DETROIT — The Detroit Tigers were in the middle of a workout for the World Series when comedian George Lopez showed up and began milling around near home plate. Almost instantly, Miguel Cabrera was beside him, laughing it up and looking as excited as he’d been all afternoon.
“He likes to have fun,” teammate Quintin Berry said. “He enjoys himself. He loves being here, and he likes the loose environment. I understand him having a lot of fun with George and stuff because that’s the same kind of person he is.”
Baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years seems to enjoy hitting and joking around in equal proportion. Fans are plenty familiar with Cabrera’s talent — his consistently high average and awe-inspiring power — but the rest of the Tigers appreciate him for more than that.
Cabrera may be shy in front of a camera or microphone, but there’s a goofy side to the third baseman that helps keep his team upbeat.
Now in the prime of his career at 29, Cabrera’s approach remains meticulous, but he’s careful not to take himself or his job too seriously.
“Besides the business, it’s a game. I think baseball is a very fine game and you have to enjoy it,” Cabrera said recently. “You have to go out there and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, you have to be serious at the same time, but I think when you have a team and try to have fun and get loose before the game and between innings, I think it helps you play good. That’s the way I’ve played since I was a kid.”
Cabrera and the Tigers open the World Series on Wednesday. It will be his first trip to the Fall Classic since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 2003 and his Florida Marlins beat the New York Yankees.
Cabrera played all over the field in that postseason — third base, left field, right field, even three innings at shortstop. After being traded to the Tigers before the 2008 season, he eventually settled in at first base. Detroit acquired the Venezuelan for his bat, after all, not his glove.
“He was a good hitter before we ever got him,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I mean, nobody here taught Miguel Cabrera anything about hitting.”
Still, even the Tigers had to be amazed by what Cabrera did this season. His .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBIs made him the first Triple Crown winner since 1967.
“I told him that a Latino winning the Triple Crown is as impressive as having a black president,” Lopez said during his visit with the team Saturday.
During the final days of the Triple Crown chase, Cabrera did his best to deflect the pressure and the attention.
“I kind of want to stay away from baseball when I go home,” he said. “I want to see movies … try to play with my kids, try and forget baseball for a little bit.”
As outgoing as he can be, Cabrera doesn’t always look comfortable when talking to reporters, especially when asked to talk about himself. It wasn’t long ago he seemed on the verge of wasting his prodigious talent, when he was arrested at the start of spring training in 2011 — he later pleaded no contest to drunken driving.
General manager Dave Dombrowski said Cabrera has worked hard to overcome his off-field problems.
“I think he’s grown in abundance,” Dombrowski said. “Just some of the things that when you’re a youngster, you need to learn, and the only way you learn is through experience, and he’s done that. So we see him in a much more comfortable place — his growth as a family man, his growth on the field as a leader.”
Perhaps the best example of Cabrera’s team-first mentality came when he moved to third base this year to accommodate newly signed first baseman Prince Fielder. Cabrera’s range isn’t particularly good, and the adjustment got off to a rocky start when he was hit around the eye with a bad-hop grounder during spring training.
It would have been easy for a player of Cabrera’s stature to call off the experiment after that scary injury, but he never did.
“He’s a very tough individual,” Dombrowski said. “He continued his hard work. I can’t say he wasn’t concerned, but we were more concerned than him at the time.”
Some of Cabrera’s quirkier habits may be on display for a national audience once the World Series starts. Watch him after a checked swing. He might signal toward first base himself, as if expecting the umpire to cut him some slack if he appeals the play before the catcher.
Cabrera is focused whenever he steps on the field. The Tigers were scrimmaging Sunday at Comerica Park, and when Cabrera stepped up, he used the plate to help mark off exactly where he wanted to stand, since there was no marked batter’s box.
Cabrera is all about details. But make no mistake, he has fun along the way.
“He tries not to worry about anything,” Berry said. “He gets bothered if everybody starts worrying too much. He just wants everybody to relax and believe in yourselves. That’s pretty much what I take from him.”