Tigers’ Cabrera wins Triple Crown

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He’d played, like a ballplayer should, but as Miguel Cabrera stood near third base in the fourth inning, it was finally time. Glove in hand, history in hand, in a ballpark full of opposing fans, he made a walk no man had made in 45 years: That of a Triple Crown winner — slow, proud and under the well-deserved roar of an ovation worthy of his deed.

Jim Leyland had pulled his star, to rest him, or to let him enjoy the moment in the dugout with his teammates, or because Jim Leyland decided that’s what he wanted to do. Did it matter? A man had won a Triple Crown, a guy who’d come from behind to do it, a guy who in the course of catching greatness helped his team make the postseason. And now he was raising his arms to acknowledge the curtain call and hugging his teammates and his manager and then turning and sitting down and soaking it in.

Let us all soak it in: This is the stuff of legends and the most underrated sports story of the summer, an almost-holy baseball moment made real. This, more than anything else that has happened to the game since the 1990s soured some of its beauty, took us back to a time when legends roamed a pure game and fans felt almost no bitterness.

For Cabrera, the road to this rarified place, to finishing the regular season leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average, had not been easy. He had ridden a monster August and September– 18 home runs, 51 RBIs — to the brink of hallowed baseball ground occupied only by men like Williams, Mantle, Foxx, Hornsby and Cobb. But he’d also ridden it with a growing weight.

He’d entered this final regular-season series against the Kansas City Royals in a slump, hitting less than .200. He’d hit, after a seven-game drought, a home run the previous Saturday to pull even with Josh Hamilton.

And then on Monday, here at Kauffman, he sent a shot to right field to take the lead in the home run race. He went 4-for-5 that day and 2-for-3 Tuesday, cushioning his batting average lead before finishing Wednesday 0-for-2. In the final five games, Miguel Cabrera came out and took for himself an honor that may cement him as one of the great hitters of all time and a stat line worthy of Carl Yastrzemski, the last man to do it: .330 avg, 44 home runs, 139 RBIs.

Afterward, talking about it, Leyland said he wasn’t going to cry. Not this damn time. Afterward, celebrating it, his teammates talked with awe and respect. Afterward, at his locker, his diamond earring shining bright and his every ounce oozing relief, Cabrera basked in the shock of what he’d done.

“Right now, I don’t know how to explain it,” Cabrera said. “It was hard the last two weeks because everybody talked about that. It was kind of hard to focus, kind of hard to go out there.

“Right now, it’s an unbelievable feeling. Wow.”

There he stood, the 12th man to win a Triple Crown, having earned every bit of it, yet shocked all the same by it. And there they stood, his teammates, knowing they were in the presence of something they might never see again.

“This is one of the greatest things ever achieved,” catcher Alex Avila said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I had chills today once it happened. We probably won’t ever see this again. It’s been 45 years, and it’s gotten harder and harder.”

This, Avila understood, is something to celebrate. For the game, for Cabrera, for those who played with him, for those who have accomplished the same thing and for all the rest of us — all of us lucky enough to have seen this happen in our lifetimes.

“This is history,” Leyland said.

Yes. And greatness. And a fable come to life, the same as if Teddy Ballgame had just hit .406 or DiMaggio had hit safely in 56 straight games. There have been 17,940 men who have played Major League Baseball. Only 12 have won a Triple Crown.

Yastrzemski, who last did it in 1967 and is notoriously attention shy, sent his congratulations publicly, because the honor demanded it: “I am glad that he accomplished this while leading his team to the American League Central title.”

Frank Robinson, who won the Triple Crown in 1966, did the same: “Miguel has been outstanding all year long by coming to play every day, showing his discipline at the plate and making the most of his great talent.”

Once-in-a-lifetime moments — good and bad, meaningful and frivolous, wrought with meaning and simply fun — take on their own power. This one will be frozen in my mind and in the minds of the Royals fans who came to see greatness for our lifetimes.

Cabrera walking off the field, into a dugout of waiting arms, history touching him with its rare feeling of forever and rarity: First the silence as he walked, then the quiet buzz of something building, then the true and joyous ovation, then the dugout where grown men showed their love and respect with cheers and manly hugs, then it fading away the remaining feeling this had actually occurred before us.

“It was a great moment in my life,” he said.

It was a great moment in baseball.

And for those of us who believe baseball at its finest can conjure actual magic — and I am among them — it was something more. It was a day to be cherished.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.