Miguel Cabrera became a baseball legend this year because of how magnificently he swung a bat. But one of the most heroic things he did all year came Wednesday night when he simply picked one up.
Cabrera became the first major leaguer in 45 years to win baseball's hallowed Triple Crown, leading the sport in home runs (44), runs batted in (139) and batting average (.330). That feat will go down in history. But those of us alive to see this achievement will remember how he could have sat out the final game and won the Crown. He chose not to. He chose to play.
Doing so was as pedestrian as showing up at work. Yet that means a lot in baseball, where Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig are deeply beloved for doing just that. So is Ted Williams, whose .406 season in 1941 is rarely re-told without the story of how he, too, could have sat out and cleared the .400-batting hurdle. He played. "The record's no good," Williams said, "unless it's made in all the games."
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Cabrera belongs among those greats now. And that has been lost in the borderline-silly debate over whether he deserves 2012 MVP honors over Mike Trout. There's an MVP every single season. But the Triple Crown winner is the MVP of MVPs. There have only been 17 Triple Crowns in the long history of baseball. Twelve of the 15 men to achieve it are Hall of Famers. They include Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Gehrig. They are the best of the best, players whose faces we can imagine without the help of a single highlight. Cabrera is now in that group.
And he is also apart from that group. Cabrera is the first Latino player to win a Triple Crown. He is not only an icon in his home nation of Venezuela, he is an heir to the great Roberto Clemente.
It's unfortunate that Cabrera's lifetime achievement is drowning in the topics of the day. Baseball people spent Wednesday gossiping about the division races and a mascot race in Washington. It's perplexing, really.
"I think he's been relatively under the radar for what he's doing," Tigers ace Justin Verlander told Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News Tuesday. "I haven't seen that much attention on him, not like it should be. It kind of annoys me, but it probably doesn't annoy him. The entire baseball world should be here right now."
He's right. There hasn't been around-the-clock coverage. Tim Tebow gets more attention. There are a few reasons for this, and none are all that satisfying.
[Y! Sports Fan Shop: Buy Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown merchandise]
The McGwire-Sosa home run chase of the late 1990s, allegedly fueled by performance enhancers, sullied the sport and made a lot of people feel duped. Cabrera is big and strong and because of that will never fully escape steroid questions, nor will any successful ballplayer these days. The fact that he's won the Triple Crown in a year with relatively little power hitting coupled with so many no-hitters is hardly noticed. Nor is it often pointed out that in this era, most hitters specialize in power or average, rather than trying to hit for both.
What's more, the statistics of the era have shifted, with more emphasis on complex metrics like "Wins Above Replacement." Yes, the game must progress and evolve, but children fall in love with baseball for the crack of the bat and the arc of the ball in flight, not for arithmetic. Cabrera may not have led the league in every imaginable statistic this year, but he certainly has led the league in the statistics that make a trip to the ballpark worthwhile.
No, Cabrera isn't the most beloved baseball player out there. You could even describe him as troubled. He has had battles with alcoholism, had run-ins with the law and has been in domestic disputes. He is not glib, at least not in English, which most American baseball reporters speak exclusively. There have been revealing profiles about Cabrera, but he's mostly a mystery. Safe to say this story would be much bigger if the man chasing this feat was Chipper Jones or Derek Jeter. Or even Trout.
Baseball legends are rarely ideal people. Cobb was angry. Williams was bitter. Mantle was an alcoholic. But when they came to bat, they were magical. They were magical for streaks, for seasons, for years. So too is Miguel Cabrera, who completed a work of baseball art on Wednesday by picking up a special brand of paintbrush that millions have used, but almost never quite as beautifully.
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