Cabrera of the Tigers: Potential Denied?

Potential can prove to be one hellacious taskmaster.

There are few weights humans can carry that pose the psychological pressure and ongoing distraction of an unmet talent; of promise denied. There cannot be many situations as damaging to confidence as failing to measure up to the demands of expectation, as being sensed as under-performing amid the public glare of … potential.

Remember when Kirk Gibson was ‘the next Mickey Mantle’? To the point, remember how long it took that combination of speed and power to beat back the demons of what had been expected of him, and to deliver a flesh-and-blood contribution that finally measured up to what the Detroit baseball public expected … no, demanded … of him in the 1980s?

The demands of that potential weren’t pleasant for Waterford’s Wild Hoss … and the pressure sometimes revealed itself in youthful indiscretions and public rebellion.

I don’t pretend to have any personal access or insight into the disturbing struggles of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera. But from a fan’s distance he appears to be a unique and incredibly promising baseball talent currently in danger of succumbing to pressures that threaten his career and reputation. Are these pressures that we have imposed on him?

In its simplest and most threatening form, Miguel Cabrera is all about potential. His promise is such that a whole state awaits his breakout year. It’s no easy job carrying the hopes of Tigers fans. In this town our diamond dreams are no small potatoes. I have been rolling about … and agonizing and exulting … with the Tigers for a mere 57 years. And to Cabrera’s misfortune, his talent is so phenomenal, his promise so exciting, that he carries a hope — almost a responsibility — unlike any imposed on any Detroit player I have ever observed across those many seasons. I mean, I actually expect fireworks every
time he steps to the plate. And I do not believe I am alone in such crazy imaginings.

Directly put, he is — or soon should be — the greatest hitter to wear the cool olde “D” in our lifetimes. The best. How’s that for pressure? Indeed, how’s that for potential?

It’s a small list. Kaline was a great hitter, our favorite. Did we expect him to load the listless Bengals of the 1950s to mid ’60s on his back and power them almost single-handedly to World Series heaven? I never did; Al did not seem that kind of explosive player. That he would perform beautifully, artistically, often by himself it seemed, was expected. When his personal near-perfection delivered him to the promised land in 1968, he arrived with a wonderful supporting cast, seven or eight muscular stars playing the best baseball of their lives during one super-nova of a dream season.

Few other Tigers can even be mentioned in a conversation that would consider Al Kaline and Miguel Cabrera. In my youth, Harvey Kuenn and Norm Cash, like Kaline, won batting titles … once each. Neither stood out like Kaline, neither felt the pressure of carrying Tiger hopes and dreams on their backs as Al — unfairly — had to for 12 years. Cecil Fielder was — somewhat like Cabrera — a monster of a hitter who brightened days and nights at the old ballpark, often amazing the locals. But he toiled for a series of lousy teams, so no one ever seriously expected his bat to lift and light our lives.

No, not Fielder. And not Gibson, clutch hero that he finally made of himself. And not even Number 6. To me, or at least to these dimming eyes, Miguel Cabrera … our own Baby Bull … is the most natural powerful threat I have ever seen at bat for the Tigers. If he ever gets hold of himself, meaning that he throws off whatever personal demons that walk alongside his awesome potential, he could … he should? … be the most productive power hitter in modern Tigers history. His talent seems worthy of his arrival.

He is only 27, a few years short of baseball prime. He and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals carry the kind of swagger, exhibit the kind of gifts at bat, that may get them ultimately remembered as the leader sluggers of our day. Unlike Fielder, but like Kaline, Cabrera has a Tigers management and supporting cast that may augment his individual shine with pennant-winning contributions, that may thus someday help to satisfy his ‘potential.’

It was sad on Thursday to hear of Cabrera’s continued battles with himself. He may, indeed, be bent on self-destruction. If the pressure of his promise — the weight of carrying the kind of baseball dreams I speak of here — was a major contributor to his performance in St. Lucie County, Florida … yet another major embarrassment in his life … then the sadness we feel is more poignant, our collective disappointment more painful.

A year ago he told prying reporters, asking about earlier problems, “I don’t know how to explain, but it’s not an alcohol problem.” Resisting arresting officers early Thursday, he reportedly told them “Do you know who I am? You don’t know anything about my problems.” The baseball world can only hope that someone knows, and can respond.

What is it we expect, that we demand, of Miguel Cabrera? Remember that it was 1984 — and only 1984 — that placed Gibson forever in our good graces. Minus that, he might still be languishing in the purgatory of potential.

Let’s be honest. I want Miguel Cabrera to get better because, yes, what he’s doing to himself is sad. But I want Cabrera to be all right because I want him to knock the hell out of the ball, like he can. I want him to blow the Twins and their stupid fans right out of pennant contention. I want him to silence the jerks in Chicago with monstrous home runs and slug awesome triples that ping off the far walls of our theme-park stadium here.

Anybody disagree? It’s within the realm of his potential to slug his way to baseball glory. And it falls within the grasp of our potential … let us hope … to get there with him.