Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera returns: ‘I feel good’

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — If mood is any indication of Miguel Cabrera’s upcoming season, a Tigers first baseman and Hall of Fame-aimed superstar will be back to old ways.

His smile was as bright as the afternoon sun as Cabrera made his first public baseball appearance Sunday, at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, where he was hosting a kid’s baseball clinic.

Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera smiles and signs a few autogrphs before he joins the kids taking part in a Miggy Ball 24 kids athletic skills competition Sunday at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.

He talked breezily for nearly 10 minutes, laughed often, and, most critically for the Tigers, he told a media crowd that his bad back is “pain-free” and that he is “more strong now.”

“I feel better, more natural,” said Cabrera, who was sporting sunglasses, a tighter haircut and what appeared to be a leaner body than in past seasons. “I can tell you I’m pain-free for the first time in a long time. I feel good.”

Cabrera, who in two months turns 35, had a tortured 2017 season when two herniated disks in his back robbed his lower body of its traditional strength and led to the first miserable batting numbers in a superstar first baseman’s career.

He batted .249, with 16 home runs, and a .728 OPS. His career averages, respectively, have been .317, 34, and .948.

His bad back, he said, has been a long-term problem and did not begin at last season’s World Baseball Classic. The back was “not any excuse,” he said, “but I think I was not able to use part of my body. I think the issue was, I lost a lot of power. I lost extension at home plate. I couldn’t hit balls into the gap.”

Rather than surgery, Cabrera was advised to follow a relentless offseason rehab program. The Tigers training staff predicted old hitting habits would resume in 2018. Cabrera expects the same when he joins the Tigers on Monday for the first full-team workout of 2018.

He also understands the disk issue is likely to be with him permanently.

“They say I’ve got to stretch every day,” Cabrera said. “If I don’t do that, my back will be tight again like last year.”

He acknowledged that turning 35 will change his approach, saying: “You’ve got to take care of your body better Got to take care of how you eat, too. You’ve got to take care of a lot of things.”

Cabrera said he had talked with new manager Ron Gardenhire, whom he has known since Gardenhire’s days with the Twins.

“It was scary,” Cabrera said, laughing, perhaps at memories of some old duels with Gardenhire’s teams at Minnesota. “And it was kind of fun. But it’s time to get serious.”

Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera stands with young participants during introductions at a Miggy Ball 24 kids athletic skills competion Sunday at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.

Cabrera has had past ankle and foot problems, as well, but says those old ills are in the past.

Whether he can play first base or not for 140 or more games is a question he couldn’t answer Sunday.

“Let’s see,” he said, with yet another chuckle. “Last year, it wasn’t my ankle. It was my back. It was hard to stay in the field a long time.”

Cabrera did not address Sunday the family-support legal tangle he and his attorneys are fighting against a woman who is the mother of two children fathered by Cabrera outside his marriage. Cabrera had stated, through the Tigers ahead of Sunday’s press conference, that he would answer no legal questions.

He did speak about another of 2018’s less comfortable matters: A big-league team from Detroit that, unlike his earlier seasons with the Tigers, is now rebuilding rather than gearing up for a probable playoff run.

“I mean, the difference right now is everyone expects us to lose, and before everyone expected us to win, so now we’ve got to change that,” he said.

“We can be a good team. We can be underrated. We can go out there, like I say, and compete. In baseball, you never know what’s going to happen. You never know. I’m not going to say we’re going to make the playoffs. But you’ve got to try. You’ve got to feel proud about where you are and not take anything for granted.

“We have a lot of young guys. I’ve got to be an example for these guys and win some games.”