Published May 11, 2019
The pitcher was the glowering Dave Stewart, one of the toughest right-handers in the league. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon at Tiger Stadium—August 25, 1990. The hulking man in the batter’s box was Cecil Fielder, who entered the game with 40 home runs already to his credit for the season. Fielder was in his first year in Detroit after being imported from Japan.
Fielder was in the midst of thrilling Tigers fans by rattling home runs off the blue plastic seats at the old ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull like pinballs. Stewart, of the defending world champion Oakland Athletics, was dominating league hitters, on his way to a 22-11 season and a nifty ERA of 2.56. It was one of those pitcher-batter match-ups that makes you put your beer down and take notice.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, with Alan Trammell on first base, Stewart, a 6’2″, 200-pound monster, unfurled his large body from the stretch and fired the ball to the plate.
Fielder, whose hitting style included cocking his entire body on his back, right foot before whipping his Popeye arms around to swat, took aim at Stewart’s fastball. He made contact, right on the screws, as they say.
The baseball rocketed on a high, majestic arch to left field. It was one of those no doubt home runs where the outfielder doesn’t even bother to move.
The crowd, recorded by the good folks at Retrosheet.org at more than 45,000, roared. Then the roar turned into a collective gasp. The baseball kept going, before skipping off the roof and disappearing.
Fielder trotted around the bases, having become just the third player to clear the left field roof at Tiger Stadium, following Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard. Fielder was the first Tigers player to do it.
It was the signature home run of a signature season for “Big Daddy.” Fielder finished the 1990 campaign with 51 homers, joining the great Hank Greenberg as the only two Tigers to surpass the half century mark in a single season.
Fielder wasn’t part of any Murderer’s Row with the Tigers in 1990. You know who batted behind Big Daddy for most of that year? Larry Sheets. I’ll wait while you Google him. Yet having such a nondescript player as Sheets hitting behind him didn’t keep Fielder from his prestigious feat.
When home runs vanish
Flash forward to 2007. I’m chatting up Sean Casey in the Tigers clubhouse before a game against the Indians. Casey, in the twilight of his career, was losing a lot of his home run power. I asked him about it.
“I’m driving the ball,” Casey told me. “My doubles are actually up. This is a hard ballpark to hit home runs in. But look at my doubles.”
Casey was right. His doubles were indeed up from previous seasons. And Casey was driving the ball. Comerica Park is great for gap hitters who care more about doubles and triples than home runs.
But Casey didn’t make excuses for his shrinking home run power. He didn’t blame the people hitting behind him.
Great players don’t necessarily make great leaders. And great leaders don’t necessarily have to be great players.
No less than Ted Williams was criticized for being more concerned about hitting than winning. It was perhaps a bad rap, but Williams didn’t exactly ingratiate himself with the Boston fans or media.
No Yzerman, he
Miguel Cabrera, I’ve written before, is the Last Man Standing with the Tigers. Miggy is the last vestige in Detroit of the days when October baseball was an annual rite of passage for the Tigers.
There was a time when Miggy didn’t have to be a quote-unquote leader. He was surrounded by All-Stars and big personalities. Even the manager couldn’t go out to dinner without being mobbed.
But as those fellow stars have been traded or retired, we see a different Cabrera now. He’s being exposed, and it’s not a good look.
As the team has crumbled around him, Cabrera has taken to jabbing at the fans on occasion.
Last week, he did it again, but this time he threw his teammates under the bus.
Cabrera’s home run power hasn’t just decreased, it’s nearly vanished. He has a total of four home runs in his last 269 at-bats. Eddie Brinkman, anyone?
Yet as Casey protested by citing his doubles, Cabrera can point to a .300 batting average, which he pretty much has also maintained in those 269 at-bats (.297). And, it should be noted, Cabrera is 36 years old. When it comes to player vs. calendar, the latter always eventually wins.
But Miggy didn’t point out his .300 batting average. He didn’t cite his birth certificate. He didn’t explain that maybe he’s morphing into a different type of hitter. Instead, he went on the offensive, with some venom for his teammates to boot.
‘That’s crazy talk’
“You know Prince Fielder?” Cabrera said last weekend. “You know who’s hitting behind me right now? That’s a big difference, too. How am I going to hit 40 home runs? In the past, I got Prince, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta. I got a big bat behind me. You see the way guys pitch me? That explains everything.”
First of all, no, that doesn’t explain everything. The myth of hitters protecting other hitters is mostly that. Just ask Larry Sheets and Cecil Fielder.
Second, Cabrera engaged in a form of bullying. He knows that poor Niko Goodrum, who has been the bat behind Cabrera many times this season, isn’t going to say anything. Cabrera knows that Nicholas Castellanos, who is endeavoring to be more of a leader, isn’t going to say anything.
And third, it’s just plain wrong. A real character guy doesn’t blame his teammates for his deficiencies.
Can you imagine Steve Yzerman telling the media, “You know why I’m not scoring 30 goals? Look at who’s on my line. Look who I’m playing with.”
Of course you can’t.
Some of the geniuses on social media, aka the fans and the press, have said, “Well, Miggy’s right, but maybe he shouldn’t have said it.”
He’s not right!
Here’s manager Ron Gardenhire. “I’m not going to criticize a Hall of Famer, but that’s crazy talk. He just hasn’t hit home runs.”
Finally, a voice of reason.
Cabrera’s lack of home run power has nothing to do with Niko Goodrum. If Miggy was bothered by the way he was being pitched, he wouldn’t still be a .300 hitter.
That he’s now a .300 singles hitter (he has just seven extra-base hits) isn’t necessarily anything to be ashamed of. Except, the Tigers aren’t paying him truckloads of money to slap singles to right. And the fans aren’t excited by singles to right from Cabrera.
I think we all knew, as soon as the ink dried on the massive contract extension Cabrera signed in 2015, that it would be a bad pact in the long run, at an average of $30 million per. But I also think that we believed he would age better.
Maybe we were the fools.
The big, lumbering man often doesn’t age well in professional sports. Already there is concern that heralded rookie Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. of the Blue Jays, at 6’2″, 250 pounds, is too hefty for a long-term career.
Remember what happened to tubby Pablo Sandoval after he signed a big contract with the Red Sox?
So, no, Cabera isn’t right. Sometimes power outages happen quickly and mysteriously. Look at Ted Kluszewski’s numbers for a shining example.
The Cabrera contract has four years after this one, remaining. This isn’t the first time that Miggy has sparred with the fans, and likely won’t be the last. As other veterans have left the team, we’re finding out what kind of character lies behind that often friendly-looking visage.
The slugger has no clothes.