August 21, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers wouldn't be playing Miguel Cabrera if it jeopardized his health

Detroit — Tigers followers have wondered for the past month if Miguel Cabrera might better swap his baseball bat for a set of crutches.

He hobbles, shuffles, and limps. Still, he is the King of Swing, a superstar hitter who for the past few weeks has eclipsed Cabrera’s earlier supernatural stunts.

Fans are torn. They cheer but are bothered by his physical state. They cringe watching him run — or, rather, what passes for Cabrera running — as he lopes in slow mini-strides toward first base, or as he slow-steps into second after hitting a ball up the gap that should have been a breezy stand-up double and instead turned into a tight, tense pull-up that scarcely beat the relay.

People ask why Cabrera’s team doesn’t do the humane thing and give him two weeks on the disabled list to heal and begin to resemble an ambulatory athlete. Some of Comerica Park’s customers have wondered if the team wasn’t acting in the lineup’s interests over Cabrera’s.

“We don’t do that here,” Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager, said Wednesday, a few hours before the Tigers beat the Twins, 7-1, at Comerica Park, with Cabrera’s bases-loaded double worth three of those runs. “I don’t know anyone (team) who does.

“The players are always honest with you. They won’t play if they can’t play.”

To a few doubters this will sound like a case of too much trust. Some, maybe not so cynically, will wonder if there is a kind of wink-wink agreement between a player who wants to hit, and a team that happily accepts his brave volunteer work.

But it’s not that way. Cabrera isn’t messing with his health and career. And neither are the Tigers.

“We’ve discussed that,” Kevin Rand, the Tigers head trainer, said Wednesday when asked why the Tigers didn’t make the DL call. “It’s not like we haven’t discussed it.”

Getting technical

Rand talked about sundry issues Wednesday, beginning with medical details. The abdominal wall strain is connected with the hip. This has been at the root of “flexion” issues that bothered Cabrera’s mobility even before he fouled two pitches off his knee and shin 12 days ago in New York.

The knee and shin contusions pretty much have disappeared. The abdominal-hip ills remain, although they are improving, even after Cabrera noticeably winced during his final at-bat in Tuesday’s game.

The medical men believe Cabrera can play and not jeopardize his healing process. And because of slow but steady improvement, the disabled list has not been viewed as a wise option — by Cabrera, or by Tigers staffers.

Not that Cabrera’s skills have no place in the discussion and evaluation.

“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” Rand said. “If it were, it would be easy. But we go through this with players all year long.”

Rand explained how Cabrera’s injury and some team performance needs were hashed out a few weeks ago, ahead of a big road trip spanning Cleveland, New York, and Chicago. Cabrera was probably at the worst stage of his abdominal-hip stress. The Tigers minds met.

“We could have put him on the DL,” said Rand, “but let’s say a week after the DL, he’s fine?

“He could have played those (ensuing) games.”

Cabrera just wants to play

The medical staff determined Cabrera’s recovery could withstand playing third base or swinging a bat. It would not always be comfortable for Cabrera or pretty to behold. They knew, for example, on balls struck, the only way Cabrera’s running wouldn’t be an issue was on a home-run trot.

But they saw no over-riding need, nor any great benefit, to sending Cabrera home for a 15-day stint on his front-porch swing.

Most important, they kept up steady conversation with Cabrera, who a month ago was given a five-day break when back and abdominal issues first surfaced.

The talks have continued. Medical oversight has been constant. The verdict has been to play Cabrera.

“The way I like to say it,” explained Rand, “is if an athlete tells me he can play, it’s not my place to take it away from him.”

All the Tigers and Cabrera took from Wednesday night’s game was a victory and three more RBIs (he has 123) for Cabrera.

“The biggest thing for me tonight,” Leyland said as he dug into a postgame plate of salmon, “is that I was pleased with his health.”

Pleased, for sure, but also relieved, reassured, and grateful.

The Tigers aren’t asking for much as this season winds down. Give them a functioning Cabrera and their 2013 gift-list will be complete.

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, left, and Andy Dirks arm-wrestle during batting practice before Wednesday night's game against the Twins at Comerica Park. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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