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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Days like Monday test Miguel Cabrera. They test his ability as a baseball player, which is just about unmatched, and they test his sobriety, which is evermore a work in progress, and they test his capacity to marry the two, which he has done with wonderful success in this, the defining season of a career trending toward historic.
He had gone 4-for-5, bashed a home run, done everything short of lock up the American League Triple Crown and throw the key into a storm drain, before facing the uncomfortable part: the celebration. His Detroit Tigers had won the AL Central crown with a 6-3 victory against Kansas City, capping a spirited two-week run aided by the Chicago White Sox's collapse, and the party started quickly. Tarps over lockers, goggles over eyes, spray over everything. Cabrera got the Josh Hamilton treatment. The Tigers were thoughtful enough to buy cases of Fre – "alcohol-removed wine," the label said – but that wasn't enough to induce Cabrera into the middle of a scene that once threatened his career.
So he flitted about. First outside the clubhouse, holding his daughter, looking around for someone he knew. A few fans walked by, oblivious to the hitting demigod whose .329 batting average, 44 home runs and 137 RBIs place him among some of history's greats. He was just a guy with his kid.
Then he went back inside and stowed away in the office of his manager, Jim Leyland, his confidant, his ally, his apologist, his steward, his friend. Through both of Cabrera's public alcohol-related incidents, Leyland showed incredible loyalty, and Cabrera knew this would be a safe space.
And once it overflowed with people, Cabrera sought refuge in a small storage space, the clubhouse's bowels, just him, alone, absorbing whatever might run through one's mind amid the cacophony of victorious alpha males and the knowledge that it's best to remove himself from it.
Finally, the spraying of the fake bubbly ceased, and Cabrera rejoined the teammates who immediately feted him with chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P," which at this point he's bound to win. It didn't matter that Mike Trout was going 4-for-4 off Felix Hernandez on Monday. Cabrera's team is going to the postseason. Cabrera is almost surely going to win the Triple Crown. The award is going to be Cabrera's.
"There was a lot of tension, a lot of speculation, a lot of talk," Cabrera said. "I'm not that kind of guy. I'm the guy who goes out there and try and have fun and try and win games."
How the Tigers have done so isn't as much a reflection of Cabrera as it is Leyland, who spent most of the season embattled, questioned and defensive as his $130 million-plus team stagnated. Teams can fold, crumble and wither at the first sign of underachievement. The Tigers never did. They weathered hot-and-cold performances and, as starter Max Scherzer said, "always believed in the talent in this clubhouse."
And for spiritual guidance, they turned to Leyland, 67 years old, still as fiery as the end of a Marlboro Red. No, he didn't yell, didn't berate anyone, didn't flip a food spread – didn't do any of the things expected of Leyland because those are the sorts of things crusty old baseball men do. What makes Leyland so well-liked among his players is that he doesn't play to the stereotype. He plays to the team.
In this team, he knew public displays of inflection would serve no purpose. It took more than 150 games to prove him right, of course, but in the end it's another division title for the Tigers and another weepy night for Leyland, the exception to the no-crying-in-baseball adage.
"I'm an emotional guy," he said. "I let 'em go. That's what you're supposed to do when something like this happens. I don't try to hide it. I'm not embarrassed about it. I'm a crier. I always have been."
His eyes welled when he started to talk about the 3 million-fan mark the Tigers eclipsed this year, and how so many in Detroit latched on to this team even when they couldn't afford tickets, even when the Tigers were three games behind Chicago on Sept. 18. And here, on Oct. 1, they were three games up with two to go, wearing division championship hats and with aspirations to excise the word division.
"We're very dangerous," center fielder Austin Jackson said.
"We're as good as any team in the American League," Scherzer said.
"Not a lot of teams want to face us," catcher Gerald Laird said.
It's true, too, rival executives looking at a rotation with Justin Verlander, Scherzer and Doug Fister, a bullpen with burgeoning strength and a lineup with Cabrera and Prince Fielder back-to-back. One executive this week said he believes the Tigers are the AL's team to beat, and it doesn't hurt that because of the new wild card and funky scheduling they start the ALDS with two games at home against a team with a better record, either Texas, New York or Baltimore.
The next few days are to celebrate, and perhaps for Cabrera to clinch his Triple Crown. He said he doesn't want to sit out the final few games to preserve his batting-average lead and hope Hamilton doesn't pass him in home runs. Leyland waffled on the idea of benching him. He knows he needs to be careful with his superstar's body, his psyche, his everything.
Not everyone was as considerate, of course. Reliever Octavio Dotel paraded around the clubhouse with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. Other teammates started swigging out of bottles of Dom Perignon once the spraying subsided. Even Cabrera's wife asked for a bottle of Dom, which she held as she and Cabrera posed together for a picture.
Toward the end of the celebration, a bachata version of "Stand By Me" strained through the speakers. The Tigers danced. They sang together. And off to the side sat Miguel Cabrera, hero of the night, hero of the season, soon-to-be MVP, should-be-Triple Crown winner, celebrating the only way he can: by not celebrating.
And when the party finally concluded, he left with his family, another test passed, many more to come.
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