Miguel Cabrera was relaxing in front of his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park the other day and laughing about the first time he played in Boston.
It was in 2003 when he was a 20-year-old rookie. Cabrera went 0 for 11 and struck out four times in a three-game series that saw the Red Sox and Marlins score 70 runs.
Everybody else hit in that series except for him.
“Oh, man. It was not a good experience,” Cabrera said. “That was a great Red Sox team, one game away from the World Series. I was watching David [Ortiz] and Manny [Ramirez] the whole time and wishing I could be like them.”
Those dreams came true. Now, at age 36, Cabrera is one of the best hitters of his generation. He left Fenway Park on Thursday with 2,700 hits, 465 home runs, and a career OPS of .943.
He also has the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.
Cabrera is the most prominent major leaguer from Venezuela, a country embroiled in a political crisis that has led to skyrocketing inflation, disease, crime, and mass emigration.
There’s been an impact on baseball, too. Major league teams have pulled their scouts out of Venezuela for safety reasons and prospects are now being directed to camps and showcases in nearby Colombia.
Cabrera, who lives in the Miami area, hopes he can return someday.
“In a couple of years, I will go back if it’s safe,” he said. “It’s sad now. But you have to wait for things to change, then we can give back to the people and the kids who are trying to play baseball.
“You feel proud when you can do something in baseball, all of us in the majors, because the people in Venezuela respond to it. You want to do something for the people and baseball makes them happy.”
Cabrera is bigger in Venezuela than Mookie Betts or Mike Trout could ever hope to be in the United States.
“Everybody knows who Miggy is and follows what he does,” Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon said. “All of us from Venezuela, we look up to what he has done as a player. But he’s also a nice guy.”
Cabrera joked with fans from the on-deck circle at Fenway Park when the Tigers were in town and, while he was playing first base, poked fun at Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez .
Cabrera is the oldest player on a rebuilding Tigers team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014. But he still arrives at the park with a smile.
“He’s never hit a home run off me and we laugh about that all the time,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been great to me. We work out together sometimes in the winter and he’s always making jokes. He’s a good guy even more than he is a great player.”
Cabrera considers that part of his responsibility.
“In the offseason, I love working out with different guys. You learn something every day. They learn from me and I learn from them,” he said. “Baseball is not work for me. I don’t see it that way. It’s doing what you like and working hard at it. There’s a difference.”
When J.D. Martinez signed with the Tigers in 2014 after being released by the Astros, it was largely because Detroit offered the best terms on a minor league contract.
What he didn’t know was how much Cabrera would help shape his career.
Martinez already had started the process of changing his swing when he joined the Tigers. Being around Cabrera provided the finishing touch.
“Miggy is like a student who has all the answers to the test. He has such a great swing and knows what he wants to do,” Martinez said. “He helped me perfect what I was doing, not that anything can be perfect. But he comes close as a hitter.”
Said Cabrera: “J.D. is like my son, my very large son. He gives me too much credit. He asked questions and I answered them. That was it.
“It was what guys like Papi [Ortiz] did for me. I was lucky because we had the same agent and I got to meet him when I was young. I look at him and how he finished his career and I want to do it that way.”
Cabrera is signed through the 2023 season, at which point he would be 40. He’s in position to become the seventh player in history with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.
Cabrera already has a Triple Crown (2012), two MVPs (2012, ’13), and a World Series title (2003) along with 11 All-Star appearances.
Among active players, only Cabrera, Albert Pujols, and Robinson Cano have at least 300 homers and a .300 batting average.
Cabrera, who has hit .316 for his career, is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer as it stands now.
“I don’t think about that. Numbers are a distraction if you look at them too much,” Cabrera said. “It’s hard to make the Hall of Fame. In my mind you have to work really hard for 20 years, be consistent, and put up big numbers.
“If you ask me if I can look back and be proud of what I did, I would say yes. I don’t know how I will finish my career. I’m feeling good where I am right now and what my numbers are. But I want to keep playing and do more. I still love to play.”
The only Venezuelan player in the Hall of Fame is shortstop Luis Aparicio, who was elected in 1984. Another Venezuelan shortstop, Omar Vizquel, received 43 percent of the votes this year and could get to Cooperstown eventually.
Cabrera took pride at seeing Edgar Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Vladimir Guerrero, Pudge Rodriguez, and Pedro Martinez elected over the last five years.
“It’s great for baseball to see players from the Dominican and Puerto Rico get in,” Cabrera said. “For Venezuela, it would be great, too.”
“I was so happy when Alex [Cora] won the World Series last year. It’s great for all the people who speak Spanish. He worked hard at it and he’s a smart guy.
“That stuff is important for the game. Maybe next year a team will hire a manager from Japan. Why not? Something different can help the game. You have to be open to anything that can be good for baseball.”
Well, almost everything. Cabrera hasn’t embraced analytics.
“It’s the same game. But now we have these new stats and everybody is focused on all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I’ve learned new things, but it’s the same baseball I played when I was a kid. You can do more to prepare and learn about the pitchers, but I trust my hands. I know what I need to do when I’m up there.”
TIME TO MOVE ON
Sox have no role for Thornburg
Tyler Thornburg has a 6.23 ERA and 1.53 WHIP through what is now three seasons and 35 appearances for the Red Sox. That he recently went unused for seven days was another sign that his role in the bullpen is essentially nonexistent.
The Sox always need time to admit their mistakes, and trading Travis Shaw and three other players to Milwaukee for Thornburg was a doozy.
But at some point what’s right for the team is more important than any short-term embarrassment regarding a trade that happened almost 2½ years ago.
Thornburg needed thoracic outlet shoulder surgery, something completely unexpected that would not have shown up in a routine physical following a trade.
The Red Sox can’t be blamed for that, and when the usual suspects try to anyway, they should consider the source and move along.
A few other thoughts about the Red Sox:
■ Tony La Russa was running baseball operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks when they drafted Marcus Wilson in the second round in 2014.
Wilson was the player the Sox acquired for Blake Swihart on April 19. The 22-year-old was only 17 when he was drafted.
“We thought he would take some time to develop,” said La Russa, now a vice president with the Sox. “Wiry body, quick bat, good athlete. There’s still potential there.”
Wilson was assigned to Double A Portland and has been playing center field.
■ As for Swihart, it’s telling that Arizona traded for him to be a utility player and not a catcher. The Diamondbacks are carrying three catchers already.
At 27, it’s starting to look like Swihart may never be a starting catcher.
The Red Sox, in three different seasons, didn’t see him as a catcher, and now the same is true of Arizona.
Swihart made the decision to move to catcher while in high school to improve his draft stock, which it did. He was the 26th overall pick in 2011 and signed for $2.5 million.
But that has not led to a starting role in the majors.
■ It’s fascinating that the much-criticized seven-year, $35 million deal agreed to by 22-year-old Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies was negotiated by the same agent, David Meter, who represents the still-unsigned Craig Kimbrel.
That Albies took an exceedingly team-friendly deal suggests that the reason Kimbrel remains unsigned is largely his doing.
The Red Sox tried to engage Kimbrel after the World Series and were so surprised by his demands that they pivoted to retaining Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce instead.
The Sox will lose a compensatory fourth-round draft pick if Kimbrel does not sign before the amateur draft on June 3.
Remaking of an ace in Seattle?
Felix Hernandez did not make a start until the seventh game of the season for the Seattle Mariners. That was quite a comedown for a pitcher with a Cy Young Award and six All-Star selections on his résumé.
But at age 33, King Felix may be having a revival.
Hernandez went 19 innings in his last three starts and allowed eight earned runs with only three walks and 16 strikeouts. He held the Padres to one run over seven innings on Wednesday.
“He pitched backward, off-speed pitches in fastball counts. He had them off-balance all game,” said a scout who was at the game. “I think he’s realizing he can’t rely on his fastball as much. He looked pretty good, to be honest.”
For many veteran pitchers — new Hall of Famer Mike Mussina comes to mind — making that transition is necessary to finish their careers as viable players.
Hernandez is in the final year of his contract and almost assuredly will not remain with the Mariners next season. If he continues to pitch well, he could be an attractive trade chip for a contending team that needs a starter.
Hernandez has never appeared in a playoff game and would welcome that chance.
■ Old friend Rich Hill is set to make his season debut for the Dodgers on Sunday.
Hill, who is coming back from a left knee injury, threw four scoreless innings for Single A Rancho Cucamonga on April 17. But the Dodgers wanted to see another minor league game and sent him to an extended spring training game in Arizona on Wednesday. Hill struck out 16 unfortunate prospects over six innings.
With Hill returning, the Dodgers will drop righthander Ross Stripling into the bullpen. He has a 2.65 ERA in six starts. That’s some serious starter depth.
■ Another Dodgers pitcher with Red Sox ties, Joe Kelly, allowed at least one run in seven of his first 11 games with opponents posting a .997 OPS.
The Dodgers seem intent on using Kelly for more than three outs, which does not play to his strengths. He’s also gotten away from the high fastball, something the Red Sox encouraged last season.
■ Through 26 games, the Orioles had used a position player to pitch three times. That’s a pace for 18 times this season.
Infielder Hanser Alberto, first baseman Chris Davis, and catcher Jesus Sucre have an ERA of 9.00 over three innings. That’s better than seven actual pitchers who have appeared for the Orioles this season.
Celtics great John Havlicek, who died on Thursday, grew up in Ohio literally across the street from future baseball All-Stars Joe and Phil Niekro. John and Phil played baseball and basketball together at Bridgeport High. Phil Niekro, now 80, broke into the majors in 1964 and played 24 years. Havlicek, who was 79 when he died, was an NBA rookie in 1962 and played 16 seasons . . . Remember Anderson Espinoza, the can’t-miss prospect the Red Sox traded for Drew Pomeranz in 2016? He’s now 21 and just underwent his second Tommy John surgery. He has not pitched since 2016. Nathan Eovaldi is proof a pitcher can be successful after having a second Tommy John. But only 12 players have ever started a major league game after two such surgeries . . . Los Angeles Angels righthander Luke Bard, Daniel’s brother, struck out four Yankees in the 14th inning in Anaheim on Monday thanks to a wild pitch. He also took the loss. Daniel Bard, now retired at 33, is working for the Diamondbacks in the newly created position of “player mentor” . . . Forgot to mention this last week, but when Adam Ottavino of the Yankees faced Terrance Gore of the Royals on April 19, it was the first No. 0 vs. No. 0 in baseball history. The Red Sox have only had one No. 0, Brandon Phillips for nine games last season . . . Some history was made on Tuesday night when Melanie Newman and Suzie Cool — that’s her real name — broadcast the game between Salem and Potomac in the Single A Carolina League on the radio. It was the first time two women called a professional game. Yankees radio voice Suzyn Waldman, a Newton native, wished Newman and Cool good luck before the game, as did ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza. At last count, WEEI will have nine men joining Joe Castiglione in the Red Sox radio booth this season. Maybe the station and the Sox could make room to have a woman in for at least one game? Newman, who is an experienced broadcaster, would be a great choice and is familiar with Sox prospects . . . Monday is a big day for Red Sox birthdays. The great Rick Burleson will be 68 and Steve Crawford will be 61. Crawford got onto the postseason roster in 1986 when Tom Seaver hurt his knee, and “Shag” was the winning pitcher in Game 5 of the ALCS. Tom House (72), Wes Gardner (58), and Kelly Shoppach (39) also have Monday birthdays.