In the history of baseball, more batters have hit .400 than have won the triple crown, and nobody has managed the feat since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. But as of the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 2, with only games left on the season, the Venezuelan slugger and Detroit third baseman, Miguel Cabrera, leads the American League with a .329 batting average (only .004 ahead of the Angels’ Mike Trout), 44 home runs (one better than Texas’ Josh Hamilton), and 137 RBI (ahead of Hamilton by 10).
And, really, Cabrera is the first guy to seriously challenge for the triple crown since, well, Yaz himself. Everybody seems to have a reason for why nobody’s even come close since—from expansion to pitcher specialization to batter specialization—none of them particularly convincing. But everybody seems to agree that winning the triple crown requires a special kind of batter. And it has always seemed like Cabrera was destined to accomplish great things.
“It was like he was born with a glove on his hand,” Gregoria Torres has said about her son, and she should know. After all, she was the shortstop on Venezuela’s national softball team for 14 years. She met Miguel’s father—a prominent amateur ballplayer before he gave it up and became a mechanic—on the diamond, and Miguel’s uncle, David Torres, was a minor leaguer in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization and had the local ballpark named after him.
Miguel would go on to surpass all their achievements on the diamond, but not with a glove.
As a kid, he would clamber over the cinder block wall that separated his house from the local baseball field. He worked hard to get good and was a serious prospect by the time he was 15. A shortstop, he started working with Maracay’s most famous product at the position, the former cog in Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, Davey Concepción.
Florida Marlins scout Louie Eljaua first held a workout for Cabrera nine months before he was eligible to sign a pro contract. “If you had to design the perfect prospect,” Eljaua told South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, “this guy was it. There was nothing you could find in his ability, in his makeup, his family. There weren’t a lot of negatives there.”
By 2003, Cabrera was 20 and playing third base in a Class-AA league when he got called up by the Marlins on June 20. The team was 35–39 and in fourth place in the National League East. In his first game, he hit a pitch from Tampa Bay reliever Al Levine about 420 feet for an 11th inning game-winning home run. ESPN.com presciently captioned a photo of the youngster rounding the bases, “Miguel Cabrera has the ability to become a Hall of Famer.”
The Marlins surged after his promotion and wound up the Wild Card that year. In the playoffs, they slipped the San Francisco Giants, crushed the hearts of Chicago Cubs fans everywhere (that was the Steve Bartman series), and then defeated the mighty Yankees in six games in the World Series. Cabrera hit four home runs and became the second-youngest player ever to hit a postseason home run (after Andruw Jones).
In the years that followed, Cabrera just got better and better—his power numbers kept rising, his on-base percentage kept climbing. “You’re going to make good pitches,” All-Star pitcher Danny Haren said of Cabrera, “and he’s going to hit ’em.” And there’s a viciousness to the way Cabrera hits them that’s hinted at by the word he writes on his wrists when taping up for a game: Sangre.
The newspapers in Maracay have referred to Concepción for a long time now as “El Rey David,” and it wasn’t long before they came up with a royal nickname for Cabrera, too. El Principe.
In time, the Marlins failed to re-sign Cabrera, and he lit out for Detroit. His first year with the Tigers, playing in roomy Comerica Park, he nevertheless led the AL with 37 home runs. Two years later, he drove in 126 runs to top the league. In 2011, he hit .344 and won his first batting crown—better than that, he made it back to the playoffs, though not the World Series.
And now, after getting shifted from first base to third in order to accommodate Prince Fielder, Cabrera is poised to make individual history, and the Tigers have clinched a playoff berth. But even if Cabrera does end up with the triple crown, there’s a good chance that he might not be named the league’s Most Valuable Player. A large contingent of sabermetricians and front-office types are championing the candidacy of the Angels’ Trout, a fantastic rookie centerfielder who has taken away a number of possible home run balls while also putting together a spectacular year at the plate.
On some level, if Cabrera loses the MVP award but wins the triple crown, it would be outrageous, but it would also put him into some very select company. In 1947, the MVP went to Yankee centerfielder Joe DiMaggio despite the fact that a half-Mexican from San Diego hit .343 with 32 home runs and 114 RBI to lead the AL in all three categories. His name? Ted Williams.
Bill Vourvoulias writes about culture and sports for Al Día Café. He is a writer and editor, and a self-described “pocho” from Guatemala, living in New York City. He has worked and/or written for The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Men’s Vogue, Radar, ESPN The Magazine, the New York Times, and Interview, among other publications. Read his columns at v.asinvictor.com and follow him on Twitter: @bvourvoulias.