Rising in a hurry at 21, Cabrera is simply good

Baseball: Looking at the game as fun and uncomplicated, the Marlins outfielder could be the sport's next superstar.

April 25, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - The last domino hits the table with a loud clack, and boyish baseball prodigy Miguel Cabrera bursts out of his seat to celebrate a winning play. Two teammates laugh at his enthusiasm. Another stalks away, feigning anger in defeat, only to return moments later to start another game.

It is three hours until first pitch, and baseball's next big thing is throwing his weight around the Florida Marlins' clubhouse, but it's not what you think.

The 21-year- old slugger already is on the brink of superstardom. Some say he's the next Alex Rodriguez, with his baby face and booming bat, but he is really just a kid from Venezuela on a really long field trip. If he weren't 6 feet 2, you might mistake him for the batboy, and that would be just fine with him.

"I just want to go out and play," he says, his English broken but getting better every day.

Cabrera arrived in the major leagues 10 months ago, a highly regarded prospect with seemingly unlimited potential, but no one expected him to get so comfortable so quickly.

He had 12 home runs and 62 RBIs in just 87 games and bailed out the surging Marlins in September when third baseman Mike Lowell went down for a month with a broken hand. By the end of October - when the Marlins were getting fitted for their World Series championship rings - he already had built a national reputation with four postseason home runs.

"He's the real deal," said teammate Jeff Conine. "He makes it look easy. The ball just does something extra when it comes off his bat."

The ball continues to fly over the fence with amazing regularity. Cabrera was tied for fifth in the National League before yesterday's games with six home runs. He narrowly missed hitting two more Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Ballpark - one missed the foul pole in right field by inches.

"He hasn't put it all together yet, but when he does, look out!" said Marlins manager Jack McKeon. "He's getting pretty damned close. You get the feeling something good is going to happen every time he goes up to the plate."

There is natural talent coming out of every pore. Cabrera was signed by the Marlins as a shortstop and was considered enough of a can't-miss prospect that they gave him a $1.8 million bonus when he was just 16. The club switched him to third base in the low minor leagues - which was fortuitous when Lowell had to miss the final month of the regular season last year - but played him in the outfield after he came up and moved him back after Lowell returned in the postseason.

Some experienced players have struggled mightily to maintain their offensive momentum when forced to make a major defensive adjustment. Maybe Cabrera was just too young to know any better, but he was one of the Marlins' most consistent hitters during the postseason, and he held his own in the outfield.

"I didn't know that much about him, but he wasn't intimidated," said Orioles manager and former New York Yankees coach Lee Mazzilli, who saw Cabrera up close for the first time during the World Series. "He hit a home run off Roger Clemens. That kid has a lot of talent, no question about it. If he stays healthy, he's going to have a bright future."

Cabrera went home to a hero's welcome in Venezuela and returned to spring training to find out how much can change in one year. He had arrived at Marlins camp in 2003 without one game of experience above the Single-A level. He came back this year to find himself on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.

Clearly, he still is getting a handle on all of this. He is a quiet, low-key kid (except when he wins at dominoes) who didn't realize his young wife might not like seeing him romping with several bikinied models in the ESPN The Magazine photo spread. Lesson learned.

It must be nice to have your first World Series ring at 21. Some players don't ever get to experience a world championship. Cabrera was a postseason hero before he could legally drink the champagne that was being poured over his head, but he already is on to new business.

"What happened last year was last year," Cabrera said. "We need to work more hard this year than we worked last year. If we're going to get back to the playoffs, we've got to keep working hard."

McKeon just shakes his head. He still is amazed at the way Cabrera and National League Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis responded to the pressure of last year's postseason and wonders if that inoculated both of them against the sophomore jinx. Both are off to terrific starts in their second major league seasons.

"I think that's a key for this ballclub, the way those guys fought for the wild card and went through the playoffs," McKeon said. "They stood up well under that pressure, so I don't think there is any more pressure on them this year.

"They had to acquire that experience the hard way. I heard how they were going to be awed at Yankee Stadium. I don't think those kids would be awed whether they were there or in Lincoln, Neb."

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