This is how it’s supposed to end.
On the final day of Miguel Cabrera’s storied career, his Detroit Tigers are finally in a much better place as the 2023 season reaches its conclusion. It took a lot longer than anyone hoped, but as Cabrera departs for a well earned retirement, he can also take with him the sense that the organization is in good hands once again. The timing all feels right. An era is ending just as a new one seems to be underway.
Now a half decade removed from the prime of his career, Miguel Cabrera is meeting these final moments of his career with multiple stages of acceptance already completed. Rather than being caught all off guard at once by a great players decline, we’ve had a long time to anticipate and process that this moment was coming. That this day finally arrives as the Detroit Tigers see a much brighter future ahead, and at the end of a season filled with tributes and good moments for Cabrera personally, feels a bit fated. For once, past, present, and future are all in alignment, both for Cabrera and for the Detroit Tigers, in a way they haven’t for over a decade now.
There was a long period where a relatively happy ending seemed unlikely, if not impossible. There was Cabrera’s sudden, steep decline in 2017, coinciding with the last gasp of an era that began way back in 2006. His injury riddled 2018 campaign in which he only played 38 games. We can recall the disappointment fading into apathy in 2019-2020, when there was still a little hope left that he could produce one more great season. Or 2021-2022, once it was clear that Cabrera’s beat up legs would never again allow him to power the ball in the air and over the walls with any regularity, and the youth movement appeared stalled out on arrival. There were times in all those years when those final milestones for Cabrera seemed as distant as hopes for a return to contention were for the team as a whole.
For a long time even this season, it looked like even the hope of brighter days would have to wait until Cabrera had already rode off into the sunset. The team got out to a decent start, and then crumbled as injuries took their toll. Meanwhile, Cabrera struggled at the plate and it looked like the Tigers would be saddled with his farewell season rather than blessed with it.
Instead, in this final year, the greatest hitter in Tigers’ history found his way back to a modicum of success, producing a better ratio of classic Cabrera moments than we’ve seen in recent years. In the process, he’s also drawn praise for his leadership of young teammates in a season that finally promised a competitive future for the franchise. It’s become a celebration and a special time for the franchise overall.
Finally, it’s all felt like a very fitting ending to his Hall of Fame career.
In our culture, athletes, like musicians, actors, and other entertainers, often define eras in our own lives, and for Detroit sports fans this is certainly the case. My father, along with my grandfathers and uncles raised me to revere Al Kaline and the 1968 Tigers as a young Little Leaguer. The 1984 team was the club of my youth, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker the heroes. The names and accomplishments of that team remain a significant part of my childhood memories, along with fragments like seeing the Red Wings in their final season in the Olympia when I was barely older than a toddler, or going to my first Pistons game inside the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome.
Whether it was the Bad Boys era of the Pistons, the decade-long run of the now classic Detroit Red Wings era in the late 90’s through much of the 00’s, the Miguel Cabrera-led Tigers from 2008 to 2014, or even the mix of greatness and futility that was the Barry Sanders era in Detroit Lions football, the same is likely true for those younger than myself. It doesn’t always take a title. These stretches of time when a fanbase really unifies in their hopes and dreams and rallies around a sports franchise become significant markers in our minds, memories, and personal history. Certain players define those eras, and Cabrera certainly defined his to an awesome degree.
For those who grew up on those classic Cabrera-Verlander squads, watching Miguel Cabrera’s final game may feel like another little capstone on your childhood. For older fans who’ve already experienced a lot of these moments, there’s an accumulated wisdom that helps process these events, but they can still become intertwined with our own sense of mortality. For myself, there’s at least an element of winter’s chill in the air as I near my 50th birthday and prepare to watch Cabrera take his final bow. We probably won’t see anything quite like this ever again.
Not only is Cabrera one of the great hitters of all time and rare enough in that sense, but he’s been a Tiger for 15 years even after playing the early years of his career with the Marlins. He’s hit home runs off Roger Clemens and Spencer Strider to bookend his career. With the ways the game is changing, longevity like this, the ability to reach these levels in the cumulative stats that still define how we talk about greatness in the game, is going to be increasingly rare. Cabrera’s time in Detroit might encompass several stages of your own life. That kind of stability doesn’t come easily these days.
Miguel Cabrera’s case has turned out to be a unique one and something we’re likely to see less and less of as super long-term contracts become less common. It’s also remarkable because of where he was in his career way back in 2017 when the team traded Justin Verlander and tore it all down. Cabrera was hobbled by issues in both legs and stumbled to the worst season of his career in 2017. Nothing in the next few years indicated he’d be able to play out his deal. Instead, being a DH and sitting at least once per series has allowed him to largely avoid the injured list in recent seasons.
Had Miguel Cabrera retired in 2019 or 2020, we never would’ve seen his 500th home run. We wouldn’t have seen him climb to 14th all-time in the game in total bases. We wouldn’t have seen him reach the 3000 hits plateau, or clear the rare bar of 600 doubles, which only 18 players have accomplished. In terms of the Tigers, this is a club that would have had zero identity at all over the past five years had Cabrera not provided it. And as luck would have it, only now when his contract could legitimately be described as a serious hindrance, is it time to hang them up and retire.
Cabrera will finish his career as one of only three hitters in the game’s history to hit .300, blast 500 home runs, and top 3000 hits, putting him in a unique category of complete hitter that only includes Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. The only hitters to have 500 home runs, 600 doubles, and 3000 hits are Miguel Cabrera, Hank Aaron, and Albert Pujols. Only Aaron and Cabrera hold all four of those marks. We’re seeing the end of the career of one of the truly greatest hitters of all-time. A hitter who did all this across a timespan that saw incredible change in the way the game is taught, measured, and played.
His young teammates are a wealth of stories about him, but most telling was Spencer Torkelson revealing how Cabrera’s mentorship helped him survive his rookie struggles and ultimately thrive. Hopefully they’ve all absorbed lessons into how to keep things loose when they’re too tight, and how to channel the intensity when it’s time. Cabrera’s coaching was less on the technical side of the game than in team building and keeping the right mentality, but those can be the hardest lessons for young players to learn. His absence is going to be felt in that clubhouse, and presents a challenge to his younger teammates to provide leadership and positive focal points to keep the team motivated, loose, and playing well.
Of course, Cabrera will always be a Detroit Tiger. His role as Special Assistant to President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, will keep him around the club, but presumably won’t be a very public role, other than ceremonially. There will be Hall of Fame celebrations and number retirement ceremonies in the years ahead. Someday there will be a statue on the concourse. He won’t be a stranger. But the time has come to say goodbye, and while we’ll miss him, his retirement tour couldn’t have gone a whole lot better, and we’re thankful for that.
So on behalf of the whole staff here at Bless You Boys, we’d just like to say congratulations, Miguel. We wish you all the best in the future. Thank you for an unforgettable ride.