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Wojo: Miguel Cabrera feels ache of baseball mortality, hopes to play to 42

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — He still smiles a lot and laughs a lot. He also winces more these days, as the years and aches pile up. Miguel Cabrera has played the game a long time and hit as fearsomely as almost anyone in the history of baseball, but he feels the pinch of time.

So he’s doing what he has done for 13 major-league seasons, with a playfulness that belies his seriousness. He’s preparing for the next game, steadily and studiously, with a business venture that fits his personality. They’re called Miggy’s Bitbits, sweet crisped rice covered in chocolate, the lead item in the new line of Miggy Foods. It’s candy at the core, but like Cabrera himself, it goes deeper than the fun exterior.

There will be Miggy candy bars, more Miggy clothing items and Miggy shoes. Who knows, there might be a Miggy restaurant at some point. He launched the venture Friday before the Tigers opened their series against Texas, and the contrast was notable. He’s sidelined with an oblique muscle pull — he hopes to be back as soon as this weekend — after dealing with a strained back in spring training, then missing nine games with a groin strain.

None of the injuries have been as serious as the sports hernia surgery and calf strain that tormented him in recent years. And let’s be very clear here — Cabrera, 34, isn’t retiring anytime soon. His $240-million contract expires in 2023, when he’ll be 40, and he said he hopes to keep playing (as a DH) until 42 or 43.

And this isn’t about his early struggles this season, hitting .248 with four home runs and 15 RBIs. History and logic suggest when he’s healthy, he’ll be formidable again. The latest strain occurred during batting practice Wednesday night, but by Friday, Cabrera said he felt much better. The initial pain, though, was frustrating and disconcerting.

“When I felt it, I was almost crying, not again, please,” Cabrera said. “This year, it’s been very hard. I don’t want to push it, I don’t want to miss three weeks, that’s very dangerous. With this (injury), I said don’t put me on the DL, I know I’m gonna be good. … When I feel the age is when we got a night game, then a day game. It’s hard to recover as quickly.”

Crowning achievement

This business venture actually was hatched three years ago, and grew from concept to reality after Cabrera visited a candy factory in Brazil with long-time friend Daniel Satine. A lot can change before he turns 40, and corporate competition can be brutal, but this doesn’t look like a short-term lark. He joked that GM Al Avila could give him a job as a special assistant, but Cabrera doesn’t seem destined for a quiet front-office gig.

“When I feel I don’t want to play baseball anymore, I want to do something,” he said. “That’s why I started my clothing line, and when they come up with the idea of chocolate, I say yes right away. Baseball is something I love to do all my life, be a part of a baseball family. But after that, I want to do something else. I think with this product, we got an opportunity to do something good. Why not? We got a chance to do it, so let’s do it. I won’t be afraid.”

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Cabrera long has been involved in charities around Detroit and active on social media. He said he especially admires the powerful brand crafted by stars such as LeBron James.

To Cabrera, candy and baseball are an ideal melding of who he is, what he’s accomplished, and what he still can do. The company logo is a gold crown, connoting his Triple Crown in 2012, but Bitbits aren’t marketed just to baseball fans. It’s a venture with larger designs, and it began this weekend with the candy available exclusively at Comerica Park. Miggy Food and the Tigers announced a multi-year agreement to advertise at the ballpark, and there are plans for wider distribution.

The marketing for Bitbits includes such buzzphrases as “a fun combination for both kids and adults.” Judging by the grinning, big-eyed mascot at Friday’s announcement, the company takes the fun aspect very seriously.

New challenge

As any dedicated journalist would, I sampled all four flavors — milk chocolate, white chocolate, strawberry cheesecake, peanut. My opinion, based on vast candy-consuming experience: Very good, crunchy, easy to pop in the mouth, again and again.

Chris Clello, one of the company’s executives, pushed a strategy that isn’t merely about capitalizing on the name of a future Hall of Famer.

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“It’s a very attractive market, there are not a lot of mass entrances in the candy business,” Clello said. “There hasn’t been a real challenger to Mars or Hershey’s in a long time. The experience we have, and Miguel with all his connections, we just thought it was a great fit to really give these guys a run for their money. Miguel’s never been afraid of challenging greatness.”

Aiming at such lofty targets certainly is a challenge, and a risky financial one, too. So what’s it like when Cabrera sits in on board meetings, going over intricate plans?

“It’s like he’s going to bat, more serious, like he’s waiting on a 96-mph fastball,” Clello said. “After the meeting, he’s different.”

Cabrera has talked about his friendship with another longtime great, Albert Pujols, who’s 37 and has battled injuries and aging. Pujols’ production with the Angels has dropped off at times, then rebounded. For all his nagging ailments, Cabrera has been incredibly consistent, hitting below .313 only once in nine full seasons here, dipping below 25 home runs and 103 RBIs once, as well.

Aches are a reality that won’t go away, but Brad Ausmus said he figures Cabrera can hit for many more years as long as he takes care of his body. And, Ausmus added with a chuckle, as long as he doesn’t eat too much of his own candy.

Cabrera leaves much of the taste-testing to his kids, and the business maneuverings to his partners. Baseball remains his primary, overwhelming focus, even as athletic mortality creeps up. Cabrera is far from done, but as always, he’s anticipating the next move and the next game.