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February 21, 2011

The BP Broadside

Miguel Cabrera's Grapes of Folly

by Steven Goldman

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In Roger Ebert’s essay on Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic 1966 film Blow-Up in his book The Great Movies (a version of which can be read here), Ebert dismisses the film’s ambiguous ending, saying that the film is neither about the “swinging London” in which it is set nor the possible murder in which the main character becomes concerned. Rather, he says, the movie is, “A hypnotic conjuring act in which a character is awakened briefly from a deep sleep of bored alienation and then drifts away again.” It is, he says, “simply the observation that we are happy when we are doing what we do well, and unhappy seeking pleasure elsewhere.”

It seems to me that this is a pretty good summation of the professional athlete’s life—a brief awakening, followed a drifting away and an oft-unfulfilled quest for find pleasure elsewhere. Or, as the song from Damn Yankees goes, “A man doesn’t know what he has until he loses it.” Are you listening, Miguel Cabrera?

Perhaps fictional analogies won’t do the trick. Let’s try a real antecedent, Jimmie Foxx. There’s a funny scene in A League of Their Own, the 1992 film about women’s professional baseball during World War II where “Walter Harvey,” a stand-in for Phil Wrigley, lectures ex-player “Jimmy Dugan,” a character inspired by Foxx:

Walter Harvey: You kind of let me down on that San Antonio job.
Jimmy Dugan: I freely admit, sir, I had no right to sell off the team's equipment like that; that won't happen again.
Walter Harvey: Let me be blunt. Are you still a fall-down drunk?
Jimmy Dugan: Well, that is blunt. Ahem. No sir, I've, uh, quit drinking.
Walter Harvey: You've seen the error of your ways.
Jimmy Dugan: No, I just can't afford it.
Walter Harvey: It's funny to you. Your drinking is funny. You're a young man, Jimmy: you still could be playing, if you just would've laid off the booze.
Jimmy Dugan: Well, it's not exactly like that... I hurt my knee.
Walter Harvey: You fell out of a hotel. That's how you hurt it.
Jimmy Dugan: Well, there was a fire.
Walter Harvey: Which you started, which I had to pay for.
Jimmy Dugan: Well, now, I was going to send you a thank-you card, Mr. Harvey, but I wasn't allowed anything sharp to write with.

All of which is hilarious until you consider that the great Double X was through as a big-league regular at 33, and would have been through period if not for a wartime encore. Yes, he hit .325 with 534 home runs career, but he also lost a third of his value after his age-31 season and all of it shortly thereafter. He died, miserable, at 59. In John Bennett’s excellent short biography for SABR, the question of when and why Foxx starting drinking is kicked around quite a bit—was it the chronic pain from a devastating 1934 beaning that drove him to it? His daughter dismissed that explanation: “Daughter Nanci believes his drinking problems had a lot to do with the emptiness he felt in adjusting to normalcy once his playing days had ended.”

See also: King Kelly, dead of pneumonia at 36. See also: Bugs Raymond, dying in a cheap hotel room with his head stove in. See also: Shufflin’ Phil Douglas, banned from baseball after he offered to throw a game while half drunk and half blitzed on sedatives administered to help him dry out, tearfully begging Judge Landis: “I ain’t got no other way to make a living.” See also: Mickey Mantle. See also: every athletic career that came to a premature end, and some that didn’t—it was just time, no matter how resistant the player was to the passing of his skills. As Bill James wrote of one aging but persistent pitcher, “Keep pitching, Goose. You’re going to be retired a long time.”

Who, so gifted an athlete—and Miguel Cabrera is certainly that—would do things that would hasten forth the inevitable end, sending themselves hurtling pell-mell towards the fate that awaited Mantle? “Well, hold on,” you might say. “Alcoholism is a disease. Addiction has both a psychological and biological component.” This is true. Yet, unlike most other diseases, this one can be responsive to therapy and the exertion of human willpower. No 12-step program will cure congestive heart failure or lung cancer, but it just might allow a fellow to lick a drinking problem.

Of course, a problem drinker has to want to get on the wagon. Listening to sports radio last week, I heard several callers question why the Tigers had not assigned Cabrera a handler or babysitter—“keepers” is what they called them in baseball’s rowdy early days—a sober hand who could steer the player safely from ballpark to hotel with nary a saloon stop in between. The problem is, it’s not a new idea and it generally didn’t work.

The Giants tried it with the aforementioned Phil Douglas, a quality pitcher on two pennant-winning teams they would have very much liked to keep dry and focused. His last keeper was a future Hall of Famer, the former left fielder Jesse Burkett. Burkett, nicknamed “The Crab” for his less-than-cheerful disposition, and Douglas made quite the odd couple. “They probably drunk more ice-cream sodas together than any two grown men in history, before Doug got away on his last binge,” a former teammate recalled to John Lardner.

Yet, get away he did, and he drank himself out of the game, albeit faster than did, say, Rube Waddell or Hack Wilson. Wilson, like Cabrera and Foxx a right-handed power-hitter, is another example of a player who invested more in the bottle than in the maintenance of his baseball career, and spent the rest of his short life regretting it. He also had his share of keepers, concerned friends, solicitous managers, and helpful teammates. It didn’t matter. He stopped being interesting at 32,  was out of the league at 34, and died at 48. Or consider Foxx’s post-career fate, pink-slipped from his last job in baseball, as Gene Mauch’s hitting coach for the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers. As Mauch later recalled (again, see Bennett’s SABR bio), Foxx “was seldom at the park on time to be of help. I idolized the man, and kept him away from scrutiny. At the end of the season, [Red Sox GM Joe] Cronin gave him his money and sent him home—it was so sad.” Baseball is a very forgiving game, but not if you can’t handle yourself.

Now, there is an important caveat here, which is that we don’t know if Cabrera is truly an alcoholic, if he’s a problem drinker or has a drinking problem. These distinctions may be arbitrary at best and false at worst in any case. Given that Cabrera’s DUI arrest in Florida was the second alcohol-related incarceration of his career, following his October, 2009 detention for a domestic dispute, it seems safe to guess that where there’s a smoking SUV, there’s fire. It also seems safe to conclude that if you pick up “a bottle of James Buchanan’s Scotch Whisky” and start drinking from it while the police are interviewing you, you have a drinking problem.

Miguel Cabrera will turn 28 in April. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball, and one of the most feared. Last season, Cabrera just missed tying the AL record for intentional walks, with 32; in the short history of recorded IBBs, only Ted Williams (1957) and John Olerud (1993), each with 33, eclipsed him. Like Foxx and Mantle, he found success in the majors at an early age and could accomplish great things in the game if only he dedicates himself to the preservation of his talent, both mind and body divisions.

None of us are in a hurry to find out what we will be able to do when our skills, should we be so fortunate as to have them, fail us. The athlete confronts that problem sooner and with more finality than the rest of us; we’re talking about people who peak around 27 and might live for another 50 years or more after that. I don’t know why Cabrera started drinking and I don’t know what will make him stop, but the central irony of it all is that whatever pain the drinking dulls, whatever rough spots it greases, all it’s doing is putting him on a collision course with the greatest personal crisis of all: what do you do with the rest of your life? What do you do when you’ve destroyed yourself? There is not enough liquor in the world that a man can get so drunk as to avoid that question.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Character,  Jimmie Foxx

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