Kansas City, Mo. – It’s Lloyd McClendon’s job now to answer questions about Miguel Cabrera’s “struggles.” They used to drive Ron Gardenhire a little nuts.
“Look,” he’d say. “There are a lot of things I worry about with this club. Miguel Cabrera isn’t one of them. The guy is one of the greatest hitters of his generation.”
McClendon goes back even farther with Cabrera, back to when Cabrera was winning the Triple Crown, doing unthinkable damage at the plate despite playing on a broken foot and all sorts of heroic things. So, excuse McClendon if he doesn’t panic if Cabrera goes cold for a stretch.
“Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to play with and coach and to manage some of the greatest hitters that ever played this game,” McClendon said. “And I think Miggy fits right up there at the top with all of them.
“This guy is special. And he is not done.”
At age 37, and with three years left on his contract, Cabrera has provided evidence here lately that he most certainly is not done. In 29 games since Aug. 25 he’s slashed .301/.368/.505, hitting six home runs and knocking in 22 runs.
In Minnesota, he hit three home runs that traveled 1,300 feet, all three leaving his bat with exit velocities well over 100 mph. He’s not done. With every hit, RBI and run scored, it seems he’s passing some Hall-of-Famer on the game’s all-time list.
He’s at 487 home runs and 2,864 hits now, so the hallowed benchmarks of 500 and 3,000 should be reached in 2021.
With the COVID-19 protocols closing clubhouses and eliminating person-to-person interaction with the media, access to Cabrera has been scarce. He has never been comfortable speaking in front of television cameras so he was loathe to give any Zoom interviews.
Until Saturday, Cabrera had not granted one interview request from outside media. But, as a compromise, he agreed to have questions from beat writers submitted to him. They were asked by Tigers interpreter Carlos Guillen and his answers were filmed and made available to the reporters.
And as always has been the case with Cabrera, once he agrees to speak, he was affable and insightful. In a nine-minute interview, he talked, among other things, about his health, his future, the immediate future of the club and his fervent wish to play first base again next year.
Q: What would it mean to you, given all the personal milestones you’ve achieved, to help bring this club full circle — from contending, through the rebuild and back to being a contender — before you retire?
A: I think that’s our goal, to be a contending team that can be in the playoffs. I think we are in a good place to do that. But we have to have a lot of patience because we have a lot of young talent. They are learning how to play in the big leagues. But I believe they can get better and hopefully next year we will be a better team and we will compete for the playoffs.
Q: You had a chance to see a lot of the young talent get their feet wet in the big leagues the last two months. How close do you think this organization is to contending again?
A: Really close. What I see every day and how I see them playing on the field, I feel we are closer to taking that next step. It’s tough to keep saying we’re rebuilding, we’re rebuilding. It’s time to go out there and win games.”
Q: You seemed so locked-in at the plate in Lakeland, how much did the shutdown and quarantine set you back? And through it all, how do you think your off-season conditioning program has held up in terms of keeping some of the pressure off your knee?
A: It was really difficult to train during quarantine. It was difficult to train at the house and try to get in shape to be ready for a short season. I think that’s why this whole season I don’t want any time off because we’ve had a lot of time off already. I’m just going to take one week off after the season to travel to Miami and then start preparing for next season.
Q: You’ve never been about numbers and milestones, but as you keep climbing the all-time charts, are you starting to get a sense for your place in the history of this game? Has it surpassed your dreams?
A: It’s awesome. I would say thank God he gave me the opportunity to do what I love, to play baseball. I never played to get the numbers – 3,000 hits, 500 home runs. My goal was always to be on the field and play 100 percent.
(Here Cabrera, unprompted, shared his hope that he can return to first base next season.)
I miss a lot playing first base. I hope they can give me more time to play first. I need to be in the field. I’m learning to be a DH right now, but it’s hard for me to go hit and go sit and just think about what I’m going to do for the next at-bat. In the past I would hit, then forget about hitting and play defense. It was a very different game to me. Now I am learning to be a DH but at the same time, I want to spend a little more time at first base next year. Hopefully I can do that.
Q: Does the pain in your knee still bother you?
A: Always. It’s something I’m going to have the rest of my career. But it’s not something I can put as an excuse — Oh, my knee hurts or my back hurts. I try to block that and forget about my injury and just go out and play baseball — or, play base-hit because I only hit now (laughs).
Q: Were you surprised that Ron Gardenhire retired?
A: It was sad when we found out he was retiring. I didn’t expect that. I thought he’d be our manager for years to come. But he made his decision, it was a family decision. He was hurting. But I respect Gardy. He gave us a lot of confidence to play baseball. He’s a great man.
Q: What characteristics would you like to see in the new manager?
A: I want to see a manager who gives confidence to us to go out and play baseball. I want to see a manager who pushes us to be our best. That’s it.
Q: With all the difficulties of this season, the quarantine, the protocols, no fans, are you still enjoying playing the game.
A: We try to make it fun. We try to enjoy the game. It’s different right now with no fans. It’s really difficult because we go from home to the stadium to home to stadium to hotel. We don’t ever do anything. But at the same time, you’ve got to say thank you because we are able to do this right now in the middle of a pandemic. I say every day Thank God because he gave me an opportunity to play baseball right now. I hope we can do the same thing next year but with fans in the stands. Hopefully next year will be totally different.
Q: Since you’ve gotten hot at the plate, do you wish there was another couple of months left in the season?
A: I want to play six months. I want to play a full season. I think right now everybody is just starting to get into baseball shape and we are starting to play real baseball. I hope we could play more months but we’ve got to wait until next year.
Q: What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Roberto Clemente award?
A: That’s awesome. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do — help people. It’s something that’s born in me. Nobody had to tell me you have to do things to help the world. I want to do it, even if there was no Roberto Clemente award. It’s something I want to do every year, help people and try to connect with people.
Q: How much longer do you expect to play?
A: I have three more years on my contract. And I am going to play them. I don’t know what’s going to happen after my contract is over. My focus right now is playing these next three years and then we will see what happens.