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LAKELAND, Fla. – Miguel Cabrera was the American League's most valuable player in 2012, but one teammate says Cabrera should have made himself even more valuable.
Octavio Dotel, the Detroit Tigers' veteran reliever, is still bothered over what he saw as a lack of leadership when Cabrera refused to agree to a team meeting after some devastating postseason defeats last October.
"You have to step up and say something," Dotel told Yahoo! Sports. "Miggy's more about his game. I don't see him as a leader."
Dotel says he approached Cabrera to suggest a players' only meeting after a heart-wrenching Game 4 loss in the American League Division Series to Oakland. He was rebuffed. Then, after losing Games 1 and 2 to San Francisco in the World Series, Dotel hoped again for a meeting. It didn't happen. The Tigers got swept.
Now, in a new season, Dotel hopes Cabrera takes a stronger off-field role on the team.
"Everybody," Dotel said, "has their eyes on Miggy Cabrera."
Dotel, 39, is well-respected in the clubhouse and around the league. He's one of the few Tigers (along with Cabrera) who has a World Series ring. He was clear in stating Cabrera's leadership on the field is beyond doubt. He compared the 2012 Triple Crown winner favorably with Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez, both former teammates. "If we didn't have Miggy," he said, "I don't know what would happen to us. Miggy is special."
Yet Dotel is still miffed about the superstar's response – or lack thereof – to the team's postseason collapse. Dotel said he asked Cabrera for a team gathering on the eve of the deciding ALDS Game 5.
"He didn't give me that support," Dotel said. "So I didn't try no more."
On Thursday, Dotel reportedly apologized to Cabrera for his comments to Yahoo! Sports on the third baseman's leadership. "I apologized to Miguel," Dotel told the Detroit News. "I didn't mean to make him mad. I hope he's not upset. I didn't mean for those comments to come out that way." Cabrera accepted the peace offering.
The larger question is this: Do the Tigers need more clubhouse leadership, and is Cabrera the one who should be giving it to them? He is known as light-hearted with teammates and quiet in public, yet his incredible hitting has turned him into a face of the franchise. Should a bigger voice go along with that?
Cabrera is the hitter the Tigers clearly depend on, even with Prince Fielder backing him up. That requires responsibility away from the plate, and Cabrera knows it. But the extent of that responsibility is up for debate.
General manager Dave Dombrowski said Cabrera's role is based on his performance on the field, and that’s fine by him. "He's a determined leader," Dombrowski said, "just not a vocal leader."
So who is the team's vocal leader?
"I don't think there are a lot of players around the league who feel comfortable doing that," Dombrowski said. "There isn't really a vocal leader in our clubhouse."
Dombrowski mentioned Victor Martinez and Alex Avila as qualified to play that part, and many of the Tigers (including Dotel and Cabrera) felt Martinez's personality was missing last season as he sat out with a torn ACL. Martinez is back now, colorful and beloved as always, but Cabrera is more of a presence than ever. "When he walks into a room," Avila says, "everybody looks at him."
It's hard to argue a lack of stewardship on a team that just won a pennant, yet the Tigers failed to blow the doors off the undermanned AL Central in 2012. They found their stride only at the end of the regular season, passing the Chicago White Sox and winning the division by three games. Detroit went on to demolish the imploding Yankees in the ALCS after nearly blowing a 2-0 series lead against the Athletics. Only a masterful Game 5 performance by team ace Justin Verlander vaulted the team past the first round.
On Monday, other Tigers praised Cabrera's leadership, especially since his DUI arrest two years ago and even more so at the end of last season, when he played through serious ankle pain. Cabrera said he struggled with those injuries, though he was emphatic in saying he wanted "no excuses" made.
"He was hurt," said Santiago, a close friend of Cabrera's. "He told me, 'I'm gonna play. Me playing hurt, my presence will give a little confidence to the team.' "
Santiago has noticed a steady increase in maturity from Cabrera. "He knows the way to handle himself on the team," Santiago said. "He's coming earlier. He's taking other guys to the gym."
Avila agrees, saying Cabrera has "definitely opened up a little more, knowing he’s the face of the franchise."
Dombrowski defers credit for helping Cabrera during his off-the-field troubles, even though there was public debate about whether the slugger should have been treated more harshly by the team after his DUI in spring training of 2011. "The person has to be willing to do it themselves," he said. "And Miguel was." Cabrera reportedly spent three months in an outpatient program for alcoholism after the 2009 season and has been out of trouble ever since, with the exception of the DUI in 2011.
On the field, the results have been remarkable. Cabrera's 2012 season was one of the best in recent memory, and he carried the team to the playoffs. He clinched the Triple Crown during the season's final week, with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs, and 139 RBIs. He played even when he could have sat out and still won the award.
He didn't make a big deal out of the feat, either. There was no talk-show circuit, no rush of commercials, no book deal. When the Tigers clinched the division in Kansas City, Cabrera avoided the team celebration, despite the team's use of alcohol-free Champagne. His career arc, natural talents, and personal struggles slightly echo those of Josh Hamilton, yet the new Angels outfielder is a baseball celebrity and Cabrera is hardly a topic of national discussion.
That's on purpose. "I don't like drama," Cabrera said. "You play with pain. You don't think about it."
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As for leadership, Cabrera said, "We got a lot of leaders in here. I try to be myself. Do anything to win games."
Cabrera feels the team is gradually coming together as players continue to get to know each other. He said the World Series loss was "hard to swallow" but, "We have more experience this year.
"We have to play at a better level. We can get better. We can help each other."
Cabrera explained his personal theory on baseball came from discussions he had as a young player in Florida with Andre Dawson and Tony Perez. "Don't worry about personal numbers," he remembers them saying. "Don't try to do everything in one day. Do something every day a little bit, to get better."
He laughed. "It took a while," he said. "I wanted three hits every day."
That's the genius of Cabrera. He's an incrementalist, able to be remarkably consistent. His monthly OBP splits last season were .368, .371, .387, .409, .429, .378. His RBI totals were 20, 22, 20, 23, 24, 27. Consistency is a code word for boring, but it really is the key to Cabrera's superiority as a player.
"We have a lot of superstars," Cabrera said. "If you do something every day a little, the end is going to be big."
That's what happened last year, both to Cabrera and the Tigers. The end was indeed big, though not as big as everyone wanted. It’s hard to fault Cabrera for that, as the Tigers had a similar Fall Classic catastrophe in 2006 when a long post-ALCS layoff led to a National League rout. Back then, it was the Cardinals, who (much like the Giants) looked like the headier, wiser, more composed team.
Still, that’s two stark examples of bad postseason momentum morphing into off-season disappointment. Could the World Series momentum have been turned? Dotel thinks so. Though in Martinez's absence, it's hard to say who would have spoken up. Asked if Prince Fielder, the Tigers' other big-dollar slugger, should've called a meeting, Dotel said he felt it was different with Fielder because last year was only the first baseman's first year with the team.
"They seem alike, those two guys," Dotel said of Cabrera and Fielder. "Some guys have that ability, some guys don't. We should have said something."
Later in the conversation, Dotel mentioned the team's ace: "[Justin] Verlander should be one of those guys too. If we had that little meeting, who knows?"
Maybe Dotel knows. He’s been on 13 different teams since making his MLB debut with the Mets in 1999. He says he’s seen a lot of team meetings solve season-long problems.
Then again, Cabrera has solved plenty of problems in Detroit just by swinging the bat.
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