What Miguel Cabrera didn't say
If not to the media, Tigers star must at least admit his alcohol problem to himself
LAKELAND, Fla. -- A veteran player who is very friendly with Miguel Cabrera approached me this week to tell me he was worried, worried about his friend Miguel.
"Miguel needs to say the word," the friend said. "He needs to say he's an alcoholic. You can't get better until you admit you have a problem. He needs to admit he's an alcoholic."
We all should understand that it's easier to think those thoughts and utter those words when you're talking about someone else. And this is Miguel Cabrera's life, not ours.
So we shouldn't presume to judge a man, at a time such as this, by what he does or doesn't say -- especially when there are language barriers involved and uncomfortable questions being asked.
Nevertheless, on the day he rejoined the Detroit Tigers, on a Thursday afternoon he should never forget, Miguel Cabrera couldn't say That Word.
Not "alcoholic." Not "addiction." Not any variation in the dictionary. Couldn't bring himself to say it.
So it was hard to miss the fact that Major League Baseball did use one of those words -- "addiction," to be exact -- in its news release, in a quote from Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations.
And just this past Saturday, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski referred to "alcoholism" and "addiction" numerous times on the day he announced that Cabrera wouldn't be arriving at spring training on time, following an arrest last week on suspicion of driving under the influence.
But when Cabrera was asked Thursday, during a session with reporters, whether he now is ready to say he has an addiction to alcohol, here is how he answered, in the words of his translator, Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila:
"He says that he's not a doctor, that he's not really able to tell you whether he is or not," Avila said. "What he says is that the doctors of Major League Baseball that examined him, that have talked to him, that have evaluated him -- those are the ones that would know best how to answer that."
Again, it should never be our intention to pick apart this man's words, particularly only a couple of sentences uttered on the difficult day on which the Tigers star agreed to enter what Manfred described as "a multifaceted, professionally administered program" to address the "misuse of alcohol."
There was no doubt Cabrera was nervous. Nobody would dispute that he was genuinely repentant. And we understand that he's far more comfortable answering questions about how it is he can launch opposite-field home runs into distant upper decks than he is answering pointed questions about addiction.
Nevertheless, this is an important point. Does it matter whether Miguel Cabrera can say the word "addiction" in a nationally televised news conference? Not really. But what does matter -- what's critical here, in fact -- is whether he can admit to himself that he has an addiction problem serious enough to jeopardize his otherwise great career.
It's a topic worthy of reflection, if only because that admission was the only thing missing all of last season, when Cabrera was rebounding from his first public alcohol-related nightmare to become one of baseball's most uplifting stories.
From that dark day in October 2009, when his general manager had to climb out of bed and retrieve him from a jail cell, until the sad news last week that police had found Cabrera on the side of a road in a broken-down 2005 Range Rover, a bottle of scotch on the front seat, this was a man who seemed to be doing nearly everything right.
And yet, even last year, Cabrera never could bring himself to say he was an alcoholic. In retrospect, maybe that was a worrisome signal.
After all, what are the first words spoken by anyone who attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting? You don't need to be a counselor to know them well: "My name is [fill in the blanks]. And I'm an alcoholic."
So at some point, if this man doesn't find a way to force those words out of his mouth, it's fair to wonder whether he has truly conquered his demons. Isn't it?
He doesn't have to say those words in public. He certainly doesn't have to say them to anyone with a pen, a pad, a recorder or a camera in hand. But somewhere along the line, in a setting that works for him, he needs to admit what it is that has gotten him to this point. Doesn't he?
Certainly, there were signs Thursday that that process had at least begun. Manfred was quoted in his statement as saying that Cabrera "understands the importance" of the program he has been placed in and that he "is fully committed to the program."
And after Cabrera had left the makeshift podium on the warning track at Joker Marchant Stadium, Dombrowski told reporters his first baseman was "sincere" and that he'd "acknowledged his problem."
But when the GM was asked how Cabrera had "acknowledged" that problem, Dombrowski said: "We're dealing with a very complicated situation, and one that probably doctors can better define than either Miguel or myself."
That's a point we all undoubtedly can agree on. Nevertheless, Dombrowski went on, "I think he acknowledges he has a problem. He acknowledges he's willing to fix it. He has a problem. And he's committed to doing that. How you want to term that, that's probably better phrased by doctors. And it probably has to be doctors that have knowledge of the particular situation. And you're probably not going to get them to comment on it, because that's very confidential.
He's a quality person. He has a good heart. He's very supportive of his teammates. He's great with kids. He loves his family. But of course, when something like this happens, it's under the spotlight. Hopefully, we can put these types of situations behind him, and all those other things will shine forward.” -- Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski
"But he acknowledges he has a problem," Dombrowski continued. "But if you're looking for an exact description, I think he feels more comfortable having somebody else do that."
In truth, though, it isn't really an exact description that any of us should be looking for. What we're looking for is evidence that a special player, with a chance to teach an inspirational lesson, has learned that lesson for himself.
Asked Thursday what lesson he had gleaned from this episode, Cabrera said, through Avila, that he had "learned a lot of lessons in life, and this was a tough one." He said he hopes this one would help him "become a better person."
Well, he isn't the only one.
When something bad happens in life, we always have the ability to turn it into something good. And for Miguel Cabrera, that has to happen. And this is his opportunity to make it happen.
Asked whether this was the sort of event that could change Cabrera's life in some meaningful way, Dombrowski replied: "I think so. And I hope so."
"He's a quality person," Dombrowski said. "He has a good heart. He's very supportive of his teammates. He's great with kids. He loves his family. And so there are so many good things. But of course, when something like this happens, it's under the spotlight. And that's understandable. I don't question that. But I think it's a situation where hopefully, we can put these types of situations behind him, and all those other things will shine forward."
And that, of course, is everyone's hope. Miguel Cabrera is too good a player, too kindhearted a man, and too blessed with the ability to succeed and inspire to allow those evil spirits within the bottle to overwhelm him.
So like his friend, we just want something positive to come of this. And for that to happen, he doesn't have to say That Word as the cameras roll and the microphones point.
He just needs to say it to himself, start moving forward and, with any luck, never look back.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books, and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.