With a carefree sense of ease, Miguel Cabrera made hitting excellence look like a breeze

If batting practice were a game of H-O-R-S-E, Miguel Cabrera would have been tough to beat.

When Cabrera was in his prime and I was The Associated Press beat writer for the Detroit Tigers, occasionally I’d look over pregame and see him slugging flyballs to different parts of Comerica Park like he was trying to complete some sort of circuit. To left, left-center, center, right-center … and so on.

I don’t remember every detail, like whether he preferred to do it clockwise or counter-clockwise — or if I ever saw him make it “around the world” with nothing but homers. But the memory stands out because it captures what it was like watching Cabrera back then. Hitting a baseball — widely accepted as one of the hardest tasks in sports — seemed almost too easy for him.

Now the likely Hall of Famer has wrapped up his career. He retires as one of seven players who have reached both 3,000 hits and 500 homers. It’s a group that includes some elite company: Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, Eddie Murray, Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro. At .307, Cabrera has the highest career batting average of the bunch.

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Hitters strike out a lot these days, and baseball has largely decided that’s a worthwhile trade-off for more home runs. Cabrera, however, combined power with consistent contact. In addition to all those homers, he won four batting titles in a five-year span from 2011-15. That’s more than George Brett or Jose Altuve have in their whole careers.

Cabrera hit .310 or higher 11 times in 12 years from 2005-16, and he wasn’t legging out many infield singles. If he was going to produce a high average, it was going to be by hitting the ball hard to all fields with remarkable consistency.

And that, of course, was what led to Cabrera’s most famous accomplishment — his Triple Crown in 2012. It’s unfortunate the moment came amidst a bitter MVP fight, with traditionalists supporting Cabrera and statheads arguing for Mike Trout. No matter where you stood — and I often side with the analytics folks — nobody can deny that Cabrera’s achievement was an incredible rarity.

The following year, for what it’s worth, Cabrera won a more sabermetric Triple Crown when he led the major leagues in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He took home a second straight MVP, and nobody in either league has won it back to back since.

For a while, the blue-collar Motor City was home to perhaps the most glittering roster in the game. Cabrera and Justin Verlander combined for three straight MVPs, and Max Scherzer won a Cy Young Award before leaving for Washington. David Price, a Cy Young winner himself, passed through Detroit briefly. And the inimitable Jim Leyland managed the Tigers until his retirement in 2013.

But championship-quality teams don’t always win championships. Detroit had to settle for a couple pennants and a few ALCS trips under Leyland — and then the sight of Verlander, Scherzer, Rick Porcello, J.D. Martinez and Anibal Sanchez eventually winning the World Series elsewhere.

In that sense, you might feel sorry for Cabrera, who remained in Detroit during the team’s difficult rebuild. Of course, Cabrera beat all those other players to a World Series ring, winning one with Florida as a 20-year-old rookie in 2003.

His future seemed limitless back then, but his career could have taken a decidedly different turn. My first year covering spring training in 2011, I woke up to the news that he’d been arrested, and eventually he pleaded no contest for drunken driving. The Detroit clubhouse was genuinely shaken that day, concerned for a player who didn’t seem to find stardom as easy as he found hitting.

Cabrera was rarely that eager to talk about himself, but the public had plenty of chances to see his playful side on the field. When he chased a foul ball near the fans, there was no telling what goofiness might ensue, and his joyful demeanor was on full display when he’d antagonize Adrián Beltré by touching his head on the bases. (Cabrera may be getting the final laugh: Beltré was the last player he passed on the career hits list.)

Now Cabrera steps away with a resume full of accolades, having been part of some memorable teams in a great baseball city. He played until he was 40.

By almost any standard, he fulfilled all that potential.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB