Published June 17, 2017
He had thighs of the girth of jet engines. Biceps like Popeye’s. A chest like an oil barrel.
Willie Horton was a mass of muscle and sinew. He was a baseball player but he looked more like a nose tackle. If you wanted to fend off an attacker, you didn’t grab Willie’s bat, you grabbed Willie.
Horton wasn’t raised in Detroit, he was built there. His body was assembled, like a Ford or a Chevy.
His legend started at Northwestern High School, when he blasted an opposite field home run at Tiger Stadium in a city tournament in 1959. Old-timers would tell you that the Tigers were waiting at home plate for Willie with a contract as he rounded the bases. It wasn’t quite like that, but it was close.
Horton, who debuted with the Tigers in 1963, was one of the franchise’s first black stars, in a decade where the color of a baseball player’s skin still could trump his on base percentage.
The problem with Willie was keeping him healthy. His big, bulky body often betrayed him.
He was always pulling something, or straining something. He played left field with reckless abandon, and that got Horton into trouble, too.
It’s a common denominator with muscular ballplayers: their physical build, for whatever reason, leaves them more prone to stresses and aches.
Miguel Cabrera fits that mold.
Cabrera is another baseball player who is sculpted. And he’s another who always has something the matter with him.
Cabrera smacked a walk-off home run against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night, and while his trot didn’t make him look like Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series, neither did he look spry. His teammates gingerly celebrated with him as if they were all standing in a china shop.
There was no smile on Miggy’s face. No look of relief, which you might expect since Cabrera hadn’t reached the seats prior to Thursday night since May 20. If anything, he had a sourpuss.
After the game, Cabrera conceded that physically, he’s felt a lot better. Listening to him, you’d have thought that a man just involved in a car accident was having a better go of it than Miggy. He rattled off the woes: back, hip, oblique and groin issues. The list read like a weekly agenda for a surgeon.
“Since the World Baseball Classic, when I hurt my back, I can’t get it out of the way,” Cabrera said. “It’s something that I deal with everyday. I’m not going to stop playing or make an excuse. I try to do my best.”
Cabrera would make no excuses on Thursday night, when he opened up a little about his un-Miggy-like season thus far. He’s a hurting man but he won’t use that as a crutch.
“I played with a broken foot. If I’m able to go out there and do my job, I’m going to do it.”
The truth is that the must-see TV now isn’t Cabrera, but rather teammate J.D. Martinez, whose at-bats are popcorn-worthy. Martinez isn’t 100 percent, either, as he continues to deal with a problematic foot.
The sad irony is that Martinez’s Tigers future is cloudy, while the ailing and possibly aging Cabrera is tethered to the Tigers until 2023.
In a way, Cabrera’s physical condition is a metaphor for the Tigers’ organization as a whole: getting older, more achy, more sluggish and more prone to break down. And with no real relief in sight.
The situation of the Tigers franchise right now harkens me back to two dreadful eras of baseball in Detroit. Both examples have similar causes: a rotten minor league system that couldn’t grow weeds.
The mid-1970s Tigers (the 1975 team went 57-102 and suffered through a 19-game losing streak) were the result of the 1968 championship crew getting old without suitable replacements culled from the farm. If it wasn’t for the distraction that Mark Fidrych provided in 1976, the years from 1974-1977 would have been totally forgettable.
The late-1990s/early-2000s Tigers sank to the depths of MLB because, once again, a respectable if not great core from the early-’90s got old and the farm system, ravaged by poor drafting, was pretty much useless. Everything came to a head in 2003, with that ignominious 43-119 record.
This current Tigers team gives me a very ominous vibe.
Once again, the farm system is maligned and derided among baseball people who know their stuff. There isn’t a single player that fans are eagerly awaiting to arrive in Detroit. Meanwhile, the 25-man roster is filled with graybeards who are mostly underperforming.
Ian Kinsler, for example, is 35 years old and will have to keep playing second base until he literally falls apart, because there isn’t a player in the minor league system who’s anywhere close to being a big league second sacker.
Cabrera doesn’t have anyone pushing him out of first base anytime soon. Heck, just go around the diamond and you’ll find that what you see, is what you got for the foreseeable future.
The payroll is inflated, which will likely hamper trade efforts, with the notable exception of J.D. Martinez, who stands to get a huge payday from some team after this season, when he becomes a free agent. The likelihood that that check will be written by the Tigers seems to dwindle by the day, with every frustrating loss.
Miguel Cabrera is the Tigers, in more ways than one.
He’s still the face of the franchise (with apologies to Justin Verlander and Martinez), but his hulking, muscular and beleaguered body is also emblematic of how the franchise around him is disintegrating.
1975 and 2003 might be coming home to roost soon.