National / Sports / March 2, 2011

Detroit shamefully turns a blind eye to star’s alcoholism

In the spring of 1994, New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle wrote a stirring piece about his life and career for “Sports Illustrated.”

Mantle didn’t talk about his three Most Valuable Player awards, his 536 career home runs or his 1956 American League Triple Crown. Instead, Mantle decided to come clean and address his legendary alcohol problems.

When Mantle reached the Major Leagues, he was just 19 years old. After a few seasons, he was a full-fledged alcoholic, staying out until one or two in the morning every night.

Miguel Cabrera made his Major League debut with the Florida Marlins in 2003. He had just turned twenty. In seven full seasons, Cabrera has established himself as one of the most talented hitters of his generation.

And, like Mantle, Cabrera has shown a spectacular interest in alcohol. No one is sure when Cabrera, now a member of the Detroit Tigers, started hitting the sauce at a heavy rate—Mantle cites his father’s death as the tipping point—but everyone knows when his first serious incident occurred.

It was October 2009, in the midst of a heated pennant race with the Minnesota Twins, and, after an 8-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox, Cabrera went out. He came home at 6 a.m. The police were called soon after for a domestic violence complaint. Cabrera’s blood alcohol level was .26.

At 7:30 a.m., Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski picked Cabrera up from the police station. Cabrera played that night, going 0-4 in another loss to the White Sox. Three days later, the Tigers lost a one-game playoff against the Twins and were knocked from playoff contention.

After the season, Cabrera spent three months in treatment for his alcohol issues. The Tigers thought the problem was solved.

In 2010, Cabrera’s problems were not a concern. He had the best season of his career, and many figured that, as a young man, he had outgrown these issues. (Of course, no one knows if Cabrera was getting ripped every night. A player’s performance—as evidenced by Mantle’s famous “get off the floor at 11 a.m. and go 2-3 in a game at noon” attitude—is not always affected by substance abuse.)

Earlier this month, however, Cabrera crossed the line again. On February 16, cops noticed a car on the side of the road with smoke coming from under the hood. When police officers approached, they saw the Tigers’ star swigging expensive scotch with little care or concern.

From there, the situation devolved pretty rapidly. A second officer arrived. Cabrera resisted arrest—running out in the road, waving his hands, repeatedly telling the cops “F-ck you!” and asking them, “Do you know who I am?” A knee to his thigh brought Cabrera down, allowing for the cops to take him into custody.

In the aftermath many expected the Tigers to order Cabrera to rehabilitation. Instead, Detroit (and Major League Baseball) thought that outpatient treatment would give Cabrera an opportunity to clean himself up. Cabrera rejoined the team soon after.

Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland has been barraged by questions in the weeks since. But, instead of bravely addressing the possibility that Cabrera just might have a serious problem, Leyland has insisted the following: 1. Cabrera will not be a distraction. 2. Cabrera is “probably going to have the biggest year of his life.” 3. Miguel Cabrera is—wait for it, spring training idiom coming—“in the best shape of his life.”

This quote, in particular, captures Leyland’s laissez-faire attitude. “It might make some dramatic reading material,” Leyland said. “It’s not going to do sh-t. Believe me. Nothing.”

Well, whatever you say, Jim.

Alcohol didn’t have much of an effect on Mantle’s prime years. Though he stopped playing at 36—and most insist this was an early end to his sterling career—Mantle played over seventeen seasons in the league.

But drinking ruined Mantle’s post-playing life. In order to handle being away from the game, and to deal with the anxiety of public appearances and autograph sessions—customary events for retired legends—Mantle drank at a staggering rate. He would, most mornings, head into his kitchen and put crème, Kahlua and brandy into a blender with some ice. This was breakfast.

After a light lunch, maybe some golf, a meeting or two with business contacts, Mantle would polish down, by his count, three or four bottles of wine. White wine, red wine, any wine.

In January 1994, Mantle checked himself into Betty Ford. It was too late. His liver gave out in 1995, and he died in August of that year.

Mantle’s sons also suffered from alcoholism—as did his wife. Mantle’s son, Billy, died of heart problems at 36. Mickey Jr. died of liver cancer at 47.

It seems the Tigers’ primary concern is baseball. That is their craft—after all, they are a baseball organization. I guess we shouldn’t expect them to give two shits one way or the other so long as Cabrera isn’t too drunk to lace his spikes. But, by allowing Cabrera to continue his downward spiral and passing up ample opportunities to intervene, they are enabling his problem.

If Miguel commits another alcohol-related crime, he can expect his organization to have his back. And I guess that must be a nice feeling. One would hope, however, that Cabrera is better for it; that he really isn’t an alcoholic—as he insists.

His numbers won’t tell the story. He may win the triple crown this season. And his liver might give out at the age of 64. And, like Mantle, it might take that long to realize the severity of his problems.

Kevin Morris

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