Oakland, Calif. — Armchair doctors abound in sports. Most of us have taken our turns there, even if medical-school transcripts can’t quite be located.
And most of us have gotten involved in assessing Miguel Cabrera’s situation, which, in this view, is the player issue that must be overcome if the Tigers this month are to play in another World Series.
Cabrera waltzed into the interview room Thursday at Oakland Coliseum and looked as if he had just finished the season batting .400.
“It’s media time,” he chirped as he strode to the podium, wearing an off-white Tigers cap etched in a bright orange “D.”
He was upbeat. He smiled as easily as he talked. He looked like anything but a player who for two months has been dealing with a miserably sore lower body.
Cabrera’s blue-sky assurances that he was fine gave way to darker words:
“After the season, I can rest,” he said, meaning the playoffs are a time to bite the bullet — November and December are a time to heal.
Jim Leyland arrived a half-hour after Cabrera departed and the Tigers manager was a master of balancing competing tasks: leveling about Cabrera’s injury, while painting it in the brightest of hues.
Leyland said Cabrera is “getting better.” And then he said “he’s nowhere near 100 percent.” In a non-news moment, Leyland acknowledged: “I truly believe, for a while, it was tough for Miguel to use his lower half.” This was followed by the skipper’s firm view that “he is getting better — but he’s nowhere near 100 percent.”
So, make of that what you will. But tonight, when the Tigers meet the A’s in Game 1 of the Division Series, be prepared for about the same Cabrera we have seen since a conveyor belt loaded with lower-body ailments dumped its ills on a Tigers superstar during the regular season’s second half.
If he can pull inside fastballs and breaking pitches for power beginning tonight at O.co Coliseum, Leyland will have been on to something when he said Cabrera last weekend in Miami was driving the ball with his old flair.
But if he cannot lay into pitches with Cabrera’s one-of-a-kind fury, the Tigers’ artillery will have been reduced, perhaps in series- and season-ending fashion.
Fans are right to wonder just how this situation became so dire. What could have, and should have, been done to protect a man who might go down as the greatest and most important hitter in Tigers history?
We will get — hopefully — a full and detailed account at the end of the season once Leyland, front-office chief Dave Dombrowski, doctors, trainers, and Cabrera tell us in sequential fashion what happened and how an initial back strain led to an injury that has demolished Cabrera’s power and left him gimping around the bases.
As best as conversations have informed us — they include some pointed questions Thursday to Cabrera and to Leyland — a rough time line can be deduced.
Cabrera had back problems in July that briefly knocked him from the lineup. He next had hip-flexor issues that the Tigers medics said were shared with an abdominal-wall ailment.
Later, as August’s maladies moved into September, Cabrera’s affliction expanded into the groin.
What is clear, and Cabrera admitted as much Thursday, is he will not recover until a long offseason offers him extended rest and a chance for his body to bounce back.
Hindsight, second-guessing — whatever you care to call it — will invite questions about how this might have been averted. Specifically, should Cabrera have been shipped to the disabled list in July or August, before this injury became all but incapacitating?
The Tigers and their medical team (Kevin Rand, head trainer, who with the counsel of doctors provides necessary physical facts) had determined in late July and early August that Cabrera did not need the disabled list. His situation was not serious, they said. A few days rest would be fine, but Cabrera did not require 15 days on the shelf.
It must be mentioned that this coincided with a critical point on the Tigers’ schedule. They had games on the road against the Indians and Yankees, and the Tigers wanted to avoid any slipups, any forfeiture of a lead they had steadily built and hoped to craft into something much larger, at which time Cabrera would have plenty of time to rest.
Not for one moment, based on their consultations with medical professionals, was Cabrera’s long-term health placed in jeopardy by the Tigers. They do not operate in that manner. Nothing in their past dealings, with any player at any level, would invite any doubt about ethics or the responsibility to Cabrera and to his long-term career.
But, clearly, this situation turned more serious and more painful for Cabrera, and more ominous for the Tigers. And when it worsened, it converted a baseball demolitions expert into a singles hitter who for eight weeks has been running the bases as if he were a hobbled thoroughbred.
The world will see beginning tonight if one of baseball’s all-time glorious hitters can function at anything close to the celestial level on which Cabrera, when healthy, performs.
If he can come even close, the Tigers have a lovely shot at another World Series bid.
If not, the team will be heading home. Cabrera will retreat to Miami for the healing rest he requires, and could not seem to get during the 2013 regular season.