There is no nickname listed on Miguel Cabrera’s Baseball-Reference page. I consider Baseball-Reference to be the baseball site of record in this day and age, and it has evolved into one of the last word’s on semi-formal cultural markers like nicknames. Cabrera is certainly prominent enough to have a nickname, and that such a good ballplayer wouldn’t acquire even one of note was surprising. Baseball-Reference isn’t even stingy with nicknames. For example, Carl Crawford, who I have never heard referred to by any nickname whatsoever, has been attributed the moniker “The Perfect Storm.” It’s a great nickname, but not hard-earned, and Cabrera deserves at least a similar treatment.
How does one of the game’s greatest hitters lack even a tenuous moniker on the Baseball Encyclopedia of today? Has one of the best hitters in baseball not sparked the meager imagination required for even a pop culture nod? There are three nicknames on the Baseball-Reference page for Albert Pujols: The Machine, Prince Albert, and Phat Albert.
Even before this offseason’s debacle of a DUI arrest, the unstoppable locomotive that was Miguel Cabrera’s career shimmied on the track. It was late in the season, 2009, the Tigers were in a heated playoff race, and Cabrera’s wife called the cops at 6 a.m. to report an incident. Cabrera wasn’t arrested, but the criticism came fast and furious, including questions about his motivation and game preparation. The Tigers would lose their first place position on the last day of the season, to the Twins, primarily because of the team’s inability to hit (though in his defense, Cabrera hit well in the 163rd and final game of the 2009 year for the Tigers). A fulcrum-type player, Cabrera, the superstar, could either stand up or fold the season after such a tumult.
Cabrera stood. After the season, he addressed a pattern of alcohol abuse, and started to see a therapist. As I noted in my earlier post on Cabrera, before the 2010 season, he said he’d be better, all-around. Indications seemed to be that he had kept to his word, and it showed in his 2010 numbers.
He had improved, and if there was a list of players for whom improvement would seem impossible, Cabrera would be on it. In 2010, the 27-year-old had, according to Fangraphs, his best season as a hitter, with his average up from 2009, his power up, his on-base average up.
MLB.com writer Roger Schlueter wrote, “In 2010, Miguel Cabrera hit .328, got on base at a .420 clip (the best in the league), slugged over .600 (.622), had 38 home runs (and a total of 84 extra-base hits), compiled a league-leading 179 OPS+ (the best of his career) and also led the league with 126 RBIs. Cabrera’s 126 RBIs left him tied for seventh-most for any player with at least 30 intentional walks. For most players, a season like this would stand out like a sequoia in the middle of a pygmy forest. But for Cabrera, his 2010 was simply another data point on an extraordinary career arc.”
Cabrera was, and is, the kind of hitter whose offensive influence seems to expand beyond his single spot in the lineup, sailing ahead of his teammates like the flagship of an armada.
The term “nickname” comes from the 15th century, derived from the Old English word eaca, meaning “an increase,” and related to the word eacian, meaning “to increase.” A nickname increases, obviously, the number of names that apply to an individual. But it also adds to the persona, the sort of ether that hangs around a cultural figure.
A nickname is a way for a large group of people to codify their affection for a baseball player. The nickname embodies a player’s character and style, and it becomes a shorthand for the initiated, bringing the fan closer to the player, and fans closer to one another. When Cardinals fans praise The Machine, they honor not only the mechanical precision of the team’s best hitter, but they also honor their commitment to his success, and they use the nickname to signal to others the sort of fan that they are. They enrich themselves and contribute to the collective usage of the baseball player’s persona.
When Miguel Cabrera asked, “Do you know who I am?” he could as easily have asked, “What’s my nickname?”
Outside observers who are not as affected by his daily excellence have often wondered if Cabrera would get too fat, if his defense would hold up, whether he cared enough. He has been so consistently great from so early on that his greatness has become commonplace, allowing room for these minor slights. For an example, see prominent Tigers blogger billfer, who included this footnote on a year end wrap-up of the 2010 Tigers season: “*Note Cabrera would have fit my proprietary [monthly] ‘top performers’ criteria for every month but September, when he was still OPS+ 130, so let’s just save everyone the time on him.”
There was only room in the baseball multiverse for one unflappable demigod.
There was only room in the baseball multiverse for one unflappable demigod, and that was Prince Albert. And for a while, Miguel Cabrera’s booze-related faults illustrated just how stoic and productive Pujols really was, reinforcing the trope that greatness is an endurance sport. Of his faults in the wake of the 2009 scandal, Cabrera said, “Sometimes you feel like your body is kind of lazy.” Lazy! If Prince Albert has ever let the l-word escape his lips, it’d be news.
But the Pujols contract situation has lately tarnished the once-spotless Machine’s chrome fittings. Pujols himself now seems capable of the sort of slick self-evaluation that Cabrera let slip during his arrest, the Cardinal’s contract deadline being a muted version of the Tiger’s impaired braggadocio. A machine is not supposed to question its place in the hierarchy; it is supposed to hit without question. This is the first season that we’re watching Pujols hit as a human being with a few flaws and foibles. It may even be just enough humanizing to jar him from his perch as the unflappable superstar. However far apart they remain, he and Cabrera are closer now than they ever have been.
(Just to be clear, I don’t think that the Pujols contract conversations are particularly compelling or anywhere near the scale of the Cabrera saga, just that the negotiations showed a different catch of light in the Pujols diamond.)
The window for Cabrera to occupy some kind of baseball equality with Pujols may be small, but it’s there right now. Albert is slumping to start off the season (.222/.225/.447 thank you very much), while Miguel Cabrera has of late knocked walk-off hits and been walked in the late innings to avoid giving up a late run, putting up .382/.488/.794 numbers. Early in his first season as a mortal, Pujols is playing poorly. Early in his first season as a question mark, Cabrera has answered with a firm-handed statement: learn who I am.
He may not glow with perfection or righteousness, but he gives us the chance to watch a human story, and he plays out the story that most of us aspire to. It’s a story about exceeding some expectations, even as we fail to meet others, hoping that on any given day the former outweighs the latter.
In The Neverending Story, my second favorite movie as a kid, at the pivotal moment the child empress asks the main character, a bookworm named Bastian, to save her magical world by saying her name out loud. Bastian throws open the windows, face in a lightning storm, and screams her name, which happens to be his late mother’s name, and in so doing he recreates a universe.
In his work on myth, Roland Barthes says that “myth is a type of speech,” defined not by its content–in this case the particulars of the empress/mother’s name–“but by the way in which it is conveyed by a discourse.” The saying.
With every hit, each of which affirms his excellence, Miguel Cabrera says something.