February 25, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers star Miguel Cabrera must earn back trust

Miguel Cabrera again declined to characterize his issue as alcoholism Thursday. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Miguel Cabrera looked somber and contrite, and sounded somber and contrite. In his heart and his mind, I'm sure he is somber and contrite.

But there's no time for hollow words anymore. Oh, Cabrera absolutely needed to say what he said Thursday, apologizing to teammates, fans and family, and also to the sheriff's deputies who arrested him on suspicion of drunk driving. He pledged commitment to a treatment program and declared, "I'm very sorry for what I did."

Fine. Fans will resume rooting for the superstar slugger, and they should. Root for him to hit massive home runs, root for him to be healthy, root for him the way you'd root for anyone battling a problem. He'll need it.

But fans and the Tigers also are entitled to be angry and disappointed. And yes, skeptical. When it comes to issues of alcohol, the words don't always match the actions. General manager Dave Dombrowski may not be leery of Cabrera, but he should be wary.

This is not a successful recovery yet, and the Tigers must know it. Cabrera again declined to characterize his issue as alcoholism. Speaking mostly in Spanish, he referred to the arrest last week as a "one-time incident," after declaring himself alcohol-free a year ago. Of course, there was that other ugly incident in October 2009, when a drunken Cabrera was taken to the Birmingham police station following a physical altercation with his wife.

I'm not a doctor and probably neither are you, so there's no sense trying to define Cabrera's exact level of addiction. But it's a bit surprising he's already in camp, already taking batting practice, while undergoing out-patient treatment through Major League Baseball. He can be inserted in the lineup whenever Jim Leyland deems him ready, and physically, it won't take him long to be ready.

Emotionally? Call me a softie — go ahead, I'm used to it — but I always believe in trying to fix people. The harsh truth is, it doesn't always work.

'I have it under control'

Maybe being in camp with his teammates will help it work for Cabrera. They've certainly expressed a willingness to make him feel comfortable, and for the most part, the big first baseman is easygoing and well-liked.

Cabrera spent part of the offseason working out with Magglio Ordonez in Fort Lauderdale and was driving to Lakeland when his car broke down — and his story of sobriety broke down with it.

"I have it under control," Cabrera said Thursday, as Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila translated. "It was a bad decision on my part. I want to regain my reputation."

He hasn't lost his reputation on the field. He's one of baseball's superstars, finishing second in 2010 in the American League MVP voting to Josh Hamilton. But the trick for the Tigers is to support Cabrera without enabling him. They can't belabor his problems, but they can't be dismissive, either.

Leyland said last week Cabrera was in the best shape of his career and would have "the biggest year of his life," and there's nothing wrong with backing the guy. Brandon Inge suggested the incident would be blown out of proportion. Frankly, it needs to be placed directly in proportion, and that means any slipup now must incur a swift suspension.

The Tigers need to support their star and protect their investment. The only lasting way to do that is to protect the person. The Rangers have done it so far with Hamilton, who battled through drug and alcohol addiction to become the AL's best last season. Hamilton has someone monitoring him at all times, and Cabrera and the Tigers are exploring a similar setup.

'It's a daily battle'

Dombrowski was asked by reporters what people should think about Cabrera's statement of contrition.

"I hope they see how sincere he is, and that he acknowledges he has a problem and is committed to fixing it," Dombrowski said. "He's disappointed in himself and he feels he let people down. I've said all along, it's a daily battle."

An unrelenting battle, a battle that neither started nor ended with Cabrera's return.

Perhaps it's best he's back in his element, away from the other elements. That's what fans should want, and what the Tigers have to believe.

"Baseball is his life, it's his passion, it's what he loves to do," Inge said recently. "Getting back to baseball is gonna be good for him."

That's the latest hope and the biggest hope for Cabrera, and it's something worth rooting for.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

After a half-hour speaking with reporters, Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera ... (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)
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