KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Miguel Cabrera breezed into the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday, dressed in a sharp gray suit, looking completely comfortable with his place in the spotlight.
He stopped by the television perched in the middle of the room, checking in on the Texas Rangers’ game against the Oakland A’s. He surveyed the rest of the clubhouse, cracked a couple of jokes with teammates, and then began preparing for one more night in the starting lineup.
One that, in all likelihood, would result in history.
The soft-spoken, often reclusive Cabrera began the day leading the American League in batting average (.331), home runs (44) and RBIs (139), putting him on the precipice of becoming the first baseball player to win the coveted Triple Crown since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Cabrera was in the starting lineup, batting third and playing third base against the Royals.
“I’ve done two or three national shows, getting the same questions,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who said the decision on starting Cabrera would ultimately come down to him. “I’ve enjoyed watching it. You love to watch something like that.”
Only the Angels’ Mike Trout provided a threat to Cabrera’s second consecutive batting title, and only the Yankees’ Curtis Granderson had a chance of hitting more home runs.
The Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton finished with 43 homers earlier in the day.
Cabrera’s pursuit of history has occurred largely in the dark, though, overshadowed by thrilling pennant races, the sheer enormity of the NFL — even the presidential election.
An event that in other years might dominate headlines has been mostly cast aside.
“The entire baseball world should be here right now,” said Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the reigning AL MVP, who may soon watch that award get handed off to his teammate.
Perhaps part of the void has to do with Cabrera’s very nature.
He’s not the boisterous sort, never one to crave attention. He would rather hang out with a couple of buddies than stand in front a pack of television cameras, answering countless questions about what makes him one of the game’s most complete hitters.
“He’s not a talkative guy,” said Tigers catcher Alex Avila. “One, he doesn’t speak English that well, but two, he lets his ability carry through.”
There have only been 14 players to achieve baseball’s version of the Triple Crown, an honor roll that includes iconic players such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig.
Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez never accomplished it, failing to win the batting title, and countless other Hall of Fame players have fallen short of one of sport’s rarest feats.
To put it in perspective, consider horse racing’s Triple Crown.
The last thoroughbred to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the same year was Affirmed in 1978, more than a full decade after Yastrzemski’s magical summer in Boston.
Whether it’s on par with Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters, Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships in golf, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Brett Favre’s streak of consecutive games played by a quarterback is open to interpretation, and perhaps some bar-room debate.
Those who have witnessed it first-hand certainly have their opinions.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said the Royals’ Alex Gordon, who’s watched the drama unfold from his spot in left field. “Honestly, his numbers are like that every year. He has a great average, great home runs, great RBIs. He’s a guy who can pull this off, and it’s great for the game.”
Giants infielder Pablo Sandoval said he was particularly proud that the Triple Crown would be accomplished by a fellow Venezuelan. Cabrera is from Maracay, along the Caribbean coast.
“I’m excited for the country and for the fans that support us every single day. It’s a big deal in Venezuela right now,” Sandoval said. “It’s exciting, especially because of all the things that have happened in his career.”
Yes, it seems that every fairytale these days carries a troublesome footnote.
In Cabrera’s case, it stems from spring training last year, when he was involved in an ugly drunken driving incident. According to authorities in St. Lucie County, Fla., Cabrera refused to cooperate, directed an obscene gesture at police and even dared them to shoot him.
The Tigers have been careful to keep him from having to discuss his personal issues, but by all accounts, Cabrera has been a model player ever since. This year, he’s the Tigers’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player “who best represents the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.”
“This clubhouse wouldn’t be quite as good without him,” Leyland said.
While the Triple Crown appears all but assured, the MVP award is not.
On one hand, Cabrera is on the footstep of history, having dominated the major statistical categories favored by traditionalists, the ones that count toward the Triple Crown.
On the other hand, Trout is being championed by new-school baseball thought, number crunchers who rely on more obscure measures such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement), derived from several other statistics designed to judge a player’s overall contribution to a team.
Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline said it would be “a shame” if Cabrera didn’t win the league’s most coveted award, while Royals manager Ned Yost offered a similar sentiment.
“I think they’re both fantastic players, tremendous players, both of them,” Yost said, “but if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he has to be the MVP, absolutely.”
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