Detroit's coddling of Cabrera shows complexity of alcohol issues

One day after he and the Detroit Tigers went through the motions, Miguel Cabrera(notes) has started getting ready for the 2011 season with the rest of his teammates in Lakeland, Fla.

This, of course, is a rather polarizing issue. As you might have already read, our own Jeff Passan believes the Tigers have become the biggest pushovers in sports after their refusal to hold Cabrera accountable for — or address the problems that led to — the two high-profile incidents he's had with alcohol.

On the other side is the overwhelming majority of Tigers fans, an army of apologists who not only believe that Little Caesars pizza is tasty, but that Cabrera getting liquored up last week and putting other lives in jeopardy amounts to just one mistake on a Florida highway.

I tend to side with Passan here, and not only because he's my co-worker. Back in 2009, I called for the Tigers to send Cabrera home for not only the AL Central tiebreaker but the entire playoffs if the Tigers beat the Minnesota Twins. (They did not.) In my view, Cabrera letting down his team as it frittered away its division lead — he was picked up from jail by GM Dave Dombrowski on the eve of the final series — was an unforgivable offense. He needed to feel the consequences in the biggest way possible.

But one year and a DUI charge later, I confess to understanding the complexity and difficulty of this situation a little bit better and that post would be different had I written it today. No longer does Cabrera seem like a careless teammate who consciously ruins by refusing to say 'when.' Instead, it seems quite clear that he has an addiction and how the team deals with that is a lot more complicated than sentencing him to the hole. The current solution is that Cabrera will face no punishment and the team will work with him on a MLB-approved treatment program throughout the season and perhaps beyond.

As laymen, we can't know whether or not this treatment program will be successful, but we can admit that alcohol problems are often the hardest conditions for us to address, no matter the walk of life. Alcoholism, after all, isn't like a broken leg or a torn ACL. There isn't a minimum amount of missed time that an athlete must take to heal and the symptoms are only occasionally visible. Like the friends of an accountant who still wakes up to go to work in the morning after a bad bender, Cabrera's family and co-workers are likely to be more prone to discount the problem when they see that everything's fine the day after.

Throw in the Tigers' current contract with Cabrera (eight years, $153 million) and things get even more complicated. The team undoubtedly feels like it's not going to pay that much money for a MVP-caliber player to sit in rehab during the season. Not when MLB and doctors say it's possible for him to do both.

At the same time, the Tigers have to admit that alcohol problems can grow just as debilitating as those injuries mentioned above and that there are perhaps better methods of treatment that involve him missing time with the team. Perhaps Detroit really feels like it is doing the best thing here and I can't blame it for wanting to maximize its investment if it thinks it's possible for him to hit and heal at the same time.

All we can ask is that the Tigers be honest in their assessment because there's a lot at stake here. For Cabrera. For his real family and for his Tiger family. For the public that might be sharing a road if he slips up and gets behind the wheel again.

But because the Tigers have tried to end this story as quickly as it began, it makes it quite difficult to acquit them of the enabler label at this point. If this is a medical condition where the Tigers felt punishment was not appropriate, how can they claim that his work in the hitting cage is just as important as addressing his problem?

And with opening day still five weeks away, what was the rush with bringing him back to the team so fast? There's no easy answers here, but there was definitely more time to work toward seeking the correct one.

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