Before the baseball Winter Meetings convened in Nashville in 2007, Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch had already created some buzz — and maybe some pressure? — in his own front office when he asked a not-so-subtle question to his club executives.
“It was kind of funny because Mr. Ilitch mentioned, ‘Hey, do you think we could trade for that Cabrera, kid?’ We just kind of chuckled,” Jim Leyland, who was the Tigers manager at the time, said in a recent interview.
“Lo and behold, just a few weeks later we had him.”
“Him” was Miguel Cabrera, who was only 24 in December 2007 when the Tigers and then general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled off the steal of that offseason, completing a trade with the Florida Marlins that brought the Venezuelan-born Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis to the Motor City in exchange for six players. Cabrera was coming off his fourth consecutive All-Star selection, had his prime years ahead of him, and would add a powerful bat to Leyland’s already-stacked lineup.
“I knew all about (Cabrera),” Leyland said. “He was this young player that everybody said was going to be a star. I saw him in the (2003) World Series hit the home run off (Roger) Clemens. You knew that he was a special player.”
On Saturday in Detroit, Cabrera added another special milestone to his resume, when he joined the 3,000-hit club with a single off of the Colorado Rockies’ Antonio Senzatela at Comerica Park. Cabrera is now in elite company — he’s only the 33rd player in major league history to have 3,000 hits. He’s also one of seven players with that many hits and at least 500 home runs, a list that includes Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray, as well as Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.
In 2014, Cabrera signed a reported 10-year, $292 million deal with Detroit that included the two years from his previous contract. The pact runs through next season and the Tigers have club options of $30 million for both 2024 and 2025.
Leyland, whose last season managing the Tigers was 2013, said when the franchise acquired Cabrera, it came as a “big surprise” to him, especially considering how quickly the trade unfolded.
“It just happened fast. That was a thrill. (The Tigers) traded some good prospects for (Cabrera),” Leyland said. “It was like an early Christmas present, because we didn’t think we had any chance to get him.”
Long-term deals historically have proven to be a team’s albatross during the back end of the contract, when an aging player’s production and numbers are in decline. Cabrera can unquestionably still do damage at the plate, but injuries — he only played in 38 games in 2018 — and Father Time have taken a toll. His last All-Star selection was in 2016.
Leyland was around for Cabrera’s best years, including Cabrera’s two American League MVP seasons in 2012 and 2013. Cabrera also won the Triple Crown (.330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI) in 2012 and the Tigers reached the World Series that season behind Cabrera’s bat and ace pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. The San Francisco Giants swept Detroit in four games, however.
“Obviously, (Cabrera) was an easy player to manage, because he was so cooperative. He never gave you any problems, never any issues,” Leyland said. “Great player. I certainly had all the respect in the world for him. He came to win, came to beat the other team. That’s all I ever asked of him.”
Cabrera’s World Series homer off Clemens is probably one that fans remember the most, but Leyland witnessed live an equally impressive Cabrera blast that came at the expense of Mariano Rivera, the Hall of Fame Yankees closer.
During Leyland’s last season with Detroit in 2013, the Tigers were visiting the Bronx for a three-game series during the dog days of summer. On August 9, the righty-hitting Cabrera stepped to the plate in the top of the ninth inning with two outs, a runner on second and his team trailing by two runs. Rivera, who was in his last season with the Yankees, was on the mound, and the game appeared to be over after Cabrera quickly fell behind 0-2.
He then fouled a Rivera cutter off his left knee, and limped around in considerable pain before resuming his at-bat. On one leg, Cabrera blasted Rivera’s seventh pitch for a game-tying, two-run homer to dead center field. (The Yankees ultimately won the game, 4-3, in the 10th).
“He was a decent matchup for Mariano, because (Rivera) threw that cutter. He left it out over the plate sometimes and that played right into Miguel’s strengths, because he could hit the ball so well to the other field,” Leyland said.
Leyland’s managing career began in Pittsburgh and had stops in Florida (where he won a World Series ring in 1997), Colorado and finally Detroit. Plenty of great players were part of those Leyland-managed teams, and Cabrera, the former skipper said, ranks at the top and is “no question” bound for Cooperstown.
“(Barry) Bonds was the best player I ever managed. Bonds, arguably, could be the best player to ever play, if you look at all the numbers,” Leyland said. “Certainly Cabrera’s right there. I had some great players — Larry Walker, (Gary) Sheffield, Moises Alou, Magglio Ordóñez, Andy Van Slyke. But Miggy’s right up there at the top.
“It’s easy to play the game for (Cabrera) because he’s so good. But when you’re that good, it’s easy to have fun.”