Numbers are not what make Miguel Cabrera special

Miguel Cabrera has a lot of fun playing baseball.

Miguel Cabrera has a lot of fun playing baseball.

We are only halfway through May, but we already have the best quote of the 2015 baseball season.

After hitting career home runs 397 and 398 at Comerica Park last week, Miguel Cabrera had this to say after the game:

“Time goes quick. I feel like my first year was last year. Sometimes I’m scared because I don’t want to stop playing baseball, you know? I just want to stop (getting older) right here. I’m 32. Stop! And keep playing. Time goes too fast, man.”

Cabrera’s words, which quickly made the rounds of the internet, reveal much about the man and the game that he plays for a living, the key word being “play.” As the late great Willie Stargell once said, “At the start of the game, the umpire says ‘play ball.’ Not ‘work ball.’”

Of course, Cabrera, who joined the 400-homer club on Saturday, is a serious student of hitting, who works harder at his craft than just about anybody else. He head is an encyclopedia of pitchers and what they threw him in what situation and when. As a competitor, he can often be hard on himself. He respects the game, plays through pain, and wants to win more than anything.

But he also plays the game with a boyish enthusiasm that is evident to anyone who has watched him over the years. Cabrera is a veritable magpie at first base, chatting up opposing baserunners to distraction.

What in the world can he be saying?

The Big Man is quick with a boyish smile on the diamond or in the dugout. He is friendly to fans in ballparks around the country. In a sports landscape filled with surly boors, Cabrera can be disarmingly refreshing.

That is why what he said was so important. His heartfelt, resonating words weren’t scripted. They weren’t the usual yawn-inducing bromides that players mumble in post-game interviews.

It was just Cabrera in front of a microphone, caught in an honest, joyous moment.

He is the Peter Pan of baseball, a boy who refuses to grow old. For fans, Cabrera can be a tough nut to crack. Because of the language barrier, he doesn’t always open up, and that is unfortunate, because we suspect that he is an interesting cat who could say so many more things that are worth listening to.

In that short speech, Cabrera said more about himself than he has in his 13 years in the game. He revealed his deepest desires, his fears, his frailties, and his joy. And his humanity.

But he also revealed why he plays the game.

He plays because he loves it. Always has.

And by extension, Cabrera’s love for the game is the same as ours. We watch it on TV, or on our computers, or on our cell phones. We listen to it on the radio. We spend hard-earned cash for tickets to the ballpark. We play it in our backyards on sunny summer afternoons.

Why? Because we love it.

We love the drama, the tension, and the excitement. We love the storylines, the tales of players who have overcome adversity, and lived to see better days. We love the sights, the sounds, and the smells: The green grass, the crack of the bat, the pop of a ball in the catcher’s mitt, the smell of a hot dog washed down with a cold beer.

We also love the connection the game creates between people, between friends and family, between the generations.
Cabrera’s words couldn’t have come at a better time. The product that is Major League Baseball is described by many as, well, boring. Perhaps that is because somewhere in the last decade or so, those who chronicle the game, write about it, produce it, package it, and market it, have more and more opted to run with the philosophy of “numbers over narrative.”

With their sabermetrics and fantasy league analysis, statheads have taken over much of the reportage of the national pastime.

This is not meant to bang on sabermetrics. I love sabermetrics. They have taught us an appreciation for the finer nuances and trends of the game that we never would have known before. The can help us to watch the game smarter.
But they run the risk of dehumanizing players. Many of today’s general managers are Billy Beane disciples (or wannabees) who make personnel moves based on the latest esoteric stats, with little regard for a player’s discipline, desire, or work ethic.

Now, Major League Baseball Advanced Media has introduced Statcast, a radar-based tracking system. Statcast is the game’s latest lame attempt to engage the video game generation. In reality, it is just a physicist’s wet dream. It has introduced us to such seemingly non-baseball terms as “perceived velocity,” “spin rate,” “exit velocity,” “vector,” “dig speed,” “first step efficiency,” and “pop time.” You’re aware of “pop time,” aren’t you? That’s when it’s time to crack open a cold Mountain Dew.

Well, not exactly…

If you’ve never viewed an example of Statcast on the MLB website, all I can say is, it’s slightly less interesting than cleaning out a fish tank.

Major League Baseball and the developers of Statcast have been hammering home, to anyone who will listen, that this is indeed the future of the national pastime.

But will anybody be awake to appreciate it?

ESPN’s baseball broadcasts are now the height of boredom, with appetite suppressants like Curt Schilling droning endlessly on about three-seam fastballs, four-seam fastballs, cut fastballs, sliders down and in, extension, and spin rate.

Ernie Harwell would not be amused.

In the midst of all this digital, dehumanizing doggerel, along comes Miguel Cabrera, with a grin on his face, reminding us that this is a little boy’s game, to be played with joy.

Narrative, not numbers.

Physicists, take note.