Miguel Cabrera then sent his 42d home run crashing into the left-center-field pavilion seats at Comerica Park, a moonshot so high that Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said it looked like Cabrera had hit a golf ball.
Cabrera doesn’t kiss his bat all the time. Just sometimes.
“Just wanted to show it some love,” says the powerful third baseman.
But it’s going to take more than love to match Carl Yastrzemski, the last man to win the Triple Crown, who accomplished the feat in the Red Sox Impossible Dream season of 1967.
The home run tied Cabrera — temporarily — with Texas’s Josh Hamilton for the league lead, making Cabrera the first player since Yaz in 1967 to lead all three categories this late in the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Hamilton hit his 43d homer Monday to retake the lead, and Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion had caught Cabrera by midweek with his 42d.
On Wednesday night, Cabrera was robbed by Kansas City’s Alex Gordon on what would have been his 43d homer. However, Cabrera still leads the American League in batting at .326 (3 points better than Twins’ Joe Mauer) and in RBIs with 133 (eight more than Hamilton).
Even the gods notice when mortals tread so close to what has become a hallowed achievement.
“Oh yeah, he’s got a good shot at it, there’s no doubt about it,” said Yastrzemski. “He’s a powerful hitter.”
But Yaz says he is not staying up late rooting for Hamilton in Texas or Mauer in Minneapolis. An avid fisherman, he still looks closer at the tide charts than the box scores.
In the Motor City, Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline still has a locker in the clubhouse and a unique perspective.
“I’ve always said the best all-around player I played against was Carl Yastrzemski, because he did so many things,” said Kaline. “When you talk about Carl, you’ve come to the right man, because I have so much respect for him.”
But given a fantasy choice between the two hitters, Kaline would take Cabrera.
“He’s got more power,” said Kaline. “No question about it. Power, average, driving runs in. I’ve got to take Cabrera. He’s going to go in the Hall of Fame so fast, it’s going to be ridiculous.”
Yastrzemski, a 14-time All-Star with seven Gold Gloves, agrees.
“He is a better hitter,” said Yaz.
Is it tougher today?
The Triple Crown drought has lasted longer than the 34 years between Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs and Roger Maris’s 61, and 37 years between Maris’s 61 and Mark McGwire’s 70.
On Oct. 1, 1967, no current Red Sox player was alive. Muhammad Ali was still barred from boxing because of his protests against the Vietnam War and refusal of military induction. O.J. Simpson was a running back at Southern Cal, Bill Russell was the Celtics center, and the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the No. 1 album in the country.
Winning the Triple Crown was not the mega-accomplishment it is now. The Orioles’ Frank Robinson had just won it the year before, and the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle had won it in 1956.
“Its kind of surprising,” said Yaz. "I didn’t think it would last this long. Something always seems to happen in one category.”
Kaline, though, is not surprised.
“It’s so hard to do,” he said. “Usually, a power guy doesn’t hit for a high average and an average guy doesn’t have a lot of power.”
Yastrzemski also agrees with the assessment of reigning AL MVP Justin Verlander, the Tigers ace, that having so many specialists in the bullpen today makes things tougher on the hitter.
“That has something to do with it,” said Yaz. “They bring somebody in from the bullpen to pitch to one hitter.”
Yastrzemski likes the mechanics of both Cabrera and Hamilton.
“Both of them are so relaxed at the plate,” he said.
Staying focused is the key.
“I think one thing that’s going to help him is they are in the [pennant] race,” said Yaz. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Cabrera says basically the same thing.
“I leave it to God,” he said. “If it’s going to happen, it will happen.”
Make no mistake, Cabrera wants the Triple Crown almost as much as he wants another World Series championship (he won a ring in 2003 with the Marlins, hitting a big home run off the Yankees’ Roger Clemens as a rookie).
“Whew, I want it bad,” said Cabrera. “Because it’s something special if it happens.”
Last Saturday, the Venezuelan was in a jovial mood before the Twins-Tigers game. In a nearly empty clubhouse, he asked a Boston reporter for info on No. 8.
“Can you tell me one story about him? How he stayed focused?”
In 1967, Yastrzemski asserts, he didn’t even know he had accomplished the Triple Crown until he read about it in the newspapers the next day.
“How come he didn’t know?” asked Cabrera.
Yaz was too busy going 7 for 8 against the Twins in the last two games of the season, helping the Sox wrest the AL pennant from the Tigers.
“Wow,” said a wide-eyed Cabrera.
It was a different age. There was no “SportsCenter,” no Internet, and the Game of the Week was only on Saturdays.
While Cabrera feels some pressure (“a little bit, a little bit, but I try to stay focused”), Yastrzemski says he never felt any in 1967, that it was just fun to be playing in front of packed houses after so many lean years in Boston.
Cabrera believes the hardest part of the Triple Crown quest is leading the league in home runs.
“If you want to hit a home run, there’s no way, you’re going to go 0 for 20 or 25,” he said. “You’ve got to be very lucky to do it. Hopefully I get lucky and we get lucky and get to the playoffs and win it all.”
This season, Cabrera also switched positions, moving from first base to third when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder. And Cabrera believes that hitting ahead of Fielder is the reason he is seeing better pitches.
“It’s been huge,” he said.
Though Cabrera said he doesn’t read the papers or surf the Web, his every move is news in Detroit and Venezuela.
“The media attention, it’s kind of weird,” he said. “I’m a little bit shy. It’s like a dream right now and I don’t want to wake up.”
Verlander wears a “Cabrera for MVP” T-shirt. He’d hate to see Cabrera win the Triple Crown but not the MVP — something that happened twice to Ted Williams (1942 and 1947). But it could happen this year, as Angels rookie Mike Trout is having a fantastic season.
“You look at Trout,” said Verlander. “Is he extremely talented? Is he having an MVP year? Yes. Is he the guy in that lineup you say, ‘We can’t let him beat us?’ No, he’s not. You look at [Albert] Pujols. Here, it’s Cabrera.”
In the Minnesota clubhouse, Mauer said Cabrera has been overlooked until now.
“I’m happy people are starting to pay more attention to him,” said Mauer. “If you watch him, he always enjoys playing the game. He’s always got a smile on, but to be that good, he obviously takes it real serious.”
In the same boat?
But for all his joy, there was a dark side. Cabrera has battled alcoholism in the past.
In October 2009, his wife filed a domestic violence complaint against him, and his blood alcohol level was 0.26, three times the legal limit in Michigan.
He spent three months at an outpatient alcohol treatment center.
“He had problems, well-documented, and he’s turned things around,” said Verlander. “Now he’s an advocate for Jesus Christ. He doesn’t drink anymore, he doesn’t go out, and he doesn’t get in trouble.”
Cabrera said he is more mature now and that counseling has helped.
“They helped me to open my eyes and see what happened,” he said. “You’re going to be in the big leagues, don’t waste this time. Hopefully I can be strong.”
And you won’t find him rooting against Hamilton or Trout, either.
“No, no, because that’s a negative thing towards a person,” he said. “I think it’s bad karma because I don’t want to hurt you or your teammate or your personal life. I want to be a good person.”
Both Cabrera and Yastrzemski had parents as their baseball role models.
Yastrzemski grew up on his father’s potato farm on Long Island. He played sandlot ball with his father.
Cabrera’s family in Venezuela was filled with ballplayers.
“I was very lucky, my uncle had a baseball school,” said Cabrera. “He played professional baseball with the Cardinals. He almost made the big leagues. He taught me everything I know.
“And my mom played softball for 14 years on the Venezuelan national team. She could really hit.”
Both men like to fish. Yastrzemski keeps a boat at a secret location near Plum Island and typically hauls in huge stripers this time of year. Cabrera has a boat in Miami and fishes in the offseason.
“It relaxes me,” said Cabrera. “But I catch nothing, only small fish. It’s no good.”
Cabrera said he would love to fish with Yaz and talk hitting.
“It would be great,” he said. “If I had a chance to talk to him, I would think I have a lot of ideas to ask him.”
Yastrzemski, 73, who bleeds Red Sox red, doesn’t take the bait.
“No,” said Yaz, politely. “I play golf in the wintertime, six days a week.”