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Foster: Horton says Cabrera stands alone in Tiger history

Terry Foster
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera

Detroit – Tigers great Willie Horton lets Miguel Cabrera know where he is sitting before most home games. Horton is usually somewhere down the third-base line.

If there is a sign of distress or confusion for Cabrera, he wants to make sure he can flash a signal or a glance at Horton. He wants to see how the old slugger responds. It's a sign of respect for the 72-year-old Horton, who blasted 325 home runs during his MLB career, mostly with the Tigers.

Horton roams the ballpark during games, and over his years as player, coach and consultant to General Manager Dave Dombrowski, he has seen a lot of great ones come and go. The list includes former teammates Al Kaline and Bill Freehan, 1984 World Series champions Jack Morris, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. He has read up on Charlie Gehringer and Ty Cobb.

Horton says none of them can match Cabrera for pure hitting ability.

"He's the best I've seen in my lifetime," Horton said. "And he's still a young man (32). And he's only getting started. Certainly he's going to be one of the best in baseball history."

Horton doesn't hesitate when he calls Cabrera the best in Tigers history, even though he played with Kaline, who many of the old-timers still regard as the greatest Tiger.

But Cabrera, who recently passed Kaline with his 400th home run, is a hitting marvel. Cabrera hits with power and for average, and pitchers fear him because he can turn a game around with one swing.

Cabrera said he learned how to hit from an uncle in Venezuela who worked him hard and made him run when he didn't like what he saw.

"And I did not like to run," Cabrera said. "He was tough on me. We were out in that field all day."

So he listened and learned because he didn't want to run. Now Cabrera is one of the best in the game and is destined to go down as one of the greatest ever.

"He does not play the game to break records," Horton said. "He plays the game because he enjoys it."

People still try to compare Kaline to Cabrera. Kaline was a great ball player, a Hall of Famer, but Cabrera is more explosive and dominant.

One advantage for Kaline is defense. Nobody was better at digging a ball out of the right-field corner than Kaline. However, Cabrera is no slouch at first base. He even made strides at third base two seasons ago when Prince Fielder played first base.

"Al had great instincts and natural ability. He set an example for all of us to improve around him," Horton said. "I know I did. I was embarrassed to go out there and throw the ball the way I did. I did not want to throw it like a football. It took me a while to hit the cutoff man (consistently)."

To improve his defense, Horton, who played left field, used to throw balls off the left-field wall at Tiger Stadium, read the bounces, field the balls, turn and fire toward designated spots on the infield.

Horton doesn't like to compare eras, but deep down he is convinced Cabrera is the greatest Tigers hitter.

Miggy won the Triple Crown in 2012, the first since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967 with the Boston Red Sox. He entered Saturday's game against the Houston Astros batting .342 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs, and an on-base percentage of .446.

The key for Cabrera is not to overthink things. He doesn't watch a lot of film, saying, "There is too much information."

"My theory on hitting is you already know how to hit when they sign you," Horton said. "The coach is supposed to keep you growing and help you make adjustments with respect to pitching. The bottom line is he knows how to work and that is important."

Terry.Foster@detroitnews.com

Twitter @ TerryFoster971