave Dombrowski to Leyland to Ordonez, the close friend and teammate who soon will have to assume both roles again, and help a superstar show who he is, or at least who he should be.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Magglio Ordonez wants to help his friend and fellow Venezuelan, Miguel ... (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
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