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Henning: Are Miguel Cabrera’s days in Detroit numbered?

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera

Looking at Miguel Cabrera in May 2018, we come upon a man vexed by something mysterious. It could be bruised feelings tied to an overactive imagination. It might be despair as the Tigers migrate from playoff regular to a club getting an overdue facelift, even as that same club is soothing his stay to the tune of $184 million through at least 2023.

Cabrera, if these latest howls are to be taken as warnings, could be hinting this is no place for old men — in baseball chronology anyway — which could, if issues turn grave, be a death knell for one of the more incredible careers in Detroit's sports archives.

But before giving up on a man who seemed en route to an eventual statue at Comerica Park, a visit with reality might be wise.

When he was asked Tuesday by Chris McCosky of The Detroit News about a bad hamstring that now has him on the disabled list, Cabrera said:

“Nobody appreciates when you play hurt. I’m going to take my time and play when I am good. I played a lot of years hurt here in Detroit. They (fans) don’t appreciate that.

“When you are doing bad, they crush you. They crush you. They say you are bad. They say you should go home. You don’t deserve anything. You are old. So I say, OK, I’m done playing hurt. Now, I am going to take my time.”

A week earlier, in one of the more bewilderingly curt interviews of my reporting career, Cabrera insisted that playing through injuries is simply part of baseball. This was contrary to what he told McCosky, which spurred a Miami Marlins exec to say on CBS Sports HQ that he feels sorry for Cabrera, who in his mind, would love to play in Miami but is trapped in Detroit’s baseball rebuild.

Three responses to Cabrera’s venting:

1. He has indeed played hurt, in at least three seasons, as so many knew and understood — and appreciated, at least among the reasonable Tigers following, which admittedly isn’t as loud as the irrational crew.

2. That last noisy throng, the gang Cabrera says will always “crush you,” tends to be a limited number of crowd-hecklers composed of Twitter loudmouths and talk-radio junkies who aren’t to be confused with mature majorities. It’s a shame that Cabrera, or more likely the people who feed Cabrera this kerosene, aren’t more discreet in their selective spooning of fan feedback that’s more like frat-house clatter.

3. He’s right to take his time getting healthy. It clearly does no one any good, beginning with Cabrera, to play hurt. No one is asking him to hit when hobbled. But he should be the first to admit he has wanted to play, even when he has been aching. No one has been forcing him to perform — not when he was dealing with a sports hernia, or bone spurs in his ankle, or with herniated discs, or with a sore hamstring — and Cabrera knows it.

So, some perspective, granted by all sides, might be worthwhile as this unnecessary drama plays out.

Other possibilities, of course, could evolve. It’s conceivable he has indeed grown tired of Detroit after 11 seasons here. This past week’s rant, coupled with some earlier churlishness, might be a sign that he never again will be happy playing for the Tigers. In the event matters turn darker and Cabrera becomes miserable, it’s feasible the parties would discuss how he can be offloaded to a team Cabrera presumes will treat him to peace and gratification unattainable in Detroit.

Good luck on all of that.

Try to move him?

Cabrera’s contract is all but immovable. The Tigers could perhaps deal him by paying most, if not all, of the remaining fortune on his contract and live with whatever return they get, however meager or defensible.

But they would make any such transaction reluctantly and not necessarily of their own choosing. They would also need Cabrera’s buy-in, given that because he has played in the big leagues for at least 10 years, and with one club for more than five, he can veto any trade he doesn’t find appealing.

This bleak scenario isn’t to be dismissed, nor is it the greatest wager on how this season and ensuing years will unfurl.

The truth is Cabrera will be fine if his body holds up. Skeptics and cynics and maybe even some fair-minded people wonder if that’s going to be the case, but a bad hamstring, or before that a sore biceps muscle, should not portend that Cabrera has fallen apart at 35.

His bad back, which killed his 2017 season, had been behaving nicely this spring as these numbers attest: .323 batting average in 26 games, three home runs, .924 OPS. All but his home-run totals, which owe a lot to a cold April, are in line with career averages.

More: Ex-Marlins exec: Cabrera 'stuck' in Detroit, wanted to return to Miami

It’s a good bet Cabrera will be relatively fine during the long life of his contract, just as David Ortiz was still ripping the ball at age 40. He also may be the most underrated defensive player in baseball, one who displays amazing athleticism from that 6-foot-4, 249-pound frame.

So Miguel would do well to pay attention to seasoned, majority views, not to what the 35-member Annual Association of Baseball Magpies says.

It might also be suggested that this week’s semi-tantrum will likely blow over and relative peace will be restored to the Cabrera-Tigers front.

He has a good manager in Ron Gardenhire, a manager he personally agreed would be right for the Tigers, and a front office that has known him since he was 15 years old. He will not find better allies with another club. Nor will he be treated to more knowledgeable, or more appreciative, fans.

And while we’re at it, there is a very good chance no other club, or owner, but the Tigers and the late Mike Ilitch, would have bestowed upon him a nearly $300 million contract to play forever in Detroit.

Greener on other side?

Cabrera seemed to feel no slight when that mega-payday was offered. Either that, or someone forged his signature on the most lavish contract in baseball history.

A couple more thoughts as this entirely avoidable past month of Cabrera acting as if he’s somehow a victim is assessed:

No one has pried into his private life, if that, in fact, was what bugged him so clearly during a purported interview in the Tigers dugout three weeks ago at Baltimore.

Yes, he was going to be asked, necessarily, two questions he knew were coming as part of a more general discussion about baseball: 1. Was he at peace with how his legal proceedings regarding child support and a mistress were being handled? 2. Did he have any regrets about his acts as the courtroom turned a private matter into a public case?

Those questions were fair and reasonable, and to make absolute sure they were not going to blindside him as part of a baseball discussion, the Tigers’ Spanish-speaking media-relations assistant, Bryan Almonte, was asked to make that clear to Cabrera in advance, in his native language, to ensure no nuance would be lacking or that any distortion might occur.

Cabrera was combative and uncooperative during a subsequent chat that dealt strictly, until he cut it off, with baseball and his upbeat spring as he came back from last year’s maladies to hit in the happy fashion of a superstar who is one of this game’s historically superior hitters.

Cabrera should remember, no matter how many barbs he might hear from people who really shouldn’t count, that baseball, and his singular and superlative skills, is why he is revered in this town and in this game.

Nothing counts for many fans as much as his enduring talent, contributions and excellence at playing the most difficult of all games.

Other matters might from time to time affect him: injuries, or a high-profile courtroom soap opera.

But that’s not the focus, a man’s ailments, or his alimony.

It’s baseball. He will never be more loved in any MLB venue than he is in Detroit. He would never have been compensated more generously anywhere else.

Pay heed to the big picture, Miguel. You’re more celebrated, in overwhelming ways, than nearly any athlete in this town’s sports history.