Miguel Cabrera turned 18 about two weeks into his 2001 stint as a Kane County Cougar.
He looked much thinner – almost wispy – and played a different position than he does for the Detroit Tigers now.
With the way Cougars brass updated Cabrera’s bid for baseball history this season, you’d have thought “Miggy” still was playing shortstop in the Midwest League, not third base for the American League Central Division champs.
When Cabrera completed the major leagues’ first Triple Crown since 1967 on Wednesday, scores of ‘01 Cougars employees happily laid indirect claim. They might only have seen snippets of his .330/44 home run/139 RBI season, but each found that didn’t matter when it came to putting tabs on pride.
“He was just one of those ones that you knew once he got there, he had the potential to do something like this,” former Cougars athletic trainer Thomas Pribyl said. “We talked about him and that group being a special group from the time they arrived in Kane County.”
Fellow perennial All-Star Adrian Gonzalez, now a first baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers, flanked Cabrera in the 2001 lineup, helping the then-Florida Marlins affiliate Cougars to the 2001 MWL title.
Cabrera batted .268 with seven home runs and 66 RBIs in 110 games that season. His four triples matched Scott Podsednik’s 1997 total over 135 games, an interesting figure to fathom given Cabrera’s present build of 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds.
“You knew his wiry frame wasn’t going to stay like it was back then,” Pribyl said. “Everybody gets older and you put on some pounds and you get access to some better food in the major leagues compared to the minors when you’re tying to pinch pennies. He’s filled out, he’s matured and his numbers and everything have been pretty much consistent the whole time.”
Cabrera smacked just 28 home runs in 368 minor league games, but has morphed into one of baseball’s premier power hitters with the Marlins (2003-07) and Tigers (2008-present).
He has collected at least 26 home runs and 103 RBIs in each of his nine full seasons since 2004, all while playing no fewer than 157 games.
Russ Morman, who managed the Cougars in 2001 and recently finished his third season as hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A affiliate in Fresno, Calif., aided Cabrera’s ascension to the middle of the lineup in mid-May.
“He made an impression upon me and my staff in his ability to handle pressure situations early in the year, so we kind of lobbied with the organization,” Morman said. “The night we moved him from the bottom of the lineup to the three- or four-hole, he had the biggest smile on his face. He responded very well, and you could see right then he was something special.”
Before coming to the Giants, Morman spent much of the 2000s as a hitting coach in the Boston Red Sox organization, first at Double-A Portland, then with Triple-A Pawtucket. Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski, the most recent Triple Crown winner before Cabrera, served the club as a special assistant and often conversed with Morman during spring training.
Morman had played with Yastrzemski’s late son, Mike, and described a “special bond” in those dealings with the elder “Yaz.”
In addition to the buzz around Geneva 11 years in the making, Cabrera’s Triple Crown season also brought a six degrees of separation sense to the Kaneland community.
Former Knights left-hander Casey Crosby made three June starts for the Tigers, going 1-1 with a 9.49 ERA in 12 1/3 innings.
Cabrera went 3 for 12 (.250) with a home run and three RBIs in those games.
• Kevin Druley is a sports writer for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.