LAKELAND, Fla. – The only worse place to get sober than a baseball clubhouse is a bar. Inside baseball's inner sanctum, a couple dozen twenty- and thirtysomethings with disposable income and apologist authority figures plot their conquests. They always involve women. They usually entail booze. The clubhouse is a recovering addict's nightmare.
Miguel Cabrera(notes) will return there at some point and face the same temptations that beat dozens we know of and hundreds more we don't. Exactly when Cabrera fell off the wagon, why he tumbled – none of that matters. He did, in spectacular and embarrassing fashion, a bottle of Scotch in his hand, no different than the guy on the corner drinking the 40 or the man in the office working late and pouring a few too many. Addiction is addiction. And now comes the awkward part where the Tigers try to figure out something with which they – and all of baseball, really – are ill-equipped to deal.
Recovery experts say the most important step for an addict is admitting he has a problem. Those around Cabrera must accept his problem and support his battle to overcome it. So it was jarring Friday morning to see Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, Cabrera's boss, tiptoe around questions about his personal welfare and instead focus on his baseball exploits.
"I think Miguel Cabrera is probably going to have the biggest year of his life," Leyland said.
"Miguel Cabrera is in the best shape of his life," Leyland said.
He didn't stop.
"He's going to be welcomed here with open arms by his teammates and they're going to want to see him hit that son of a bitch over the right-center field fence with two men on, and he's going to do that," Leyland said.
Baseball's myopia can turn the most reasonable men irrational. Leyland is no different. He talks baseball because he knows baseball. Addiction is one of those things inside a clubhouse that so few understand. The guy who drinks the most doesn't have a problem, he's got a talent. It's the product of an environment inexorably tied to alcohol, one supercharged with machismo, one where a male-to-female ratio of about 50-to-1 allows destructive attitudes to go unchecked.
The coddling of Cabrera is nothing new. On the eve of the 2009 season's last weekend, Cabrera got blindingly drunk, caused a domestic disturbance and needed Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski to pick him up from jail. A few hours later, he was in the Tigers' lineup. He went 0-for-4. Detroit blew a seven-game lead and missed the playoffs.
Cabrera has long taken advantage of his preternatural gifts. As a 22-year-old outfielder with Florida, he didn't shag fly balls and, when called out by older teammates, said: "(Expletive) the veterans." He ballooned to more than 250 pounds before his 25th birthday, and none of the Marlins' brass intervened. Time after time, he's excused because he's Miguel Cabrera.
And enablers are the worst people that can surround an addict. To send Cabrera back into a clubhouse full of them is potentially toxic. If he goes all Ron Burgundy on another bottle of Scotch, is the clubbie going to stop him? The P.R. guy? His teammates? Leyland? Dombrowski? Are they going to tell their $152 million man what he can and can't do? A grown man who gets to make his choices, no matter how bad they are for him? Are they going to risk getting this response?
Every path to recovery curlicues its own way. Some addicts utilize AA. Others check into rehab. Many have relapses. Ups and downs, highs and lows. Cabrera needs to learn to live without alcohol. He needs to teach himself to disassociate booze with all the social situations in which he drinks. That takes time. Years usually. And fighting the urge takes even more energy.
Cabrera controls his sobriety. The Tigers can only manage his access to their team, and they need to cut it off. A baseball field isn't the place to get dry. Dennis Eckersley did it there. Mickey Mantle and Josh Hamilton(notes) and Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry and Pete Alexander and Billy Martin and Steve Howe and so, so, so many others couldn’t.
As much as baseball can provide a sanctuary for players to escape their demons, Cabrera doesn't need an escape. He needs to confront his problems, find the proper way to manage them and then integrate the rest of his life around it. Once he builds that plan with his support team – be it a doctor, a sponsor, his wife or even Tigers brass – they can determine when he is mentally ready to dive headlong back into a game that will test him more than ever.
Sobriety is a full-time job and top priority. If Cabrera needs a baseball escape, he can build himself the nicest batting cage in the world and install a soda fountain.
The Tigers bungled Cabrera's first bout of public drunkenness. This one – the bloodshot, watery, glassy eyes; the slurred, incoherent speech; the cockiness, combativeness, belligerence; the smoking car engine; the knees to his thigh from a cop for resisting arrest; and, worst of all, the swigging straight from the bottle in front of the police – necessitates far better from the Tigers.
Leyland provided a bad start. He made a human issue about baseball. He made Miguel Cabrera's life about the Tigers' season.
"Look, once and for all, it's not going to affect the team at all," Leyland said. "All these people who are getting dramatic about this (expletive), and all this negative … it's not going to affect this team one bit. Trust me."
The drama isn't about the team. It's about one man. Or should be. It would be nice if beating alcoholism superseded beating the Twins
Right now, Miguel Cabrera is throwing away his life one nip at a time. He is likely overwhelmed by embarrassment. Shame and addiction go hand in hand, and so if Cabrera does report to camp tomorrow, or anytime soon, it should be a short trip – to pop in, give his teammates hugs, thank them for their support and tell them he needs to be somewhere else so he can start his recovery in earnest.
Baseball's history with the bottle is long and fruitless. Another victim is the last thing it needs.