Senior Baseball Columnist

Cabrera dusts off old-school achievement for new-media era to appreciate

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Miguel Cabrera goes 0 for 2 and leaves early, but still earns an ovation from Royals fans. (AP)  
Miguel Cabrera goes 0 for 2 and leaves early, but still earns an ovation from Royals fans. (AP)  

KANSAS CITY -- Crown him.

No. Wait.

Triple Crown him.

On a cool autumn evening in Kansas City that will long be remembered, Miguel Cabrera stirred ghosts from Carl Yastrzemski to Ted Williams to Mickey Mantle and beyond.

In a computer age teaching us new ways to look at old things, old-school manager Jim Leyland stayed plugged in all night and played Cabrera until just after the Angels' Mike Trout -- Cabrera's chief rival in the batting average department -- batted for the final time in Seattle.

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Then, with two outs in the fourth inning here, Ramon Santiago trotted out to replace Cabrera at third base, and the ninth man ever to earn a Triple Crown in the American League left to a rousing, standing ovation.

Talk about a good eye and making solid contact. In that one brilliant move, Leyland respected the game, the Triple Crown and paid homage to a man producing an achievement that this generation had never before witnessed.

"Truthfully, and this sounds crazy, that was the toughest game I've had to manage in my career," Leyland said. "It was more nerve-wracking than Game 7 of the 1997 World Series."

Closing out a season for the ages, Cabrera finished with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI.

He ranks alone atop the leaderboard in each of those categories, earning only the 11th Triple Crown in modern AL history, and the first in 45 years.

"Right now, I don't know how to explain it," Cabrera said. "It was hard, the last two weeks."

He learned of his feat from the clubhouse television, after leaving the game, surrounded by several teammates. So many were in with Cabrera by that point that Leyland said they "were leaving us out on our own [in the dugout], to be honest with you." But he had no problem with it.

"We already knew he won it," reigning MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander said of the moment. "We were trying to get it to sink in to him."

The last man to swing his way to a Triple Crown was Yastrzemski in 1967, before the advent of the modern bullpen, expansion and a digital age that allows a club to size up what a rival is doing in real time and an entire country to follow by the minute an epic achievement of one of its most productive and beloved exports.

"He's an amazing hitter," Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline marveled. "The best I've ever seen here. The best in a Detroit uniform."

That covers the years since 1953, only six seasons after Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball's color line and several seasons before Roberto Clemente and others would help open the pipeline from Latin America.

Wilmer Reina, a reporter from a regional newspaper in Maracaibo called Diario La Verdad, flew 13 hours from Venezuela on Tuesday to be here.

"It's the biggest story in Venezuela, after [this] Sunday's presidential elections," Reina said. "This is the big story in Venezuela because 45 years, no Triple Crown, and Miguel is the first Venezuelan player to win it and he is the first Latin American after Rod Carew to win back-to-back batting titles.

"This is more special than the first pitch of the Venezuelan Winter League next week. It's an incredible story. I think this is the biggest moment in Venezuelan sports history after Luis Aparicio's election to the Hall of Fame."

Here in the States, Cabrera's Triple Crown bid has been greeted mostly with the tepid interest of a multi-tasking society that doesn't stay with one thing very long. And that's too bad, because this isn't exactly something you see every year ... or every 40-some years.

This, in fact, was baseball's longest spell between Triple Crowns.

"I'm so naïve," Leyland said. "I knew it had been done in '67, but it also had been done in '66 [Frank Robinson]. That slipped past me. Now that I think about that, that's unbelievable that it was done two years in a row."

Robinson and Yastrzemski issued statements shortly after Cabrera clinched the Triple Crown. Commissioner Bud Selig phoned the Tigers clubhouse and spoke with both Leyland and Cabrera.

It was fitting that the Tigers were playing the Royals when Cabrera became baseball royalty. And perfect that they were in Kansas City playing under the enormous crown over the giant center-field scoreboard when Cabrera was Triple Crowned.

The Royals sold nearly 20,000 tickets during the day on Wednesday, the crowd swelling to 30,383 from a tickets-sold number of 12,503 at the start of the business day.

And though those folks saw Cabrera go hitless in two at-bats -- he flied to center in the first and whiffed in the fourth -- they got what they came for, the concluding innings of an epic achievement. Nobody on either roster, the Tigers' and the Royals', was born when baseball last saw a Triple Crown.

It has been done only nine other times in the AL by eight men: Yastrzemski, Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams (twice), Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. It has not been accomplished in the NL since 1937, when Joe "Ducky" Medwick did it.

"Relief pitching really changed things a great deal," Kaline said. "Hitters don't see the starting pitcher that many times. Now, guys are fresh and they come in and throw 95 miles an hour for one inning."

Cabrera's season was dominant and superlative in so many ways, but two of them are impressively encapsulated in these numbers:

  While most everyone agrees that speed can help pave the way to a batting title, Cabrera had only five infield hits all season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He was ranked tied for 263rd in the majors in infield hits, yet still batted .330.

  Unlike many power hitters who pull home runs to one side of the field, Cabrera's 44 this season went in all directions. The big right-hander hit 23 to left field, 10 to center field and 11 to right field, according to hittrackeronline.com.

Leyland was watching Trout, who finished at .326, and the Yankees' Curtis Granderson, who finished one behind Cabrera with 43 home runs, all evening with the aid of the club's media relations man. Brian Britten was stationed in the hallway just behind the dugout with a computer, and Leyland at times checked on Trout and Granderson between pitches of the Tigers' 1-0 victory against the Royals.

The game and how we view it has changed in so many ways over the years, to the point where some now even denigrate the Triple Crown as a quaint relic from a bygone era for emphasizing random numbers such as batting average and RBI that don't tell the true and complete measure of a player.

But while modern metrics such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement Player) have helped enlighten everyone from the game's executives to its fans, the Triple Crown remains a Holy Grail.

And it should. Given its tie to players such as Mantle and Williams and even Cobb, and given how few times it has been accomplished over more than a century of play, it remains a distinct and distinguishing achievement.

"I made sure I told him today, 'I want to get something game-used from you,' " Verlander said, and he held Cabrera to it. When the game was finished, he obtained The Man's batting helmet.

"Game helmet from the last at-bat of a Triple Crown season," Verlander said, proudly.

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