If the Tigers win the World Series, it will go down as one of the most significant text messages in baseball history.
Prince Fielder was sitting on the dais at Comerica Park, talking about his new $214 million contract at a press conference, when his cell phone went bloop.
The sender: Miguel Cabrera.
The message: Welcome.
“It might sound corny, but it means a lot,” Fielder said Thursday. “When the batting champion is willing to change positions so you can be part of this, it feels good.
“He just said, ‘I’m happy you’re here.’ I’ll be honest: As soon as I saw that, I felt comfortable.”
In Fielder, Cabrera and Justin Verlander, the Tigers have three potential Hall of Famers who are not yet 30 years old. They belong on any list of the top 10 players in baseball. Few franchises based outside the Bronx have been able to make such a statement in recent years.
But we know from teams in other sports — the 2011 Miami Heat, for instance — that superstar accumulation can make for an explosive chemistry experiment. Fiefdoms collide, egos bruise, losing ensues.
Not in Motown — so far, at least.
On the season’s first homestand, the Tigers dealt with the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and their own World Series expectations. They emerged with a 5-1 record, best in the American League.
Cabrera has a 1.339 OPS and three home runs. Fielder has a 1.059 OPS and two home runs. Verlander is 0-1 with a 2.20 ERA after beginning each of his first two starts with eight shutout innings.
At one point during Thursday’s 7-2 win over Tampa Bay, seven of the nine Detroit hitters had batting averages of .300 or better. And one of the two who didn’t — right fielder Brennan Boesch — drove in the deciding run while finishing with four RBI.
Since we can’t help but make the comparison: Albert Pujols is hitting .217. The Angels are 2-4.
Yes, it’s early. But how a team performs when it is supposed to win reveals much about its constitution. The Tigers are passing that test.
“We’re just comfortable with each other,” Fielder said. “If you’re not comfortable as a team, people’s expectations tend to create anxiety. We’re just so comfortable as a team. Everybody gets along. When you’re out there, you feel together. The pressure doesn’t feel like it’s on any particular person. It’s a group effort.”
Fielder admired of Boesch: “We have a two-hole guy who is 6-4, 230 — that’s pretty awesome.”
On the lineup’s depth, he added: “You’ve got Alex (Avila), one of the best hitting catchers in the game, hitting, what, seventh? You don’t see that.”
But ask about Cabrera, and Fielder sounds like a fan describing his favorite player.
“He’s like a slap hitter with power,” Fielder said of Cabrera’s ability to hit the other way. “I told him yesterday, ‘You’re (Placido) Polanco at 6-4.’ That’s tremendous, for a guy who doesn’t get infield singles. I haven’t seen him hit too many bloopers. That means he’s squaring the ball up all the time. And being who he is, they’re not just throwing them down the middle.”
I mentioned to Fielder that Cabrera might one day make a run at hitting .400. He didn’t disagree.
“He could,” Fielder said. “He’s really good. I always knew he was good. But he’s really good. These guys are used to it. I’m not.
“In BP, the way he hits balls, it looks like he’s left-handed. He hits it to right like I hit it to right. That’s kind of crazy.”
For his part, Cabrera said he’d always wanted to play with Fielder but never thought he would get the chance. “I was thinking, ‘Not right now,’ because we were playing the same position, but now they’ve given us the opportunity,” Cabrera said. “I followed his career, from the first year he was in the big leagues. He hit 50 home runs. I wanted to see him (in person). I’ve been seeing him (on television). Now I get to see a really good thing in real life — like Verlander.”
In some respects, the Tigers have been here before. Leading up to the 2008 season — Cabrera’s first with the team — some writers (like me) drank in the spring optimism while declaring that Jim Leyland’s mashers would score 1,000 runs and win the World Series.
They didn’t. In fact, they finished dead last in the AL Central after starting 0-7.
Leyland, on the verge of becoming the 17th manager to win 1,600 games, doesn’t like talking about what his team is supposed to accomplish. “We’re not going to get hung up in that,” he said Thursday. Clearly, though, this team is better suited to handle the expectations than it was four years ago. Verlander cited a looser clubhouse as one reason. “A lot of young guys — a lot of fire,” the ace added. “Nobody here’s got too big of an ego. We know what we’re here to do. We have fun while we’re doing it.”
Al Avila, the assistant general manager, came up with perhaps the most straightforward explanation for the difference between 2008 and 2012: “We’re a better team. This team is also a combination of youth and experience. It’s not an old team. And some of our best players are in the prime of their careers.”
They also enjoy the company and competitiveness of one another, from superstars to the supporting players. That may not sound like much. But it’s part of the reason the Tigers are off to the best start in the American League.