What were you doing on Friday, June 20, 2003?
George W. Bush was President of the United States, Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister of Canada, and Tony Blair was Prime Minister of the UK. The number-one song on the Billboard Hot 100 was “21 Questions” by 50 Cent (featuring Nate Dogg). I was a still-wet-behind-the-ears physics teacher, gasping for breath at the end of the school year.
José Miguel Cabrera Torres, a skinny 20-year-old from Maracay, Venezuela, a city of about a million people near the north coast of the country, stepped to the plate for the first time in a major-league baseball game. He batted eighth in the Florida Marlins lineup, just in front of the pitcher, as they faced the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the cavernous, made-for-football Pro Player Stadium in the Miami suburbs. He wore #20 on his back and a cartoon fish on his helmet, and he played left field.
The pitcher was Rob Bell, in the middle of a somewhat lacklustre fourth year of his major-league career, his first with the Devil Rays, themselves a pretty lacklustre team at the time. He’d spend another two years in Tampa, bouncing back and forth between there and Triple-A Durham. He played the entire 2006 season in Buffalo before being picked up by the Orioles in ‘07, seeing a bit of action in Baltimore before being cut loose and appearing in a dozen games for the White Sox Triple-A affiliate, ending his major-league career at age 30.
(Hey, it’s more of a major-league career than you or I ever had.)
Cabrera stepped in to face Bell in the third inning with one out and down 1-0 to the Devil Rays; Alex Gonzalez flew out to center to lead off the inning. In a nine-pitch battle in which he worked the count full, Cabrera struck out swinging for the second out, bringing pitcher Mark Redman to the plate, who’d strike out looking, as pitchers often do.
Fast-forward to the eleventh inning: the Marlins had tied it up in the fourth with a Juan Pierre leadoff triple and a run-scoring groundout to first by Andy Fox, but the pitchers had done their job in the ensuing innings to keep it at 1-1. Since this was 2003, there was no Manfred Man on second to artificially end an extra-inning game.
Derrek Lee led off the bottom of the 11th for the Marlins against Al Levine, flying out to center. Gonzalez spanked a double down the left-field line to put the winning run on second. Cabrera stepped to the plate, his fifth plate appearance of the day, having struck out and grounded into a double play. On the first pitch, Cabrera lofted a deep fly ball to centerfield, depositing it over the fence in that dumb football stadium. Florida won the game 3-1, and they’d go on to collect their second World Series trophy later that fall.
The legend of Miguel Cabrera was born that day, the very first of his major-league career.
Today is 7408 days after that Friday night in Florida. In that time, coming into this afternoon’s game, Cabrera has certainly done some things: he’s played in 2794 more games, collected 3172 more hits, and hit 510 more home runs, making him a lock as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He won a pair of MVP awards, the first Triple Crown since the 1960s, and hit more doubles than Henry Aaron. He played in the outfield a lot early on, then moved to third base, then to first, back to third, and finally became a full-time DH as the injuries piled up — which he often played through, never making excuses or complaining. It’s easy to forget that he was originally signed as a shortstop.
It’s been an astonishingly good career for that skinny kid, and we’ve been incredibly lucky to watch a good portion of it after coming to Detroit in a blockbuster trade arranged by Dave Dombrowski in December, 2007. That trade brought Cabrera and the mercurial Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers, in exchange for Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, and a few others who didn’t see a lot of major-league action. One of the trade pieces, Eulogio de la Cruz, passed away in 2021 after a heart attack at age 37.
So, here we are: Sunday, October 1, 2023. The shadows are getting longer, the days are getting shorter, and Miguel Cabrera is about to call it a career. He’ll continue as a front-office advisor along with some other notable ex-Tigers, but it’ll be the last time he pulls on a polyester uniform, slips his feet inside a pair of cleats, and strides to the plate to strike fear into an opposing pitcher.
Playing for sole possession of second place of the lousy American League Central isn’t exactly the most glorious thing to be doing on the final day of the season, but that’s where the Tigers and Guardians were today. (I know that technically, if the teams ended up tied, the Tigers would be in second by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker, but it’d be nice to see the win totals different to make things crystal-clear for the historical record.) It’s also worth noting that this was the final game ever managed by Terry Francona, one of baseball’s good guys, who’s been battling a lot of health issues in recent years. Fare thee well, Tito.
Eduardo Rodriguez got the start for the Tigers, and you’ve probably already read that he’s likely opting out of his contract after this season. Pitchers can be pretty mercurial — I mean, just look at Willis for evidence of that — and if there’s one constant in this world, it’s change. So, Eddie, all the best and happy trails.
Lucas Giolito started for the Guardians, and it’s been an interesting one for him: he started the year with the White Sox, was traded to the Angels because they were gonna go for it, and when that, and he, all fell apart, the Angels put him on waivers and he was claimed by Cleveland at the end of August. (It also didn’t help the Angels that Giolito went 1-5 with an ERA near 7 in August.)
Cabrera came up in the bottom of the first, introduced by his three kids over the stadium’s PA system, with Parker Meadows and Spencer Torkelson on base with a walk and a single. He worked the count to 2-2 before striking out on a slider, but the packed house applauded him anyway. Kerry Carpenter then drove in the speedy Meadows with a single to left field, making it a 1-0 lead.
The Tigers added to their lead with back-to-back opposite-field doubles by Akil Baddoo and Javier Báez, making it a 2-0 game.
The Guardians put together a mini-threat in the top of the third with a walk and an infield single, putting runners on first and second with two out, but a Josh Naylor grounder to second ended things and kept Cleveland off the board for the time being.
Cabrera led off the bottom of the third — nice to see him hitting out of the 3-hole all weekend — and got hosed with a strike-one call on a pitch a couple of balls-widths off the plate inside. That probably threw him off for the rest of the at-bat, as he struck out on three pitches. With two outs Matt Vierling poked a double into the right-field corner; Andy Ibáñez then singled up the middle to score Vierling, pushing the lead to 3-0.
Cleveland got a run back in the fourth with a dropped throw to first base (it was an attempted 3-1 putout), a stolen base, a productive flyout, and a grounder to second to drive in the run to narrow the lead to 3-1. That’s your FranconaBall™, right there.
With two outs in the bottom of the fourth, Cabrera came to the plate with two runners on again after a pair of walks. Giolito had been throwing Cabrera a lot of sliders and offspeed pitches, and got a changeup on a 1-1 pitch that was popped just behind second base, handled easily for the third out of the inning.
Tyler Freeman smacked a leadoff home run in the fifth to make it a 3-2 game, but a pair of lineouts sandwiched around a groundout limited the damage. Vierling got the run back and then some, with a two-run dinger in the bottom of the inning to make the score 5-2. It was Giolito’s 41st home run surrendered on the season; he had already become the first pitcher since Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven in 1986 to give up 40+ home runs and strike out 200+ hitters.
Also, Akil Baddoo broke the glass behind home plate with a foul ball. Dan Dickerson said he’d never seen that in 24 years of Comerica Park baseball.
Miggy Day is memorable.— Jeff Riger (@riger1984) October 1, 2023
Akil Baddoo just shattered the glass to the tunnel with a foul ball.
Because the glass broke into a million pieces but didn’t fall, I’m guessing it’s the same kind of safety glass you have in car windshields, which sandwiches glass between layers of plastic. Or is it the other way around? It’s too deep into the season for me to bother to look it up, so let’s just move on.
Cabrera came to the plate to lead off the bottom of the seventh, in what proved to be the final plate appearance of his career. The pitcher was Enyel de los Santos, and he started off with a pair of fastballs, one inside and one outside. The third pitch was way inside, and the fourth pitch was high.
It looked like de los Santos was the most nervous person out there on the field, trying with all his might to throw a strike, but Miggy trotted down to first with a smile on his face, and I thought he’d have been lifted for a pinch-runner immediately but he stuck around to run the bases. He was erased on a 6-3 groundout double play, and as he left the field the crowd went wild and you could see the emotion in Miggy’s face.
With two outs, Vierling hit his second double of the day, to go with a home run. Ibáñez hit a ground ball that bounced off the third baseman’s glove, and Vierling was motoring around third base and tried to score as the ball dribbled away from the third baseman. I mean, he was thrown out, but that was still kinda fun.
Cabrera surprised the entire stadium by grabbing a glove and heading out to first base, his first appearance on the field in a couple of years. The crowd went wild as Miggy was out on the field by himself, and the rest of the Tigers eventually joined him and took their positions.
Will Vest took the mound, and darn it all, the second pitch was a ground ball hit by Steven Kwan to first base. Cabrera fielded it cleanly, stepped on first base, and that’s just something you can’t script.
After the play, Cabrera’s family joined him on the field, Ibáñez slid over to first base, and that was it for the Hall of Famer’s career.
Alex Lange came on for the ninth, and he gave up a single but otherwise nothing else. After the game, on the field, Miggy was interviewed and he said, among other things, “Sorry for today, it was a lot of pressure” — you’re not kidding, pal. Alex Lange and Akil Baddoo then emptied the Gatorade container onto him, and he told everyone he’ll see us later.
So, there you go. That’s your 2023 season of Detroit Tigers baseball. Plenty of ups, plenty of downs, and a total of 78 wins. That’s an improvement of a dozen wins over 2022. Pick your teams for the playoffs, wear your Cabrera #24 jersey every now and again and, like Rogers Hornsby used to, “Stare out the window and wait for spring.”