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Q: Why is Miguel Cabrera so good?
A: Because God likes baseball.
So said an opposing scout, quoted in last week’s Sports Illustrated. The great Cabrera, defending American League batting champion for the past three seasons, defending American League Most Valuable Player for the past two seasons, just signed the richest contract in baseball history, a ten year –$292 million deal. Whew!
Hope is in the air because today is Opening Day across baseball. I got a sneak preview of my team, the Detroit Tigers, and of the great Cabrera last week at Spring Training in Lakeland, Florida. The Tiger players walk down the right field line past first base into their dugout immediately before the game begins. A group of starters came in together – Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Ian Kinsler, Alex Avila – and they acknowledged the crowd as they walked by. A few moments later the great Cabrera came down the line. He sauntered alone, walking like a king on his way to his coronation. “Haughty” is the best word for it. He did not look to his left or right, did not acknowledge the screaming throng. He was blessing us mere mortals with his presence. That should be enough. He reminded me of the description John Updike wrote of Ted Williams after Williams homered in his last at bat.
“Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”
Except . . . a funny thing happens in that stadium in Lakeland. Because the crowd only numbers about 7000 souls instead of 30,000, there are times when the ballpark becomes still. There isn’t the normal ambient crowd murmur one encounters at major league stadiums (nor was there a PA system incessantly blaring in a misdirected effort to instruct fans how to cheer or feel at any given moment). As the fifth inning was about to begin, the place was quiet. I was sitting five rows in from the field, right at first base. The park at Lakeland is much snugger than a big league stadium, so five rows in is about equivalent to the front row in a larger park. The great Cabrera was standing still, having finished his warm up tosses with the other infielders, waiting for a batter to come to the plate. I was no more than thirty or forty feet away from him. A small boy was with his father and grandfather two seats down from me. The boy, who couldn’t have been over five years old, never really sat in his chair but stood in front of it the entire game. At this moment, with the ballpark quiet and the game stopped, the boy scrambled up on top of his chair.
“Hi Miggy” he said in a voice that pierced the still air and carried across the field.
Cabrera turned, found the boy, smiled, and waved at him with his glove.
It was as heartfelt a moment as I’ve ever witnessed at a ballpark. I’m not even sure if the kid was impressed, but the entire first base section melted in joyful gratitude. You could have passed the hat among us and gotten a head start toward his $292 million.
I spent the rest of the game thinking about it. I know, I know, I’m hopelessly naïve. All I saw was an overpaid baseball player wave to a kid. But I couldn’t help thinking about the news of the day – of Putin and Crimea, of the inept government in Malaysia, of Obama on his way to meet with both the Pope and the Saudis. I kept wondering who these people listen to, and thinking the true hope of our world is not in baseball and the promise of another spring, but when the rich, the famous, the powerful, the gods of our present age listen to the voice of innocence when it calls. I don’t know that they listen. But Miggy did. Thanks, Miggy.