'I feel I can do my job:' Rejuvenated Cabrera hits the ground running on Day 1 for Tigers
Lakeland, Fla. — Miguel Cabrera hadn’t been in the clubhouse more than an hour Monday morning when the chirping began.
“He was jawing with me all day,” left-hander Matthew Boyd said.
The complex, color-coded practice schedule, posted on the grease boards at both ends of the clubhouse, showed Cabrera would be facing Boyd in the first live batting practice session of the spring.
“In the weight room he let me know he was facing me,” Boyd said with a smile. “I told him, ‘I’m going to tell you what’s coming and I am still going to get you out.’”
When Cabrera stepped into the box against Boyd toward the end of his work day, it was the first time he faced live, professional pitching since he tore his left biceps muscle on June 12 last year.
“He got right in there,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I didn’t know if he would. It was up to him. No one knows Miggy better than Miggy. I can’t sit here and say you do this and you that. Just let him do what he wants to do, what his body says he can do.”
He just tracked Boyd’s pitches in his first at-bat, but he started hacking on the second, third and fourth times through, and even more in his next round against Buck Farmer. He looked as rusty as you would expect him to look after being away from the game so long, but he still squared more than a few up.
“We were trash-talking each other the whole time,” Boyd said. “He said, ‘I’m going to get you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah? You’re only getting heaters and I am still going to get you.’…He took some good hacks today. We are excited to have him back.”
There was a distinctly different energy in the building and on the back fields Monday. Some of it was the natural buzz of the first full squad workout. Mostly, though, it was generated by Cabrera.
“For sure,” Boyd said. “If you look at our record last year, when we hit our down turn is when he got hurt. We struggled after that, and that tells us two things. One, we need to be better and learn to go on without any one player. Our team has to be more than that.
“But it also speaks to who Miggy is in this clubhouse and who he is on the field. He’s huge for us. He’s here and he’s healthy and he had a year to let everything heal. It’s pretty awesome.”
Cabrera’s face lit up when he was greeted by a loud ovation from a group of maybe three dozen fans when he walked out of the clubhouse toward the back fields.
“That meant a lot to me,” Cabrera said. “The fans, they support you, no matter what happens. That’s a great feeling and I appreciate that. I always say thank you to the fans for the way they support me. Now it’s my job to go out and try to do my best.”
Besides the live batting practice and hitting off batting practice pitchers Monday, Cabrera also did all the defensive drills at first base. In so doing, he made a statement to Gardenhire.
“I can tell you right now, after watching him go out there and field ground balls and throwing it all over the place and having a ball, he’s going to want to play first base this year,” Gardenhire said.
That is correct. Cabrera said he doesn’t want to be a permanent designated hitter.
“Right now, no,” he said. “But if they came to me and they say something to me, I’m always open to everything. I want to be on the field. But if the team looks better with me at DH, then, that’s not my decision.”
For the record, Gardenhire has no intention of making Cabrera a full-time DH. His health will determine how much first place he plays.
“I think people forget how gifted he is,” Gardenhire said. “Just him doing simple drills at first base, throwing to pitchers covering, how he understands it, catches it, pulls the ball to his chest and makes a perfect throw every time.
“You forget because we didn’t have a chance to see him last year.”
Again, Gardenhire won’t even attempt to put a number on how many games he’d like Cabrera to play at first vs. DH.
“It’s all about communication and we will talk as we go along,” Gardenhire said. “My job is to keep him healthy. His body is going to tell us what he can and can’t do. He will dictate the number of games he plays at first base.
“At 35, your body dictates that. It was the same way with Victor (Martinez) last year. If you need a day, tell me and we’ll take you out. Victor was very honest with me and that’s what I am going to ask of Miggy. Be honest with me.”
Cabrera said, in terms of staying healthy, it’s not the surgically-repaired left arm that worried him.
“I worry more about my back and my legs,” he said. “They are feeling great right now. No injuries. I just have to keep stretching, keep doing the exercises and stay consistent with that.”
Former Pistons coach Doug Collins used to talk about two different types of players that infectiously impact a team — those who transmit energy and those who drain it. Cabrera is the former.
“I missed the game a lot last year,” he said. “Being back on the field, I feel great. I feel good about being healthy this year. I feel I can do my job this year.”
He is also mindful of being in a clubhouse with a vastly younger and less experienced group of players than he’s ever been around in his time with the Tigers.
“You lead by example,” he said. “I’ve got to go out there and do everything right, so they can watch me. I can be an example on the field if they want to follow me or follow (Nick) Castellanos or some of the other guys.
“The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter if you are young or old, you’ve got to stick together. That’s the only way we can win games.”
The area around his locker looked like a Dick’s Sporting Goods showroom. Cabrera is apparently signed to wear Adidas brand spikes this season, but there were also boxes and boxes of New Balance and even Nike training shoes and spikes.
“That’s a lot,” Cabrera said, with a smile. “Now I need to play, so I can use them.”
To which everybody in Tigers Nation says, “Yes please.”