Cabrera’s fame lagging behind his bat

Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball, a statement that can be made without source or qualification. Last year, Cabrera became baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since 1967. This year, he leads the majors in two of the three categories — and is tied for second in the American League with 17 home runs.

Comparisons to contemporary hitters are becoming unnecessary. For greater insight, Torii Hunter moved beyond the confines of one sport.

“He’s the LeBron of baseball — hands down,” asserted Hunter, who’s in his first season playing alongside Cabrera with the Detroit Tigers. “He’s the LeBron of baseball, but he doesn’t get marketed like the LeBron of baseball.”

Now there’s a distinction worth exploring.

LeBron James is the world’s best basketball player and one of the most famous living athletes. Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball … arguably the best player … and yet his Q Score lags behind his historic on-field achievement. It may never catch up, because the 30-year-old has little interest in cultivating a personal brand. Yet there are signs Cabrera’s hitting virtuosity is — finally — being widely embraced outside of Michigan and Venezuela.

Baseball’s LeBron was in the presence of basketball’s LeBron this week, when Cabrera attended Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on an off day in the Tigers’ schedule. It wasn’t the first time Cabrera saw LeBron in person this year. A number of prominent Tigers — including Cabrera, Hunter, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson — attended a Heat game in Orlando during spring training.

That night, Hunter was stunned to see Cabrera — and his distinctive, 6-foot-4 frame — moving about the arena with relative freedom. Some fans said hello. Others asked, “Who is that?” Mostly, Cabrera was left alone at his courtside seat despite winning the Triple Crown only several months before.

“It should be a crowd of people wanting his autograph,” Hunter said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, Torii,’ treating him the same way they’re treating me. No! We’re not in the same league. You can’t treat him the same as me. You should be going crazy.

“He’s sitting there, cracking jokes, making faces at me. I’m saying, ‘BOTHER HIM! PLEASE!’ He’s special. But he doesn’t care. That’s why I love him the most. A guy like him, he doesn’t want (the attention). He doesn’t care. He’s too down to earth.”

There are two sides to Cabrera. Maybe more. In the same day, Cabrera might wrestle in the clubhouse and roar with laughter among teammates, then initially decline an interview request but chat with reporters anyway. Part of it is the language barrier, although Cabrera’s English has improved. Part of it is his reserved personality and wariness of the media. And part of it — as Hunter has discovered — is that Cabrera doesn’t care about being famous.

But he is famous, and increasingly so, because he wallops baseballs better than anyone else on the planet. The latest affirmation of his notoriety came this week, when Major League Baseball announced that Cabrera has received more than 1.5 million votes in All-Star Game balloting — more than any other player in either league.

If Cabrera maintains that lead, he will be the first Tiger ever to lead the American League All-Star voting, according to MLB research. Popularity can be difficult to quantify, but to become the top vote-getter would be a powerful statement of Cabrera’s place in the baseball firmament. Detroit is the 11th largest television market in the United States, according to Nielsen. So, it’s apparent that Cabrera is receiving votes — in person and online — from fans around the country and world, including his native Venezuela.

When I asked Cabrera about the voting Tuesday, he didn’t seem excited at first. “That’s great,” he replied, with all the enthusiasm of learning one’s flight would be only five minutes late. Then he directed the attention away from himself, as he often does: “If we’re going to win 95 games, that’s great. Ninety-five, 98 games, that’s great to me.”

A couple of minutes later, after Cabrera laughed about Verlander’s half-serious bid to participate in the Home Run Derby, I asked about the All-Star voting again. This time, he hit the answer squarely.

“That’s great, man,” he said, the gratitude now apparent. “It’s special, to be part of that. To me, I want to keep it real. I want to keep it simple — RBIs, win some games.” To be voted as a starter for the first time, he acknowledged, would be “very special.”

But when I suggested the acclaim would allow him to do more commercials, Cabrera demurred. “No,” he said. “I want to play baseball. I think that’s my job — to play baseball. I want to focus on what I love to do. … You can’t do two things at the same time. When you do that, (one) is going to be wrong. I don’t want to be wrong on what I have to do — my real job.”

Last year, Josh Hamilton set an All-Star record with more than 11 million votes. He was at the peak of his popularity: an MVP award in 2010, consecutive World Series appearances, status as perhaps the best all-around player in baseball over a three-year period.

But with Hamilton, there was another dimension that pulled fans tighter: He revived his career after drug addiction nearly ruined his life, and he speaks openly about how God helped him do it. Many Christian fans have gravitated toward Hamilton even while he played for other teams. They fell in love with his testimony as much as his smooth left-handed swing.

The irony is that Cabrera has a compelling biography, too. He overcame his own struggle with alcohol abuse, won baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years, and was named 2012 American League MVP. The story is relatable and triumphant, but Cabrera chooses not to share it publicly. That is his right.

The end result is that many people who voted for Cabrera know next to nothing about him personally. Some haven’t heard his voice, because he rarely does on-camera interviews. Most Tigers fans probably couldn’t tell you the name of his hometown (Answer: Maracay). He doesn’t make highlight-reel plays at third base for fans to admire. In that sense, his evolving relationship with baseball fans is all the more impressive. He has one ticket into the hearts and minds of America: his bat. And it’s so brilliant that he’s beloved.

The seminal moment of Cabrera’s season and All-Star campaign (so far) came at the ballpark where Hamilton became a cultural icon. Cabrera hit three home runs in a nationally televised Sunday night game against the Texas Rangers, creating buzz on social media and abject awe among casual sports fans. Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont believes the single performance could have as much to do with Cabrera’s surge in the voting as the Triple Crown itself. “People saw that,” Lamont said, “and they thought, ‘Maybe that Triple Crown wasn’t a fluke.’”

How much does this recognition matter to Cabrera? Not all that much, I suspect. He’s already exceedingly popular in the place he deems most important — on the field, among his peers. Before a series opener in Detroit Tuesday night, the Tampa Bay Rays came onto the field to stretch while the Tigers finished up batting practice. Cabrera served as the unofficial welcoming committee, stepping out of the cage and systematically hugging what seemed like every player on the Tampa Bay roster, from superstar Evan Longoria to career .221 hitter Jose Lobaton.

It wasn’t shallow backslapping, either. The Rays’ respect for Cabrera was palpable. Even in a near-empty stadium, hours before the game, Cabrera cut the same commanding presence LeBron would on the basketball court.

“People gravitate toward him,” Rays batting coach Derek Shelton observed. Of the comparison to James, Shelton added: “In baseball circles, he is that famous. He is that good. But you don’t see him doing commercials. I don’t know if people realize how good a guy he is, how good a person he is.”

The same day, the Tigers had two special guests watching batting practice: U.S. Army veterans Josh Wetzel, 27, and Andrew Smith, 26, each of whom lost both legs in separate IED explosions while serving in Afghanistan. They were in the midst of a weeklong tour of major league ballparks through Operation Warrior Wishes, an organization that honors wounded veterans with trips to sporting events across the country.

Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez, Cabrera’s friend and countryman, saw the two and walked over.

“He was joking around, asking if we were here to see Miguel,” Wetzel recalled with a smile.

They replied that, no, they were happy to see all of the players. But Martinez brought Cabrera over, anyway. They both signed autographs. Wetzel would say later that, of everything they saw on their trip, meeting the reigning Triple Crown winner was the No. 1 thrill.

“It’s amazing, meeting a guy like that,” Wetzel said. “You don’t see a whole lot of those in Major League Baseball anymore. He’s already a legend in our book. You think of guys back in the day — Ted Williams, even Pete Rose — they were legends of their time. He’s from our time. He’s our legend. He’s our time’s legend. He’ll be known as one of the best hitters that ever played the game.”

It was funny, though: Cabrera didn’t say much to Wetzel and Smith as he signed those autographs and made their days. In fact, other than a quiet Hey, they remembered only one thing he said.

“I asked him if he was going to win another Triple Crown,” Wetzel recalled. “He said, ‘Championship first, then all the other stuff.’”