March 28, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Lynn Henning

Miguel Cabrera's value to Tigers, Detroit doesn't have pricetag

Miguel Cabrera, seated next to Dave Dombrowski, answers a question during Friday's press conference in Lakeland, Fla. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

Lakeland, Fla. – Of course, it’s too much money. Of course, it’s for too many years.

And, of course, based on the sometimes ludicrous ways of the free market, it was the correct move by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch to award his indescribable superstar, Miguel Cabrera, a lifetime contract that will pay him nearly $300 million during the next 10 years.

America has answered, mostly with fury, at news made final during a Friday press conference at which Cabrera appeared, flanked by Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief, and new manager Brad Ausmus.

I don’t get their rage, not in 2014, although everyone has his or her idea of what contracts and cash can be defended and what crosses the threshold of sanity.

For example, the feeling here 26 months ago when Prince Fielder signed a $214 million deal with Detoit was that Ilitch and his lieutenants would regret – sooner rather than later – a deal that would force the Tigers to eat perhaps $100 million or more.

The same take on a terrible contract exists today even if it now is the property of the Rangers after Dombrowski unloaded Fielder in November.

Move now to Max Scherzer, who a few days ago was not Detroit’s most popular performer after he snubbed a reported $144 million extension that would have anchored him to Comerica Park for six additional years.

As a straightforward assessment of a contract’s length, and a pitcher’s age (30 in July), this, too, appeared to be trouble waiting to happen for the Tigers, even considering Scherzer’s immense talent and the capacity for him to pitch deep into his 30s.

Cabrera is Detroit's

Cabrera, though, is different. Different from anyone in baseball. Different from any athlete in Detroit sports history. Different and important and likely to be remembered and celebrated for generations in Detroit.

And that is why, almost certainly, Ilitch decided to make an otherwise inexplicable investment in a single baseball player.

He understands those monuments beyond centerfield at Comerica Park and their eternal place in Motown’s mosaic. When he, or any visitor, steps into Comerica Park’s administrative offices along Montcalm Ave., they bypass a hallowed plaque of Ty Cobb, “A Genius In Spikes,” which testifies to the invaluable gift a truly perpetual player becomes to a team and to a town.

Cabrera is one of those players. And, to the extent a billionaire owner could justify such philanthropy, he knew Cabrera belonged somewhere other than to the 2016 free-agent auction.

He belonged to Detroit. To the Tigers. To a community that, in some manner or another, continues to buy tickets, not only to baseball games, but to a team’s past and present grandeur, all crafted by great players like Cobb and Cabrera who have made this particular sport and team an indelible facet of their lives.

What price do you place on that kind of love, passion, and relationship?

Sure, in a rigid economic context, it’s craziness. But this also is nonsensical – the idea of 3 million people, in Detroit and within a regional economy that’s slightly better than the moon’s, crashing turnstiles at Comerica Park at a clip far beyond explanation or comprehension.

It probably makes no more sense that those same people pay $8 for a beer or $100 for a CABRERA jersey. But tell them that, the people, the patrons, to whom this contract was directed.

Iconic status

What is that Cobb plaque worth, knowing Tyrus Raymond happened to be Detroit’s gift rather than some other town’s icon? What if the Phillies had paid Al Kaline something “absurd” – like another thousand bucks – to have signed with them in 1953 rather than with the Tigers?

How diminished would Detroit be if Mr. Tiger hadn’t been around these past 60 years?

What, too, would Detroit’s baseball galaxy had been minus Ernie Harwell? Never mind the money, because money wasn’t relevant in Kaline’s or Harwell’s world, either because free agency hadn’t arrived, or because baseball broadcasters weren’t exactly subject to salary raids.

Think, rather, about what they meant to Detroit. Ilitch has. And he couldn’t imagine Detroit minus Cabrera these next 10 years, watching this man, this player whose singular, transcendent talent with a bat we all have been blessed to behold.

And so the owner popped for nearly $300 million bucks and said: Here, Detroit. I can do this. The market – if not the critics -- says he’s worth it. I’m keeping this grand man here for as long as he can pull on a cream-white uniform accented in that blue Olde English D.

Everyone else can be puzzled or indignant about the Cabrera contract. I think Detroit and Mike Ilitch simply get it.

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