Mentor Miller helps ease Cabrera's learning curve

June 01, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

BOSTON - Four and a third innings of no-hit baseball and a 1-0 lead against the defending World Series champs - it was an auspicious enough start for Daniel Cabrera.

But eventually, even with a steady diet of fastballs registering 94, 97, 95, 93, 97 and 96 mph, Cabrera was soon to be knocked around. A walk and four consecutive hits and suddenly, Cabrera was down 4-1 to the Boston Red Sox, who finally succeeded in knocking him out after 5 2/3 innings.

His ERA had started at 5.30, fell to 4.92, only to climb to 5.40 when Lee Mazzilli lifted him, the eventual 5-1 loss tagged onto Cabrera's 4-4 record.

His catcher, Sal Fasano, can't help but suggest it would be better if hitters weren't sitting on either fastball or slider, that Cabrera's arsenal needs the changeup, eventually, maybe soon.

Cabrera wasn't bothered by the way the Red Sox hit him. They got a hold of good pitches, he said. "I'm learning a lot the whole season, trying to be better."

Up and down, this is the way it has gone in 10 starts for Cabrera, a year removed from his breakout season of 12 wins, good enough to rank him third in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

"I love him like a son and he's got the desire and the work ethic to be a No. 1, but he needs patience and simplicity. You can't ask him to do things Mike Mussina can do when Mussina has had all those years in the big leagues," Ray Miller said.

"He's learning that he's got so many who love him trying to help him, but it's too much. Do this, don't do that. Dress this way, don't throw a breaking ball with two strikes. People are trying to help him, but it's like the world is spinning too fast."

All this was why Miller took an April 27 rainout in Boston and turned it into a skip in the rotation for Cabrera.

"I thought he was getting overloaded, so we took it as an opportunity to slow things down, work two or three times on the side, get things back more simple," Miller said.

"You can't perform when you're trying to please everyone else. His natural talent got him here. We had to find a way to simplify things again."

To ask for a skipped turn, to ask for patience for a pitcher who just turned 24 Saturday and who's just one year removed from his major league debut is asking a lot, especially when the Orioles are in first place.

It's a lot ... unless your pitching coach is Miller, who has seen a thing or two in his time. He came back to the Orioles the first time in 1978, when the staff was loaded with talent: Flanagan, McGregor, Martinez, Stewart. He came back again in 2004 and found a similar situation: Erik Bedard, Lopez, Cabrera.

If there is anyone who understands that it's a tough balancing act for young pitchers, between winning and learning to pitch, how to compete, how to harness talent and yet set it free, it's Miller.

This is a big job, especially when a kid like Cabrera stands 6 feet 7, weighs 250 pounds - the kind of physique that automatically adds time to the developmental process.

"A year ago, he was the fourth starter in Double-A ball before he was called up [to make his debut May 13]. The problem is you have a good year, everyone forgets you haven't been here very long," Miller said last night.

"He's just a kid. He's like 16 years old in terms of baseball life. He played basketball before he started to pitch. You can't teach experience. I keep reminding everybody about that," Miller said.

A native of San Pedro de Macoris, a Dominican Republic outpost that has produced 182 professional baseball players, Cabrera comes from the kind of deprived background that makes Miller wary of pushing him too far, too fast - in all aspects of his major league life.

"He's a fast learner, if you explain it right. You show him one thing each week, one more phase of the game, and he works at it until he achieves it," Miller said.

What made Miller feel particularly attached to Cabrera was understanding where he comes from. Miller pitched in San Pedro. He used to give rides to teammates after games.

"You'd drop them off in front of houses smaller than this locker room, with a dozen people living there and nothing but a dirt floor. There's a reason so many players have come out of there. Baseball is the only avenue out," he said.

Last year, two weeks after Cabrera was called up, "I think he decided he was going to bust his butt to stay here. Not too many people will do that."

It only made Miller more fond of Cabrera to see how his work ethic and desire led him to take care of his mother back home first. Determined to stick around, Cabrera contracted with builders in San Pedro to build his mother a new house. It cost $60,000 - the kind of money Cabrera could earn quickly, if he stayed with the big club and won.

Everyone knows what happened with that plan of action. It worked.

Now there is a new phase. Cabrera has entered it, accepted it. He loves working with Miller, probably because Miller treats him like a son.

"I ask him if everything's OK. I tell him it's good to take care of your family, but you have to take care of yourself, too. I worry about people trying to take advantage, but he's street smart. He is a fast learner."

Of course, he needs to be - for himself, for his mother, for his team.

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