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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A baseball icon soaks up a lot of lasts

Miguel Cabrera is Venezuela’s team captain and part-time designated hitter at the World Baseball Classic.

By James Wagner

On April 23, 1939, Álex Carrasquel, a right-handed pitcher for the Washington Senators, was summoned from the bullpen in the fourth inning of a game to face Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees. Carrasquel was the first Venezuelan-born player to appear in a Major League Baseball game and 461 players born in the baseball-crazed South American country have followed in his footsteps, according to Baseball Reference.

None, though, has been better than a right-handed batter who made his major league debut on June 20, 2003. Miguel Cabrera, a skinny 20-year-old prospect who homered that day and helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series later that season, has been crushing baseballs ever since. But the wear and tear of 2,699 regular season games has taken its toll, and there is only so much more Cabrera’s cranky right knee can take. Over the winter, Cabrera, the designated hitter of the perpetually rebuilding Detroit Tigers, reiterated that 2023 would be the last season of his career.

So as Cabrera, 39, gets ready to hang up his spikes, he is soaking up a lot of lasts, starting with his fifth and final World Baseball Classic. Cabrera, who was selected as the team’s captain, said he hoped that this farewell lap would begin with a title in the quadrennial tournament, which Venezuela has never won, despite his participation in every edition since the event began in 2006.

“It’s a dream that we want to become reality,” he said in Spanish before Venezuela upset the Dominican Republic, 5-1, in a clash of baseball titans in Miami on Saturday. He added later, “I’m proud every time I can represent my country and be available. I’m lucky because I haven’t had any injuries these days.”

Venezuela, which has a 4-0 record in group play, including a win over Puerto Rico, is in prime position to fulfill Cabrera’s dream. Venezuela and Japan are the only undefeated squads in the 20-team tournament, and both have already punched their tickets to the quarterfinals. WBC title or not, Cabrera’s place in MLB history, and in Venezuelan baseball lore, is secure.

He is one of seven players in MLB history to record both 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. Three of them (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray) were voted into the Hall of Fame, two were suspended during their careers for performance-enhancing drugs (Alex Rodríguez and Rafael Palmeiro), and Albert Pujols, who retired last year, will not be on the Cooperstown ballot until 2028.

No other Venezuelan player has more hits (3,088), home runs (507), runs scored (1,530), runs batted in (1,847), wins above replacement (67.7), Most Valuable Players Awards (two) and triple crowns (one) than Cabrera. Luis Aparicio is the only Venezuelan-born player with more All-Star selections (13) than Cabrera (12). Aparicio, a shortstop, also happens to be the only player from Venezuela in the Hall of Fame. Many believe Cabrera will be next.

“It’s really special to play alongside him,” said Salvador Pérez, 32, the Kansas City Royals’ star catcher who has been Venezuela’s primary backstop in back-to-back WBC tournaments. “I feel like I’m playing with a Hall of Famer.”

Pérez added later, “I’m happy that, in 15 years, I can tell people about playing with him.”

In the waning months of Cabrera’s career, the people around him are doing their best to honor him, starting with a hopeful WBC win for a country where baseball reigns. Only the United States and the Dominican Republic have produced more major league players than Venezuela.

“I want to help Miguel so that he has good memories,” said Venezuela manager Omar López, who is also a Houston Astros coach. “To me, this is very important. Being part of that history for him is very satisfying for me. I hope to leave a good legacy for him so that he remembers me and the coaching staff.”

Once a left fielder or a third baseman, Cabrera, who was never much of a fielder, moved to first base. He eventually transitioned to DH. In his prime, Cabrera was a rare player who could hit for both average and power. From 2004 to 2016, he hit .323 and averaged 33 home runs, 115 RBI and 155 games per season. He won four American League batting titles.

In 2012, he produced one of the greatest offensive seasons in history, claiming baseball’s first triple crown in 45 years by leading the AL in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBI (139). Aaron Judge, the Yankees slugger who won last year’s AL MVP Award, said his college coach used to play highlights of Cabrera from that season for inspiration.

“I admire Miguel with all of my heart,” said Venezuela third baseman Eugenio Suárez, 31, who plays for the Seattle Mariners. “The simple act of watching him play shows me a lot. The consistency in his career and the passion that he plays with are what have maintained him.”

But consistency has been much harder for Cabrera of late. Because of various injuries and struggles, he has averaged 109 games a year — excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — while hitting .262 and averaging 10 home runs a year since 2017. Last season, in a 96-loss campaign for the Tigers, he had the worst year of his career. And his eight-year, $248 million contract extension with Detroit is set to expire after this season.

Through the years, no matter his stature or contract, Cabrera has prioritized playing for his country. Even though he serves more in a leadership role — an occasional DH (he went 1 for 9 in two appearances), a full-time captain and an unofficial assistant general manager — Cabrera’s presence has meant a lot to the Venezuelan team, its fans and the sport.

“We’re happy for all that he’s accomplished but sad that it’s his final year,” said Jhoulys Chacín, 35, a starting pitcher for Venezuela. “Truth is, we’re very proud of him.”

Pablo López, 27, a Miami Marlins starting pitcher, said Cabrera had inspired others from Venezuela to follow the same path. The pipeline of players arriving from the country sped up in the 1990s but exploded in the 2000s, when Cabrera entered the league.

“He did so much for my generation,” López said. “He motivated us, he gave us reasons for which to play. That if he could do it, we have the necessary tools to do it, too.”

When the Venezuelan team was built, federation officials and coaches consulted with a group of veteran players, leading with Cabrera. Omar López, the manager, said Cabrera called fellow Venezuelans around the majors to gauge their commitment and willingness to do what was needed to win.

Eduardo Brizuela, the Milwaukee Brewers’ vice president and special assistant of baseball operations who also serves as the Venezuelan team’s assistant general manager, said Cabrera’s input was sought in hopes of building a team that could gel quickly.

“He’s the best player of our generation and probably the best player ever from our country,” Brizuela said. “So understanding where he stands and every time he talks to our players, it has such an impact, that being able to have an ally as a player throughout this process with Miguel was huge for us.”

Cabrera said he was grateful for the constant communication with team officials. As for being named captain, Cabrera said, “You know, I don’t like that stuff, but it’s something that you accept and hopefully you can support the players.”

Andrés Giménez, 24, an All-Star second baseman for the Cleveland Guardians, called it a dream come true to play alongside a star like Cabrera.

“The way he has been treating us, it’s impressive,” said Martín Pérez, 31, an All-Star starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers. He added, “When you have a leader such as Miguel and he makes you feel like part of the team, and if there are no egos in the clubhouse, that feels very good.”

Cabrera said he would play as much or as little for Venezuela as was needed. Carlos Mendoza, a bench coach for the Yankees and Venezuela, said Cabrera had retained the same childlike joy for baseball throughout his career, “as if he were in the little leagues.”

“This is what I love, to play baseball,” Cabrera said. “And every time I get the chance to take the field, I do it with a lot of love.”

Asked if playing in his final WBC entering his final season was bittersweet, Cabrera stayed true to form and cracked a wide grin. “I don’t like bittersweet,” he said.

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