It was Oct. 22, 2003.
The day the world learned about Miguel Cabrera.
The hype surrounding Cabrera had picked up steam when the Florida Marlins signed the 16-year-old phenom, born and raised in the La Pedrera neighborhood in Maracay, in July 1999: Largest signing bonus for a Venezuelan player, a perfect approach at the plate, a pure hitter to all parts of the field, the next Dave Concepción.
The expectations grew as Cabrera inched closer to his MLB debut in June 2003, then again when the Marlins advanced to the World Series in October 2003.
"You just wanted to see the guy and his approach and how he would handle it," said Bobby Abreu, an 18-year MLB outfielder. "He had a little pressure on him to show what kind of player he is."
"Everybody was waiting to see," said Magglio Ordóñez, a 15-year MLB outfielder who spent four seasons as Cabrera's teammate. "I saw him for the first time facing Roger Clemens in the World Series."
This isn't the beginning or the end of Miguel Cabrera's story, but it's the moment people seem to talk about the most, surprisingly more than 500 home runs or 3,000 hits. The 2003 World Series, specifically the first inning of Game 4, set the tone for Cabrera's 21-year MLB career, which ends following Sunday's game with the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.
The career-changing at-bat in the Fall Classic, nearly 20 years ago, catapulted Cabrera to superstar status. He captured the attention, and gained the respect, of the baseball world. But it didn't arrive out of nowhere.
Ozzie Guillén, the Marlins' third-base coach, prepared a 20-year-old Cabrera to face the 41-year-old Clemens. In the pregame meeting, Guillén warned the fresh-faced rookie about one of baseball's most intimidating pitchers. He promised Clemens wouldn't hit him, but he also told him Clemens would "let you know who is on the mound" by throwing an up-and-in fastball.
Other players had similar encounters.
"I faced Roger Clemens in 2004. I was 25," said Victor Martinez, a 16-year MLB catcher who spent seven seasons as Cabrera's teammate. "When I faced Roger Clemens for the first time, and I'm not embarrassed to say it, but I shit my pants. Roger Clemens threw the ball close to my body, up-and-in, and when he got the ball back from the catcher, he looked at me. I almost melted at the plate."
Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, nearly hit Cabrera in the face with a first-pitch fastball, but instead of shying away, Cabrera stared him down. Six pitches later, Cabrera hit an up-and-away fastball for an opposite-field home run. The Marlins won that game to even the Series, then two more for the title.
With the spotlight shining on Cabrera, he delivered command performance after command performance. His 21-season résumé: World Series champion, two-time MVP, four-time batting champ, seven-time Silver Slugger, 12-time All-Star and, of course, baseball's only Triple Crown winner since 1967. He is one of three players, along with Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols, to reach at least 500 home runs, 600 doubles and 3,000 hits. He will finish his career with the highest batting average among the three legends.
Cabrera can look forward to Cooperstown.
But looking back at that home run?
"Go back to 2003 with Miggy," Martinez said. "When Roger Clemens threw up-and-in, Miggy gave him that look and took him deep. I was like, 'Man, I wish I could be like that.' For me, it was very, very impressive."
"Unbelievable," Ordóñez said. "He's one of a kind."
Starting at shortstop
Ozzie Guillén's first experience with Cabrera had come years earlier.
Floods and landslides obliterated the Venezuelan state of Vargas, which neighbored Cabrera's home state of Aragua, in December 1999. All-Star shortstop Omar Vizquel organized a celebrity softball game for relief efforts. The game, played in Caracas on Jan. 22, 2000, featured Ozzie Guillén before the final season of his 16-year MLB career.
Cabrera's family attended, too.
His mother, Gregoria, played for the Venezuelan national softball team; his uncle, David Torres, played in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. Cabrera — at 16 years and 9 months — had signed with the Marlins a few months earlier, but he hadn't debuted in North America.
"I saw this kid in the field playing catch," Guillén said. "I asked a couple of guys who he was. I was told, 'This is Miguel Cabrera, one of the best players that will come out of the country this year.' They said he played shortstop. I said, 'That's a big motherfucker for a shortstop.' That's the first time I've ever seen Miguel."
It wasn't the first time Cabrera's height had drawn attention. In Venezuela, height (not age) determined what youth league a player could play in, creating a problem for Cabrera. His parents would measure his height every week, and sometimes, Cabrera would buckle his knees to measure shorter.
When he was 10, he was too tall to play with a Venezuelan Little League team managed by his hero Dave Concepción, even though his father, Miguel Cabrera Sr., was an assistant coach.
So, Concepción made Cabrera his bat boy.
"I didn't know much about him until he was 10 years old," Concepción said. "Miguel asked me, 'David, can I be your bat boy?' I said, 'Yes, you can be my bat boy. You can hit batting practice and do everything that everybody does.' Miguel was my bat boy, but he couldn't play in the tournament because he was too tall."
In the softball game, Guillén started at shortstop but moved himself to left field because he wanted to see Cabrera play shortstop. Guillén remembers one play from that day. He will never forget Cabrera making "an unbelievable play" to the middle of the field.
"This kid, the play he made at shortstop was unreal," Guillén said.
"After that, I lost track of him," Guillén added.
It didn't take long for Guillén to reconnect with Cabrera.
Following his playing career, Guillén coached for the Montreal Expos in 2001 before joining the Marlins as third-base coach in 2002-03. In his first meeting, the Marlins' front office insisted on developing Cabrera as a shortstop, but Guillén argued for Cabrera to learn a new position.
Guillén also introduced Cabrera to Marlins manager Jeff Torborg in spring training before the 2002 season.
"Skip, this is Miguel Cabrera," Guillén said.
"Holy shit," Torborg responded.
Torborg was fired in mid-May 2003, and the Marlins hired baseball lifer Jack McKeon as their new manager. Not long after, Cabrera was promoted from Double-A Carolina for his MLB debut, on June 20, 2003. He came up as a left fielder and third baseman, and he hit a walk-off home run in his first game.
Cabrera and his wife, Rosangel, married exactly 368 days before Cabrera's first game. They started dating back in high school. In the 2003 season, Rosangel became close friends with the wives of Guillén, Álex González and Iván "Pudge" Rodríguez. They were all World Series champions.
"That's how I started having a good relationship with him, his wife and his parents," Guillén said. "We went to his wedding. We've seen those kids grow up. The relationship between our families is close to this day. Our wives might be better friends than me and him. We see each other and talk on the phone, but my wife always talks to Rosangel. Always, always, always."
The 2003 World Series made Cabrera famous, but he doesn't act famous around his closest friends.
"Miguel is still a kid," Guillén, now 59, said. "He still thinks he's 16, 17 years old. That's why I love him. He played Nintendo with my youngest son. He hung around with my son everywhere. He has a very lovely heart. He cares so much about people. He's not the type of guy that's like, 'Did you check my numbers?' No, he's very humble."
With the Marlins, Cabrera hit .313 with 138 home runs, making four All-Star teams over five seasons. Entering his final game with the Tigers, Cabrera has hit .304 with 372 home runs, making eight All-Star teams over 16 seasons.
He never played an inning at shortstop in the majors, just as Guillén predicted.
Bobby Abreu first met Cabrera on July 4, 2003, in the first meeting between Cabrera's Marlins and Abreu's Philadelphia Phillies. The fellow Maracay native had already been a major-leaguer for seven seasons, beginning when Cabrera was 13.
Cabrera wanted to meet Abreu.
They talked that day.
"I was like, 'Whoa, this is the guy they're always talking about,'" Abreu said. "The funny part is, he was 20 years old. He was so mature. He could handle conversations about hitting. It was very interesting to meet him. He was looking at me like, 'Wow, I finally met you.' But I looked at him — the way he handled the bat, the way he swung the bat, the way he talked and his knowledge. That conversation was great."
Cabrera and Abreu became friendly rivals, in the National League East and in the offseason in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League. They had already crossed paths in winter ball — without formally meeting — as top players in the league: Cabrera for Tigres de Aragua, Abreu for Leones del Caracas.
"That's one of the reasons I knew he would be a superstar, and it's not about the game," Abreu said. "It's about the mentality that he had. He knew the game and how to handle all situations."
Cabrera's Tigres beat Abreu's Leones in Game 7 of the LVBP championship in the 2004-05 season. Cabrera played nine seasons, from 2000-08, for Tigres de Aragua and won four championships in six tries. (He is the only player to compete in all five editions of the World Baseball Classic, founded in 2006.)
Cabrera stopped playing for Tigres de Aragua after signing an eight-year, $153.3 million contract extension with Detroit in March 2008, just three months after the Marlins traded him and three weeks before his 25th birthday. His contract's total value at the time ranked fourth in baseball history behind Álex Rodríguez, Derek Jeter and Manny Ramírez.
"He had an out-of-this-world talent where in between each pitch, if he had to make certain adjustments, he was perfectly calculated in fixing those things quickly," said Magglio Ordóñez, Cabrera's teammate in Detroit from 2006-11. "He makes it look so easy, but it's extremely difficult. For me, it was a little hard to do."
Ordóñez, the second-highest paid player on that 2008 roster, remembers Cabrera's arrival to the Tigers' spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida. His teammates were buzzing with excitement. He believed the Tigers, thanks to Cabrera's presence, had a powerhouse lineup capable of winning the World Series.
Did Ordóñez show Cabrera around Lakeland?
"I mean, there's not a lot to show in Lakeland," he said.
Cabrera fit instantly into the Tigers' lineup, winning the American League home run title in 2008 and topping 30 homers and 100 RBIs in each of his first three seasons.
'A turning point for him'
Everything changed Feb. 16, 2011.
That night, Cabrera was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and resisting an officer without violence in Fort Pierce, Florida, about 110 miles southeast of Lakeland. Cabrera took a swig from a bottle of scotch in front of officers, uttered terrible words during the arrest, refused to submit to a Breathalyzer test and needed to be forcibly placed into the patrol car. He pleaded no contest to the DUI charge, received probation and had to pay a fine.
It was his second alcohol-related legal issue in less than three years.
"The moment that happened was a turning point for him," Ordóñez said of the 2011 incident. "It was like a silver-lining situation. I felt like it was one of the best things that could have happened, as horrible as that sounds. It definitely needed to happen. He completely changed."
The Tigers held a press conference with Cabrera, general manager Dave Dombrowski and assistant general manager Al Avila. Ozzie Guillén had talked to Cabrera about how to publicly address the incident. He emphasized the importance of honesty and admitting he needed help.
Cabrera apologized to his teammates, family and fans. He promised to participate in a treatment program recommended by MLB and the players' union. He also said he wanted to regain his reputation.
"I didn't just applaud him for (apologizing)," said Guillén, who managed the Chicago White Sox from 2004-11. "I motherfucked him, too. He knew the way I was talking to him was sincere. I told him, you have a big responsibility to your family. When you make a mistake, you put your head down, move on and try not to make it again. I told him to worry about his family, not about baseball."
The Tigers, exactly seven months after Cabrera's arrest, clinched the AL Central.
Cabrera donned the Old English "D" in the postseason for the first time.
"It definitely changed him for the better," Ordóñez said. "He won the MVP in back-to-back years, and he won the Triple Crown. It definitely did something. He was on his way after that."
In his prime
Victor Martinez, Cabrera's teammate in Detroit from 2011-18, first saw him playing in Venezuela in the 2000-01 offseason. Martinez was 22 at the time; Cabrera was about to turn 18.
Before a winter ball game, Martinez listened to his team's catcher and pitcher prepare for Cabrera. The pitcher, veteran right-hander Argenis Conde, planned to throw two fastballs up-and-in, then pitch away. The game plan was too simple for Cabrera.
"This kid Miggy hit two homers," Martinez said.
Cabrera and Martinez faced each other in the big leagues in 2004, then became teammates in 2011. Before the 2012 season, Cabrera had finished in the top five in MVP voting five times over eight full seasons.
In 2012, Cabrera won baseball's first Triple Crown since 1967, leading the AL with his .330 average and the majors with his 44 home runs and 139 RBIs. He also won the 2012 AL MVP. He followed that with another AL MVP season in 2013, hitting .348 with 44 homers and 137 RBIs.
His totals in the back-to-back MVP seasons: .338 batting average, 88 home runs and 276 RBIs in 309 games.
"As his teammate, he did a lot of great things for me in my career," Martinez said. "Maybe he doesn't know, but he pushed me to my limits. My game had to be on every day. I was hitting behind him for seven years. I had to be better. Everything that he did, day in and day out, was amazing."
In March 2014, just three weeks before his 31st birthday, Cabrera signed an eight-year, $248 million contract, keeping him a Tiger through the 2023 season. The Tigers won four consecutive AL Central crowns, from 2011-14, and over that stretch, Cabrera hit .333 with 143 home runs and a 1.000 OPS in 629 games.
"We had a pretty good team in Detroit," Martinez said. "He made everybody else look like shit. That's how good he is."
In the middle of Cabrera's reign, MLB suspended 14 players — including All-Stars such as Ryan Braun, Everth Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and Álex Rodríguez — in 2013 for their connections to the Biogenesis clinic, a performance-enhancing drugs operation located in South Florida.
Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal were implicated but had already served suspensions and didn't receive additional discipline.
Miguel Cabrera has never been linked to PEDs.
"The biggest thing about it? He never cheated," Guillén said. "I'm more proud of that than anything else. Back in his day, everybody got caught with different stuff. He did it clean. He played with one leg for five or six years. His arm is all screwed up. He continued to battle."
"It was all him," Ordóñez said.
'We're very proud'
The all-natural body started breaking down in the late 2010s, though. Cabrera played through a groin injury in the 2013 season, a fractured ankle in the 2014 season — both requiring offseason surgery — and multiple other injuries for the rest of his career. He hated the injured list and loved to play.
Cabrera ruptured his biceps tendon in June 2018 and underwent season-ending surgery. In June 2019, Cabrera was diagnosed with a chronic right knee injury. He didn't need surgery, but the pain in his knee continued to get worse.
His power plummeted because of the knee issue, but he leaned on his bat-to-ball skills and stuck around long enough to reach 500 home runs in August 2021 and 3,000 hits in April 2022.
"I was watching Miguel when he got to 3,000, and I cried," Guillén said.
Venezuela has no shortage of great MLB hitters. Dave Concepción ended his 19-year career in 1988 with a .267 batting average, 2,326 hits and 101 home runs. Magglio Ordóñez ended his 15-year career in 2011 with a .309 batting average, 2,156 hits and 294 home runs. Bobby Abreu ended his 18-year career in 2014 with a .291 batting average, 2,470 hits and 288 home runs. Victor Martinez ended his 16-year career in 2018 with a .295 batting average, 2,153 hits and 246 home runs.
They're all in awe of Cabrera's numbers.
Cabrera enters his final game with a .307 batting average, 3,174 hits (16th all-time in MLB), 511 home runs (tied for 25th), 627 doubles (13th) and 1,881 RBIs (11th) in his 21-year career.
"He is the greatest baseball player of the Venezuelan country," Concepción said. "There's no doubt about it. It's not easy to get to 3,000 hits and 500 home runs and 1,800 RBIs, and so many doubles. It's not easy. He is a Hall of Famer, no doubt. The first year he's in the vote, he's going to make it."
"You don't see it every day," Ordóñez said. "You don't see it every year. You don't see it in every player. It's a one-in-a-million player that you're going to see every 20-30 years, if you get a chance."
"First of all, you have to be healthy," Abreu said. "You have to do all the stuff you're capable of doing and do them well. When you're in the middle of the lineup, you have to produce. When you're the guy, everybody is following you. He was healthy for a long time in his career. We know he had injuries, but he was handling it and doing good."
"People don't realize, if Miggy had been playing in another stadium, we would be talking about Miggy being close to 700 home runs," Martinez said of Comerica Park. "He would have 600 home runs with his eyes closed. You know how Detroit is. There's no secret. I wish they would have made it a decent ballpark like everybody else had. They brought the fences in at the wrong time."
On Sunday, Miguel Cabrera will travel to that same ballpark for the last time as a player in his life. The 40-year-old will participate in pre-game meetings, lace up his cleats, take batting practice, put on his iconic No. 24 jersey, take the field at a sold-out Comerica Park and try his best to win the game.
He will receive numerous standing ovations, and, at some point, the game will stop for him when he takes a curtain call.
"I'm here because I love this game," Cabrera said on the final Friday of his MLB career. "I love this city. I want to say thank you to the city of Detroit and the organization because they gave me a great opportunity to play here and be a part of this family. I'm always going to say thank you."
There will be smiles, laughs and tears on his final day. Before then, just like he did ahead of that career-defining World Series at-bat nearly 20 years ago, his longtime friend Guillén shared some final words of advice.
"Enjoy your last out and continue your life like you never did this, brother," Guillén said. "People are going to kiss your ass, people are going to ask you for shit. At the end of the day, there are only a few people worried about you. It's your wife and three kids. Congratulations on behalf of my family. We're very proud."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera is the king of Venezuelan hitters