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It's a family affair


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A bit lengthy, but well worth the time....


It's a family affair

Miguel Cabrera's parents taught him the value of hard work ? and fun ? on the field.



Palm Beach Post Staff Writer


Monday, July 11, 2005


MIAMI GARDENS ? How breezily Miguel Cabrera sits there in the Marlins' dugout, his left arm around former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Davey Concepci?n, arguing about dominoes.


Is Cabrera not the least bit intimidated at being so intimate with a man who is a national treasure in their home country of Venezuela?


Maybe Cabrera is so at ease because they have known each other since Miguel was 10 and playing for Concepci?n on a national youth all-star team. Maybe it's because Concepci?n so regularly plays dominoes with Miguel's father, once a superb Venezuelan ballplayer himself.


Or maybe it's because it's not such a stretch to imagine Cabrera in the company of a legend.


After all, since he signed with the Marlins in 1998 at age 16, Cabrera has made it to the big leagues, helped Florida win a World Series in 2003 and been named to the All-Star team in each of his two full seasons.


Is this the same 22-year-old who remains a kid, jokingly flirting with the mothers of teammates Juan Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez and Luis Castillo, saying that he'll be their beefcake boyfriend? Who keeps a skull-topped walking stick in his locker to "distract the bad thoughts?"


Yes, and a kid who, when he visits his family in Maracay, Venezuela, in the off-season, still wrestles and giggles with his 18-year-old sister so loudly that their squeals can be heard beyond the apartment door.


"I tell him he's mature when he plays baseball," his mother, Gregoria, said during a phone interview from Maracay, "but his personality is that of a 14-year-old. Miguelito, he's a boy."


Don't underestimate his serious side on the field. He is third in the National League in hitting, one of the Marlins' four All-Stars in Detroit this week, the man who protects Carlos Delgado in the batting order.


He can be serious at home, too. He married his teenage crush, Rosangel, at 20; they are expecting their first child in August. The man with the baby face bends to one knee to speak to his wife's belly, hoping that their unborn daughter will come to know his voice.


"I still feel like that 16-year-old kid whose parents took him to his signing and drove him to practice," Cabrera said. "It's happened so quickly. My life has changed completely."


A natural athlete


Miguel Cabrera Sr. makes a mental note every time his son homers for the first time against a notable pitcher.


During the 2003 World Series, it was future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens, one pitch after Clemens threw at his head. Last week, it was Greg Maddux, revered as "the doctor of pitching" in Venezuela.




Each dinger hammers home the reality that his son is a major-leaguer. Dad still gets goose bumps.


"I never imagined I'd be standing in a big-league clubhouse," the elder Cabrera said, standing by his son's locker last week.


It should not be a complete surprise, because Miguel was always a natural athlete. He studied the martial arts and excelled in karate (reaching orange belt) but grew tired of fighting others. Too kind-hearted, his mother said.


Miguel loved volleyball. He competed without his father's knowledge because Miguel Sr. feared he would be injured. When the boy's team was photographed for a newspaper, Miguel hid behind a teammate.


His volleyball coach pleaded with his mother to let him go to Caracas to try out for the national team. The coach thought Miguel also could play professionally in Europe.


His baseball bloodlines, though, ran far too deep.


Miguel Sr. played alongside Concepci?n in Venezuela, along with three of Gregoria's four brothers. Miguel Sr., once a third baseman, still plays the infield and pitches in an over-40 league. Gregoria was a softball player who toured the world, playing international events.


One of Gregoria's brothers, David Torres, reached Class AA with St. Louis. A Maracay baseball field is named after him ? the rock-strewn field where Cabrera had his first tryout with the Marlins at 15. There was no doubt about his talent as soon as he hopped the fence with his schoolbooks in hand.


"It's easy to explain and difficult for people to understand: He's a natural," Marlins special assistant Tony Perez said. "He was born to play this game."


Because his father owned and toiled in a body shop, it was Gregoria who took her son to his practices until he was 14. She warmed him up before games and even managed one of his teams when he was 7.


A year before Miguel signed with the Marlins, his father sold the business to devote his time to training his son. He woke up early and hit grounders to his son at shortstop ? Miguel's original position ? for much of the day. A cousin stood at second to help simulate double plays, and his mother took his throws at first.


His father is a baseball junkie who spent 30 days at spring training this year, riding to the ballpark with his son at 7:30 a.m. and coming home with him at 5 p.m. He sat in the stands, wearing his Marlins cap and long shorts and videotaped practice. Dolphins Stadium is the only South Florida attraction that interests him. Until last year, he hadn't even seen Miami Beach. Even then, he only drove by.


"What better distraction in the world is there than this?" he said, sitting in the Marlins' dugout, watching big-leaguers warm up.


His son took his lessons seriously. Be mature, he was taught. Don't argue balls and strikes with the ump. Have fun, play alegre, his mother taught him, but don't let emotions steer you.


"You're not going to gain anything by throwing your helmet or bat," Gregoria said.


That tutelage has made Cabrera, now a left fielder, a discriminating hitter, with the patience of a veteran. He rarely swings at bad pitches and always listens to mentors who offer advice.


"Maybe that's why he's so special," Delgado said. "For other 22-year-olds, the game is flying by them."


Family lives the dream


"When are you coming?" Miguel asks his father over the phone.


There is a hint of sadness in his words. Miguel Sr. knows when it's time to visit his son. He can hear it in his voice, see it in his body language on television.


"When he looks a little down, I know he misses us," Miguel Sr. said.


He speaks to his parents every two or three days ? "Three days feels like three months," the younger Cabrera said ? and they haven't yet gone a whole week without speaking.


His parents visit two or three times during the season for weeks at a time. His father is staying through next week; his mother and sister, who were to arrive Saturday, will stay until after Rosangel gives birth. His sister, Ruth, is bringing the book of baby names.


If the Marlins reach the post-season, you can bet they'll be back.


"They're living the dream with me," Miguel said.


The Marlins have long understood his family's influence on Cabrera. They used it to good advantage when he was playing Class A ball in Jupiter.


The manager at the time, Luis Dorante, knew Cabrera was a phenomenal talent, but he lacked the intensity needed to progress. Dorante, now the Marlins' bullpen coach, had a serious conversation with Cabrera about how hard work would propel him quickly to the majors.


Dorante, smiling at the memory, said he might have mentioned something about it to Cabrera's father.


"His father got on him, and he got it," Dorante said. "It wasn't something that went in one ear and out the other. Hearing he was close, that was his push."


Even today, if he goes 0-for-4, his father will have something to say about it. His mother leaves messages ? with batting tips ? on his answering machine. Even Rosangel is a critic.


"Every time I strike out, my wife reminds me about it," Cabrera said, smiling. "I only hear what I did wrong from them. You learn more from what goes wrong. I know they're doing it for my betterment."


For all of their work, the Cabreras are treated like the first family of Maracay. It's a source of pride that Miguel can't dine out there without at least a half-dozen autograph requests. Once, just as he was about to put his fork into his food, a local who had known the family for years asked for an autograph.


"Se?ora, can't you let me take just one bite?" he joked.


"Ah, quien te mand? a ser un estrella? Who told you to go ahead and become a star?" she retorted wryly.


He smiled and signed.


His understanding is rewarded with the loyalty of the Venezuelan fans. It is why he is obligated to play in Venezuela's winter league, Concepci?n explained. And not just because his team, the Aragua Tigres, has won the championship the past two years.


"People love him," Concepci?n said. "They feel like a part of him. They want to watch him play. He can't let those fans down."


Concepci?n stays seated as Miguel jumps up from the bench in the Marlins dugout to take batting practice. Concepci?n contemplates the big-leaguer he coached on dusty fields as a boy.


He stares out at the batting cage and watches the man-child swing for the fences. Then, he speaks: "I feel like I'm still playing through him."



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