Cabrera's sad tale a nightmare

Slugger's arrest puts Tigers' owner in bad light again

February 20, 2011|By Phil Rogers

Miguel Cabrera is one sad, hurting dude. His Tigers aren't doing too well either.

It's hard to know who to feel worse for at this point — Cabrera, with a drinking problem that dwarfs his super-sized bat, or Mike Ilitch, the unusually generous, optimistic owner who in the last four years has invested about half-a-billion dollars in a team built around Cabrera.

Or maybe tough manager Jim Leyland. He guided the Tigers and Marlins to the World Series in 2006 and 1997 — two of only five years he has managed when the most talented player on his roster wasn't Barry Bonds or Cabrera.

One of the timeless questions for front-office staffs and evaluators is which quality is more valuable in putting together a team — talent or character?

The former almost always wins out, especially when talent is present in such abundance as with Bonds and Cabrera.

Cabrera, arguably the only hitter in the same class with Albert Pujols, has had three monstrous seasons with the Tigers. His potential, along with that of ace Justin Verlander, has kept Ilitch thinking his teams were just one or two players away from a title, which is why he has underwritten market-defying payrolls of $134 million in 2010, $115 million in '09 and $138 million in '08.

Cabrera has failed three years in a row to deliver a playoff season, with his final-weekend bender in 2009 single-handedly throwing away the last of what had been a seven-game lead with 26 games to play.

His driving under the influence/resisting arrest bust late Wednesday — an incident marked by a police report saying he was so trashed he swigged from a Scotch bottle while talking to police — provides little hope for the shelf life of this year's Tigers' team, which is costing Ilitch another $110 million in salaries.

Baseball, really, shouldn't be in the immediate equation for Cabrera. He should get a long time out of the spotlight to get at the core of his self-destructive tendencies.

"I wish everyone would take the baseball side out and just realize he's a human being," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge told reporters Friday. "He's going to make mistakes … as every one of us has made mistakes. … When he (reports to camp), we want to help him in any which way he needs and make it normal for him.

"It will be fine. Everyone is going to blow it out of proportion and make a huge deal out of it. It will not be a distraction here with this ballclub. It will not."

Hard-drinking players are nothing new for baseball, of course. But Cabrera is a special case for a couple of reasons: He received some treatment and vowed to take care of himself after a drinking/spousal abuse issue in '09, when his blood alcohol level was high enough to be toxic, and he's owed $106 million, including $20 million this season.

Tigers President and general manager Dave Dombrowski seemed sucker-punched Thursday, saying he thought Cabrera had put his problems behind him. Leyland seemed, from a distance, somewhat in denial.

In his office in Lakeland, Fla., Leyland on Friday said he believes Cabrera has done nothing to sabotage a career arc in which he hit .328 with 38 home runs last season while leading the American League in RBIs (126) and on-base percentage (.420) and striking out only six more times than he walked.

"Without getting into this situation, I know for a fact Miguel Cabrera is in the best shape of his life," Leyland said.

Leyland may be right. And the Tigers, who added Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit in splashy offseason moves, may repay Ilitch for his stubborn faith. But it's going to take an awful lot of character to get past the shortcomings that come with Cabrera's talent.

On the other hand: Donald Trump is weighing a serious run at the presidency.

But reducing the debt might not be his toughest job, as he also is studying an attempt to purchase controlling interest of the Mets, who are dying on the vine while majority owner Fred Wilpon is being sued for as much as $1 billion in connection with his dealings with convicted swindler Bernie Madoff.

Could Trump get the blessing of Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB's powerful ownership committee?

It's hard to see how he could be any more attractive than Mark Cuban, as he's unlikely to follow the Selig-established line, but it would be fun to see him wage a frontal assault on the Yankees' New York stranglehold.

Speaking in the third person, Trump told the New York Times he only would put in his money if he could call the shots.

"If you look at Trump's record," Trump said, "he is only interested in things he can control."

Cross your fingers. This could be fun.

Business matters: While Selig wrestles with the Wilpon situation and the McCourt divorce that seems certain to force an ownership change with the Dodgers, it's the Astros who could change hands first. Drayton McLane has decided he's tired of the public scrutiny he has received, although he's going to have to drop his asking price if he's really serious about getting out.

According to sources, McLane hopes to get $800 million for the Houston franchise, which is about $45 million less than the Ricketts family paid for the Cubs. There has been some talk former President George W. Bush or his former partners in the Rangers (including former ambassador to Japan Tom Schieffer) could figure in a purchase. Stan Kasten, formerly of the Braves and Nationals, also could emerge at the head of an investment group.

The last word: "It's a process we have no control over. If he chooses to go elsewhere, he chooses to go elsewhere. That's the business we're in. The players are mobile in this generation." — Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. on Pujols.

progers@tribune.com

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