LAKELAND, Fla. – Halfway to Cooperstown, Miguel Cabrera(notes) lost his way. Innumerable concerned citizens have offered him what amounts to a behavioral GPS to get his life pointed in what they believe the one true enlightened direction.
Hang a right at Abstinence Avenue, merge onto Temperance Thoroughfare and don't swerve, speed or become otherwise distracted until reaching Sobriety Street, a continuous one-way. Eventually you'll pull up to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Have a speech ready and remember to thank your sponsor.
Forget that who knows how many Hall of Famers were heavy drinkers. Miguel Cabrera, it seems, cannot be one of them. For him, no shortcuts are allowed. That's the price of two shocking public incidents that transformed him from good-time party guy to big-time problem guy.
He knows it. Whether he admits to himself and to those in his strictly confidential MLB-administered outpatient program that he's an alcoholic is unknown. He's never said so publicly. And, really, should it matter? His actions are more important than any word, and his actions will determine whether he stays on course for Cooperstown.
Approached in the Detroit Tigers spring training clubhouse, his eyes betray a blend of shame, apprehension, defiance and sorrow. Cabrera won't directly address his transgressions or the steps he's taking to stay sober. He's soft-spoken and polite, saying he is "working hard every day to do the right thing and to get ready for the season." He said he "feels great," and he put up the stellar Grapefruit League numbers to prove it, batting .311 with a .953 OPS while leading the Tigers with 74 at-bats.
Cabrera, 7½ years into his career and a few days shy of his 28th birthday, is indeed halfway to the Hall. He has 247 home runs, 1,400 hits, a .313 batting average and .939 OPS. Double those numbers, maybe tack on a few extra seasons as a DH, and he's a lock, a potential first-ballot selection. From a statistical standpoint, the hitters he compares most closely to through age 27 are Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr.(notes)
His achievements so far have been speckled with only God knows how many late-night benders. Everybody knew Cabrera liked to drink. Two opposing managers said off the record they smelled alcohol on his breath around the batting cage before day games in recent years, the rancid residue of the morning after.
How easy would it have been for opposing players to invite Miggy out on the town, knowing he'd get hammered and be less likely to hammer the ball the next day? The night of his first public incident, in October 2009, he was drinking all night with several members of the Chicago White Sox. He was jailed after an altercation with his wife at 6 a.m., and his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit. The Tigers allowed him to play that night against the White Sox and he was hitless, leaving six runners on base.
Cabrera said he swore off alcohol after that incident, but his relapse was profoundly frightening. Before his SUV broke down on a Florida highway, he'd tried to get served at a steakhouse at closing time. When employees asked him to leave, he allegedly patted a shoulder bag and said, "I will kill all of you and blow this place up."
According to the police report, when officers approached his vehicle a short time later on the side of the road, he told them, "Shoot me, kill me." He took swigs off a bottle of scotch and wandered into the middle of the highway. The episode indicated more than a battle with booze; Cabrera's behavior and comments suggest problems that alcohol abstinence might only begin to address.
The MLB treatment program, according to sources familiar with it, is comprehensive. Cabrera is allowed to play baseball, but he isn't coddled. There are meetings and testing. He visits doctors and counselors. And he has a constant companion appointed by MLB – Raul Gonzalez, a 37-year-old warhorse who played in the minors for 20 years and spent parts of five seasons in the majors. Gonzalez has seen it all; now his job is to see Miguel Cabrera through to sobriety.
Perhaps Gonzalez can keep him from associating with bad apples. Speaking to Cabrera's situation, Tigers veteran Carlos Guillen(notes) said, "Sometimes you have people around you that are not good for you. You think they're your friends, but they're not really friends."
[Tim Brown: Cabrera is lost on a bleak stretch of road (Feb. 17, 201l)]
Alex Avila(notes), a Tigers catcher and son of team executive Al Avila, trained with Cabrera during the offseason and is considered a real friend. Like Guillen, Avila grasps the gravity of the problem, saying, "Millions of people have problems with alcohol. It's something that can be overcome, but you need a lot of help."
So Cabrera has allies, in the clubhouse and out. A lot has been made of the rowdy MLB subculture, that drinking is part of the ethos and Cabrera should have spent a month in inpatient rehab before getting back to the day-in, day-out grind of baseball. But many players embrace sobriety, and any teammate who nudges Cabrera off the wagon would find himself on the waiver wire the next morning.
The consequences to Cabrera of another drunken episode are unclear. A statement from MLB executive Rob Manfred said in part: "Mr. Cabrera … understands that any future alcohol-related incidents could involve more serious consequences."
With opening day comes added media scrutiny, but don't expect Cabrera to discuss his treatment program. Tigers manager Jim Leyland is protective to a fault; his inability to admit his best player has a serious problem borders on enabling. But the overall strategy of covering Cabrera in a cocoon of treatment and support while allowing him to play could work.
Cabrera is going to hit well. He's going to earn the $20 million the Tigers are paying him this season. He'd probably do all that even if he was drinking. But the stakes are greater and the scrutiny will be constant. He's back on that road to Cooperstown, staying between the lines for now, and everyone in baseball is hoping his vehicle doesn't break down again.