Miguel Cabrera reminds us watching decline of future HOF's never easy
Miguel Cabrera isn’t healthy enough to play first base anymore. At least not for the rest of the season. His knee is too sore. And it may not ever get better than it is.
If it does, and Cabrera puts forth a late-career renaissance — like David Ortiz — he'll get showered in adulation and nostalgia.
But for right now? Watching Cabrera hit is painful. Mostly because of what he no longer is. The money still owed to him by the Detroit Tigers makes it worse: at least $162 million through 2023.
In a sport without a hard salary cap, that money could get in the way of the Tigers’ rebuild. This contributes to the angst when watching him play now.
After Cabrera retires, he’ll have a quick ride to the Hall of Fame. Few right-handed batters have ever hit — or controlled the plate — like he has. His at-bats were once appointment viewing. And he didn’t go long without producing a water-cooler moment.
Whether it was reaching across the strike zone to loop a fastball trailing down and away into the right-field seats, or battling Mariano Rivera in Yankee Stadium in the ninth inning, coaxing a cut fastball he could mash over the wall in dead center, Cabrera hammered his way into the record books, and into our consciousness.
I was at that game at Yankee Stadium. As soon as Cabrera hit Rivera’s pitch, the Yankees’ closer turned toward the outfield and mouthed: “Wow.”
He was smiling.
One day, you’ll think of those moments and smile, too. Just not yet. For few things in sports elicit as much melancholy as watching a future Hall-of-Famer crawl to the end of their career.
Our city has had its share of Hall of Fame talent over the years, especially in hockey. But it has been a while since we’ve watched a player of Cabrera’s caliber in this condition.
Barry Sanders, for example, walked away in his prime. So did fellow Detroit Lion Calvin Johnson.
Isiah Thomas’ career ended when he tore his Achilles, and while he wasn’t quite at his apex, he was still an all-star level player. Joe Dumars, meanwhile, slid comfortably into the role of mentor to Grant Hill.
Sergei Fedorov left us long before his final decline. Nicklas Lidstrom looked almost ageless. Chris Chelios did, too.
Steve Yzerman played forever and battled knee injuries. Yet he was part of a Stanley Cup in his mid-30s and aged as gracefully as any superstar around here has.
He wasn’t the same player the final part of his career. Still, he found ways to contribute to playoff teams.
Maybe that’s why his decline felt less painful than Cabrera’s does now. The Wings were still winning, even as they rebuilt, and there were promising players behind him starting to produce.
If Yzerman carried the weight of an outsized contract on a team that seemed as far from contending as these Tigers do now, perhaps his decline would’ve felt different. He was never on an island toward the end.
He’d also been part of championship parades.
Cabrera has not. Not in Detroit, at least. Yet here he is, the singular link to those World-Series chasing teams, teams that got close but could not win the title.
The rest of his talent-rich teammates moved on, through trade or retirement, leaving him as the symbol of what might have been.
Justin Verlander won a title in Houston and is still pitching close to his prime. When he finally starts to slip, it will be in someone else’s uniform.
The last two Tigers to make the Hall of Fame — Jack Morris and Alan Trammell — won a hometown championship, which allowed them to age with a lighter burden.
Besides, Morris left with plenty of gas left in his tank. And while Trammell played out the string in Detroit, he always looked at home at shortstop. Even then, it’s not easy watching all-timers at the end of their careers.
Except at the very end, when the athlete and the fans and the organization all know it’s time, and the future Hall-of-Famer gets to take a victory lap. When you get the chance to tip your cap back, to say thank you, to remember the transcendent moments.
Cabrera is a long way from that. And it’s the distance between now and then that presses down.
Maybe Cabrera has another run in him, another moment or two — or more — that will wind up in the photo album you’ve collected in your mind’s eye. (Like the grand slam he hit Tuesday.)
One day he’ll end up in the Hall of Fame, where he belongs, alongside the greatest hitters who’ve ever played.
Watching the greats age is never easy. It has been a while since we’ve watched this.