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Miguel Cabrera Story!


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Hero worship

The Marlins' Miguel Cabrera is adored in his native Venezuela, where he thrills fans with his achievements on and off the field

BY KEVIN BAXTER

[email protected]

 

MARACAY, Venezuela - Like a locomotive chugging around a bend, you can hear Miguel Cabrera coming before you see him.

 

First, there's the sound of bats, batting helmets, even teammates scattering as a clot of photographers, shutters ablaze, backpedal furiously through the dugout in an effort to keep pace as Cabrera bounces up the tunnel from the clubhouse. Next come the squeals of the schoolgirls and the pleas of autograph-seeking schoolboys pressed against the dugout roof, many dressed in matching dark blue jerseys of the Aragua Tigers with Cabrera's blood-red No. 24 on the back.

 

And finally, as Cabrera steps into the sunlight, come the cheers and shouts from a stadium already one-quarter full more than two hours before game time.

 

''Right now there is a kind of Cabreramania,'' says his father, Jos? Miguel. ``People come from other states to see Tiger games just to see Miguel. That's how popular he is.''

 

Popular? Miguel Cabrera might be the biggest thing to come out of Venezuela since oil.

 

In the past four years, he single-handedly has saved one of the Venezuelan league's oldest franchises, put together the greatest season in the league's 64-year history and made hardened baseball people giddy about what might come next.

 

''He's unbelievable,'' says Popi Hern?ndez, Aragua's third-base coach and a minor-league manager for the Minnesota Twins. ``He's got a really good chance to be in the Hall of Fame some day.''

 

And Hernandez was being cautious compared to St. Louis Cardinals scout Enrique Brito.

 

''Without a doubt, he's one of the best players in the world,'' says Brito, who first saw the Marlins' Venezuelan-born outfielder play when Cabrera was 14 years old. ``There's Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel.''

 

ONE OF A KIND

 

But none of those others have achieved the rock-star status Cabrera, just 21, enjoys in baseball-mad Venezuela, where his impish smile adorns billboards pushing everything from Pepsi to his home state of Aragua. But his unparalleled success has left him imprisoned in the simple, lightly furnished eighth-floor apartment his shares with wife Rosangel and their catcher's mitt-sized dog, Cosita.

 

''I never, never go out to eat all the time. It's a little difficult, but I'm getting used to it,'' says a weary Cabrera, dressed in sweat pants and a basketball jersey as he wipes the sleep from his eyes a few hours before Game 2 of the Venezuelan league championship series.

 

Maracay, the capital of the state of Aragua, is a bustling city of about 600,000 at the foot of Venezuela's coastal mountain range. And it has a long baseball tradition, having sent the likes of Bobby Abreu, Dave Concepci?n and Carlos Guill?n to the major leagues. But before Cabrera joined the Aragua team four years ago, the Tigers had reached the playoffs about as often as the Montreal Expos.

 

With him, however, the Tigers have made the best-of-seven finals three seasons in a row and on Saturday he homered and scored twice to lift Aragua to a decisive Game 7 win against Caracas, giving the Tigers their second title in a row. In 2002, when the championships were canceled in the wake of a nationwide strike, Aragua had the best record in the league when play was suspended. As a result, the 40-year-old franchise, which appeared on the verge of collapse, has seen attendance quadruple.

 

''He turned the team around,'' says Brito, who doubles as Aragua's general manager.

 

Especially this season, when Cabrera shattered records for homers (nine) and RBI (32) during the 16-game playoff semifinals. He also batted a league-leading .448 to win the Venezuelan triple crown. And while those numbers are certainly worthy of worship, many of Cabrera's Venezuelan fans said they admire him more for what's done off the field than for what he's accomplished on it.

 

SOURCE OF PRIDE

 

''He's a great player who came up from the bottom,'' Aragua fan Miguel Guzman said of Cabrera, who was raised in Maracay's hardscrabble La Pedrera barrio in a house that abutted a baseball field. ``He's a simple person, a humble person.''

 

Adds Juan Telles of Caracas: ``He's got class.''

 

Cabrera's mother, Gregoria, who played 12 years on Venezuelan's national softball team, smiles at the story. Although she taught her son how to play baseball, she's equally proud of the other things he learned from her.

 

''I'm proud of Miguelito first for the way he is,'' she says, surrounded by more than a dozen photos of her son in the living room of the three-bedroom, high-security apartment he bought his family with his $1.8 million Marlins signing bonus. ``The way he respects other people.''

 

She then tells a story about a mother whose son repeatedly disobeyed her at home.

 

''He couldn't have been more than 3. He was the cousin of another player,'' she says. ``And the mother sent him over to me because he wasn't eating. She asked me if Miguel ate his food when he was small. I said yes, the boy needed to eat, he needed to study if he wanted to be like Miguel.

 

``As his mother, I feel incredibly proud.''

 

If the pressure of being an example for others weighs on Cabrera, it doesn't show.

 

''I don't do bad things,'' he says. ``I don't commit crimes. I don't look for trouble. I just lead a normal life.''

 

UNFAZED SUPERSTAR

 

Nor is he losing any sleep worrying about the expectations others have for him after last year's breakout season, one that ranks among the best for a 21-year-old in baseball history.

 

''Whatever comes comes,'' says Cabrera, whose 33 homers, 112 RBI and 101 runs scored made him just the eighth player to record a 30-100-100 season before the age of 22. ``I just go out and play. You can't worry about that other stuff. I'm not thinking about this many home runs and this many runs. I'm just taking it step by step.''

 

Cabrera also is the fifth-youngest player to drive in 100 runs in a season, and almost lost in the shuffle is the fact he led all National League outfielders in RBI and was third in the league in assists despite having never played the position for a full season before last summer.

 

''I'm not going to put pressure on myself,'' he adds. ``I'm going to play 100 percent and I'm not going to worry about if people are thinking I've got to hit 30 or 33 [homers]. I just go out and play.''

 

That figures to be enough for Cabrera, who will come to spring training minus the baby fat he carried through much of the past two seasons. Instead, a strict regimen of weight training has left him with the neck and biceps of a middle linebacker.

 

But will that be enough to get him through the longest year of his short career? After playing 160 games for the first time last season, Cabrera left almost immediately for a two-week, eight-game tour of Japan and followed that with 35 games in Venezuela. Including last year's spring training, that means he has played more than 220 games in 11 months, with only a three-week break before reporting to the Marlins camp this spring.

 

''That's too much,'' one teammate says.

 

Concern about fatigue is one reason the Marlins have tried to dissuade Cabrera from playing at home the past two winters, though after just 10 minutes in Maracay it's clear Cabrera really has no choice.

 

''They want to see me play because they haven't seen me for a long time,'' he says of the fans. ``When I come to Venezuela, the fans always support me. And, thank God I've done well for the fans.''

 

The Phillies' Abreu, who paid for a $180,000 insurance policy against injury in order to play for Caracas this winter, says U.S. teams have trouble understanding that Venezuelan players such as Cabrera feel an obligation to take part in the winter league, which is why two-thirds of the country's 66 big-leaguers -- the highest percentage among the four Caribbean nations with winter leagues -- did just that this year.

 

For his part, Cabrera dismisses any criticism of his schedule with a flex of newly bulging biceps.

 

''I feel strong,'' he says. ``I'm ready. I think my mind is ready for spring training and to have a better year than we had last year, to get back to the playoffs.''

 

`REAL TALENT'

 

The people who have watched him closest this winter won't bet against that.

 

''I really don't see any weakness. He's got real talent,'' says Hern?ndez, the Aragua coach. ``He's the best player in Venezuela.''

 

Adds Minnesota pitcher Johan Santana, the American League Cy Young Award winner who has played with and against Cabrera and this winter watched him on TV from his home in Tovar, high in the Venezuelan Andes: ``That guy is unbelievable. I don't know how good he's going to be.''

 

The last word, however, should go to Telles, one of the legions of Cabrera's newfound fans in Venezuela. For Game 3 of the Venezuelan finals at Caracas' sold-out University Stadium, he pulled on an red-billed Aragua cap and a dark blue Cabrera jersey and defiantly marched through some of the 22,000 Leones fans to his seat in the front row on the aisle. He couldn't have been braver if he had walked through Fenway Park in a Yankees jersey.

 

Seeing the game, however, was secondary to seeing Cabrera.

 

''He's from another planet,'' Telles gushed. ``He's going to be the best player of all time. He's going to be better than Barry Bonds.''

 

 

This is a great story on Cabrera!

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He was a great player ever since he was little.

 

He's very proud to be Venezuelan also. He has to be one of the best Venezuelan players of All-Time.

 

Here's a great quote:

 

''He's from another planet,'' Telles gushed. ``He's going to be the best player of all time. He's going to be better than Barry Bonds.''

 

:thumbup

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