Miguel Cabrera sat in front of his locker in the corner of the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday, slinging some Spanish banter at a table full of teammates.
There were no television cameras hovering over him. No microphones stuck in his face. None of the commotion that could be reasonably expected as the soft-spoken Detroit Tigers slugger closes in on baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years.
“The entire baseball world should be here right now,” said Justin Verlander, the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. “We’ve got, sorry to say, the regular guys.
“I think he’s been relatively under the radar for what he’s done, for what he’s doing. It hasn’t happened in 40-some years,” Verlander said. continued, his voice rising. “It kind of annoys me. I don’t know about anybody else. I don’t know about him. It probably doesn’t annoy him.”
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It certainly doesn’t annoy Cabrera, who will politely answer just about any question posed to him, but would just as soon spend his time hanging out with his buddies.
The perfect example came Monday night, shortly after Cabrera had four hits and a home run in a 6-3 victory over the Royals that clinched the AL Central. He was asked about contributing so much to another division title, and Cabrera deflected the attention back on his teammates.
“We got it done with the first one,” he said quietly. “That was our goal.”
With the AL Central clinched, the spotlight shifts squarely to the broad shoulders of Cabrera, who started at third base in Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss at Kansas City. He had a pair of singles and drove in two runs in his first two at-bats before flying out to right and leaving the game in the fifth inning.
Cabrera leads the American League in batting average (.331), homers (44) and RBIs (139) – the Triple Crown, last achieved by Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Angels rookie Mike Trout and Twins catcher Joe Mauer are giving chase for the batting title, which Cabrera won last year, and Cabrera has the RBI title locked down. Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton trails him by a single home run.
Maybe the home run mark is why Cabrera was in the starting lineup.
Rather than sit on the bench and watch things play out – by doing so, likely locking up the batting title – Cabrera told manager Jim Leyland that he wanted to play. And he didn’t want to be the designated hitter, either. He wanted to play just as he has all season.
“It’s a big thing,” Leyland said, “and it should be a big thing, and it really hasn’t gotten away from what we’re trying to accomplish, and now you feel more at ease talking about it.”
There are plenty of other people willing to contribute to the conversation, even if Leyland and Verlander believe there should be more. Old-timers who never thought they’d see another Triple Crown winner have piped in, as have those who remain close to the game.
“It’s just extremely difficult to do, to be the complete hitter, to be a run-producer in terms of RBIs, to be a power hitter in terms of home runs, and then lead the league in average,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I don’t know when the next time is we’ll see it happen.”
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski called Cabrera a “once-in-a-lifetime player,” and recalled a conversation he had before Monday night’s game, when the seven-time All-Star admitted “the Triple Crown is important, but it’s not the most important thing.”
Cabrera wanted to win a championship, something Detroit has the chance to chase.
The same can’t be said of Trout, his primary competition for AL MVP. Los Angeles was knocked out of playoff contention Monday night when Oakland beat Texas 4-3.
The MVP debate has certainly slowly started to boil.
On one hand, Cabrera is on the footstep of history, poised to join a club that counts just 13 members, among them Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb. He’s dominated the statistical categories favored by traditionalists, the ones that count toward the Triple Crown.
On the other hand, Trout is being championed by new-school baseball thought, number crunchers who rely on more obscure measures such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a figure derived from several other statistics designed to judge a player’s overall contribution to a team.
“For whatever reason and I don’t understand it, this WAR and sabermetric stuff seems to not focus much on RBIs. That blows my mind,” said Leyland, most certainly part of the old guard.
“That’s why (Cabrera) is the MVP. He plates the runners. He scores them. That’s what the game’s about, score some runs. You can’t win unless you score some runs. Here’s a guy who knocks them in, one right after another.”
As for Cabrera’s relatively quiet pursuit of baseball history? Well, Leyland is content to sit on the bench and take it all in, right beside Verlander and the rest of the Tigers.
“They all want him to win it. They want it bad, and you can tell that, and certainly he’s no exception,” Leyland said. “They’re pulling so hard for him, you know? Hopefully we’ll have some fun with it the next couple days and hopefully he’ll get it done.”