This is not Broadway. This is not Hollywood. But this is where you see the best show in sports today.
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The balance sheets say the city of Detroit is bankrupt. It does not feel that way when Miguel Cabrera stands at home plate before sellout crowds at Comerica Park. Cabrera already has one Triple Crown, could become the first hitter ever to win two in a row, and singlehandedly transforms this gritty town into the center of the baseball universe four or five times each night.
Were you watching Saturday? I sure hope you were, because he did it again.
The defending American League champion Tigers and emerging Royals were deadlocked after nearly 3 1/2 hours of pennant-race drama. A 3-3 tie, a 4-4 tie, a 5-5 tie. Two ejections. An umpiring controversy. In the end, the stage belonged to Cabrera. That’s how it should be for the star.
Not long ago, Cabrera was 0-for-5 in his career against Mariano Rivera. That was before he became the first player — ever — to homer against the greatest closer of all time twice in the same series. Here Cabrera faced Royals reliever Aaron Crow, against whom he was 0-for-8.
“I was struggling with this guy,” he said later — in the past tense, because now he is 1-for-9.
Crow fell behind 3-1 and then threw an almost unreachable outside fastball. Almost unreachable. Cabrera — playing through shin, knee and abdominal injuries — put the best swing on it that his body allowed. It was good enough. The ball landed over a notch in the right-field wall. Of Cabrera’s many accolades — he’s about to become the first right-handed hitter in nearly 90 years to win three straight batting titles — this was his first walk-off home run of the season.
“There’s not three hitters in baseball that could hit that pitch out of the ballpark,” Royals manager Ned Yost told reporters afterward. “He’s one of them.”
Cabrera can’t deliver all the time. He plays baseball — a game of failure, even though it rarely seems that way for him. He wishes he could thrill crowds every night like LeBron James — Cabrera’s favorite athlete, a man who scores about 27 points per game. But Saturday, Cabrera proved again why his at-bats have become appointment viewing for us all.
Cabrera’s batting average is .358, which means our stunned-that-he-made-an-out average is .642. With comfortable leads in batting average and RBI, only Chris Davis’ five-homer lead stands between this contemporary legend and a feat — the back-to-back Triple Crown — the sport has yet to witness.
Earlier this year, Cabrera told Venezuelan baseball writer Wilmer Reina that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in the world. To watch him make that look easy each day is worth the price of admission. Without bragging about it, Cabrera seems to understand this.
Apart from his obligation to his teammates and owner, he’s playing hurt because he knows the audience demands it.
“It’s a good challenge,” Cabrera said, when I asked how difficult it’s been to get on the field recently. “The expectation is so high. … Every game, every at-bat, every inning you want to do something good, because I think people pay for that. That’s hard for us, but people pay for that, to see something. Not only me, the whole team — Prince (Fielder), Victor (Martinez), Torii (Hunter). They want to see something special every night.”
But on this team — in this sport — it seems only Cabrera is capable of that. The crowd of 41,850 sensed it, urging him on with a standing ovation as he dug in to face Crow. Sometimes, Cabrera allows those cheers to rush inside his batting helmet and turn into anxious pressure. That even happened Friday, when the Tigers lost a doubleheader to the Royals.
“I (did) that yesterday and struck out,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s try to focus. Put the ball in play. Don’t do too much. Relax.’ … You need to calm down. Breathe.”
The exhale was loud, followed a few moments later by headshakes of awe throughout the grandstand and in living rooms. You might have described what you saw as “unbelievable.”
It wasn’t. Miguel Cabrera has been doing this for a while now. Saturday night, once again, baseball’s greatest entertainer didn’t disappoint.