Cabrera must not ignore alcohol issues

First off, Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera will not be suspended for his alleged drunken driving incident, not right away and probably not at all.

The case, as far as baseball is concerned, is one of off-duty misconduct. Cabrera, thank goodness, did not hurt anyone. At this moment, he is innocent until proven guilty.

Well, the legal process is one thing and Cabrera’s personal problems are another. He needs help. He needs it fast. And he needs to acknowledge, once and for all, that he has an alcohol problem.

Cabrera has bristled at describing himself as an alcoholic in the past, but he needs to stop playing games of semantics. Help is available, just as it has been available to him in the past. His rehabilitation is all that matters — and if he requires a lengthy leave of absence, so be it.

Everything else is secondary, from his manager’s over-emphasis on the club’s fortunes to a teammate’s well-meaning but misguided belief that Cabrera will be safe in the Tigers’ protective cocoon.

Jim Leyland cannot help Cabrera, and, in fact, it is not his job to help Cabrera, at least not when it comes to dealing with alcoholism. The Tigers players cannot help Cabrera either, at least not in a professional sense.

Cabrera must choose help himself. He did it once, receiving treatment for substance abuse after an ugly incident near the end of the 2009 season, when he got into a fight with his wife after a night of drinking. In theory anyway, he can do it again.

“He’s a superstar,” right fielder Magglio Ordoñez said. “He needs to act like a superstar.”

Leyland reacted predictably Friday, proclaiming that the team would be fine and that Cabrera “is probably going to have the biggest year of his life.” With Leyland, it’s all baseball all the time. He surely cares about Cabrera but declined to express concern for the player’s well-being. Leyland did look forward, however, to Cabrera hitting a three-run homer over the right-center field wall.

As Leyland put it, "I’m the field manager," and even the most empathetic field managers are not to be confused with medical experts or professional counselors. Players are not doctors either, as Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge openly acknowledged. But Inge spoke as if spring training could serve as a form of rehabilitation for Cabrera, saying: "We have a month and a half. We can all bond. We can all get back to normal. We can all move on."

Inge was completely sincere, eager to help his teammate. Both he and Leyland could point to last season as proof of how Cabrera benefits from being in a baseball environment. This incident, though, occurred out of season. The details from the police report — Cabrera allegedly drinking from a bottle of scotch in the presence of at least one officer, refusing to obey instructions, resisting arrest — are disturbing.

Yet, plenty of immediate assistance is available to Cabrera, baseball sources say — assistance from counselors, medical experts and addiction experts, from the Tigers, from Major League Baseball, from the players’ union.

Baseball’s goal is not to punish Cabrera, but get him treatment. Cabrera will arrive at spring training, one source said, only after baseball doctors evaluate him and determine that he is “back on the program,” dealing with his issues. He was not at Tigers camp Saturday for the team’s first full workout.

Maybe he will return in short order, get through the season without an extended absence, produce his usual monster numbers. But what happens next offseason? What happens in five years? What happens when his career is over?

As my colleague Jon Paul Morosi wrote Thursday, Cabrera perhaps needs a full-time, 365-day-a-year mentor — the kind Josh Hamilton has in Johnny Narron. Baseball, meanwhile, needs to get its own act together. Alcohol, unlike marijuana, is not listed as a “drug of abuse” in the sport’s joint drug treatment and prevention plan, which it runs in conjunction with the union.

Thus, Cabrera can voluntarily receive treatment through the plan, but not be disciplined under it. According to the plan, a player shall be subject to immediate discipline if a four-person “treatment board” determines that he has failed to comply with his program. The first failure to comply results in a suspension of at least 15 games, but no more than 25 games. The penalties increase with subsequent offenses.

Details about individual players are confidential. But if baseball considered alcohol a “drug of abuse,” Cabrera presumably would have entered the program automatically after his incident in ’09. His latest incident could have qualified as a first failure to comply, assuming that Cabrera’s treatment extended into the offseason and his arrest resulted in a conviction.

Of course, commissioner Bud Selig could invoke his general disciplinary authority and suspend Cabrera for a conviction anyway. History, though, suggests he would not. Selig refrained from suspending Tony La Russa when the Cardinals’ manager pleaded guilty to DUI in November 2007. Cabrera, unlike La Russa, could benefit from a possible challenge from the players’ union, which might further discourage Selig from taking action.

The issue is besides the point; punishment is not the answer. Miguel Cabrera needs rehabilitation, and not the cheap Hollywood "quick in, quick out" kind. His well-being must come first, no matter how long his rehab takes, no matter what happens to the Tigers in 2011.

He is a danger to others. He is a danger to himself.

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