Miguel Cabrera's joy a game changer

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera is called out but still manages a smile during a game against the Royals earlier this month.

In Chicago earlier this month, a White Sox runner at first base had a little trouble with his lead.

Beginning to step off the base, he was momentarily restricted. Miguel Cabrera's forefinger was in his left pocket.

With the sort of timing that slapstick comedians rehearse, Cabrera instantly removed it.

Free, the runner got his lead after only the slightest hitch. He looked backed at Cabrera and smiled.

Cabrera seemed to chuckle, as he turned toward the plate, anticipating the pitch.

The game went on. And Cabrera, in his way, continued the fun.

The sheer joy of the game, the passion, the expansiveness of his personality are part of the man.

So is Venezuela, and how people experience baseball there.

As he approaches 400 home runs (he hit No. 399 Friday night, equaling Andres Galarraga's record for a player from Venezuela), Cabrera discussed the origins of his enthusiastic style.

Asked to consider how much of his enjoyment is his disposition and how much is affected by a country that celebrates baseball as its national game, with an exuberance that exceeds what is normally exhibited on the diamonds and in the stands in major league baseball, Cabrera paused to ponder.

"I think both," he said.

"I think it depends on how you play the game.

"We have a lot of players from Venezuela. For them, it's a different game, you know? They don't talk on the field so much, or just sometimes they talk there.

"But I think it's like, more who you are. It's not so much the country. It's who you are, you know?

"You want to express on the field the passion, the love you have for the game."

Certainly, Cabrera said, his particular desire was nurtured by the national passion in Venezuela for a game fans and players greatly esteem.

In places like Maracay Stadium, home of the Aragua Tigers of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, the passion of fans and players reigns more freely.

It is baseball. But it is "Beisbol Venezolano."

The cheering and chants are beyond football or soccer, let alone the often casual ambiance of a major league park. Some compare it to the manic spectating of the World Wrestling Federation.

A pitching change is an invitation to re-create dance halls in the stands.

'Beisbol Venezolano'

Each pitch is greeted as an act of high drama. And given that more than a few fans are wagering on every one, comedy to tragedy can pivot on a ball or a strike, a hit or an out.

Miguel Cabrera: "No matter what you do on the field, fun or no fun, you try to do it the right way."

On the field, the players often engage in the sort of humorous give-and-take more often seen in batting practice than in a major league game.

They also talk far more directly with the fans.

Cabrera grew up just off Campo Elias Street, along the right-field foul line of the stadium in Maracay, which is named Estadio José Pérez Colmenares.

In addition to doing well in school, prompted by an uncle urging him to prepare for life as an engineer, if baseball did not work out, Cabrera spent a lot of his childhood in dugouts, with his parents.

His mom, Georgia, was the shortstop of the national softball team for 14 years. His dad, Miguel, was a highly touted amateur player.

"He's a reflection of what baseball players from there are like," said Omar Vizquel, the Tigers' first base coach, who was born in Caracas and played in the Venezuelan league.

"We like to have fun on the field, and you always keep a smile on your face.

"His family shared the joy of the game.

"And obviously, he's got some big talent. So, every time you get two hits or something, why not smile? Why not have so much fun with the game?"

For Vizquel, too, the more animated playing style may be nurtured by the experience in Venezuela, but the person makes the performance.

One of the great defensive shortstops in the history of major league baseball, Vizquel occasionally could be a colorful player. But not on the level of Cabrera.

"I wanted to be one of those players, but I was not able to hit and play the way he does," Vizquel said with a smile. "But he feels that, and he wants to share that with his teammates, too, and the fans."

Not since Norm Cash played for 13 years with the Tigers, beginning in 1961, have they had a comparable presence.

Miguel Cabrera jokes around with Mike Aviles during a game against the Indians in April.

Mark Fidrych's antics seemed less about fun than actual preparation to pitch, no matter how eccentric.

Such was Cash's occasional frivolity that when he approached the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning on July 17, 1973, at Tiger Stadium as the last batter to face Nolan Ryan during his fellow Texan's second career no-hitter, Cash carried a leg from a table in the clubhouse, instead of his bat.

According to Baseball Digest, when the umpire told Cash he could not bat with part of a table, Cash said, "Why? I'm not going to hit him, anyway."

Cabrera has fun, too.

When Adrian Beltre, who had spoken about not wanting anyone to touch his head, got a single for his 2,500th career hit, he removed his helmet to the crowd, acknowledging the fans. Cabrera used the opportunity to test the theory.

Beltre's face registered outrage and he placed a forearm on Cabrera's chest.

Brandishing comic timing once again, Cabrera turned quickly away, took a step and began effusively clapping for Beltre with his bare right hand into his glove.

It left Beltre amused.

And, like Cash, sometimes fans' food is not entirely safe from pilfering, if Cabrera is walking along the railing at the field boxes.

Obviously, Cabrera said, such entertainments are subordinate to proper play. But the fun can improve concentration. In effect, Cabrera said, it helps him keep his mind on things to occasionally take his mind off things.

"I don't want to be afraid of making mistakes in the field, because I want to do good," he said. "So, I know that, when I'm doing those things.

"I don't know how much it helps.

"You think about the game, you think about everything, over there," he said, of playing the infield. "No matter what you do on the field, fun or no fun, you try to do it the right way."

His festiveness is even more apparent this season. Cabrera said he realizes he is more animated and sociable on the field because he is not playing through injuries so serious that teammates repeatedly urged him, in recent seasons, to take days off.

He made it through, yes, Cabrera said. But it was not much of a party.

"No, man, that's no fun at all. When you are injured, your personality is not the same," he said.

"With reporters and with people, it's not the same.

Last year, 'I was mad'

"Players can tell you, last year, I was not happy with that. I was mad, because I was not able to come to the field and play pain-free.

"Thinking game is fun? It's hard when you play with injuries."

He moves more freely, now, whether in the batter's box, running the bases or in the field.

At the start of a recent batting practice, after some of the relievers took some tosses from the mound, Cabrera mounted the hill and began throwing some pitches. He started mimicking the pitching motion and gestures of the former Tigers reliever Jose Valverde.

The fun was on, yet again.

Other players laughed and debated judgments on his pitches, and the former Tiger, Torii Hunter, was particularly voluble, from foul territory along the first-base line.

Asked later if it meant Cabrera might want to pitch, Brad Ausmus did not miss a beat.

"Yeah, I'm gonna use him in long relief, today," the manager said, smiling.

"No, you know, Miggy's just playing around."