Miguel Cabrera has a friend and mentor in another Tigers great: Willie Horton
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DETROIT - In a baseball clubhouse, the locker cubicle operates like a work desk does in the outside world. Players personalize their workspace with family photos, their children's artwork, religious symbols and posters from their favorite bands.
Miguel Cabrera's locker has none of that.
Instead, the best hitter baseball has seen in a generation has taped a single baseball card to the front of his cubicle. It's an autographed card of Tigers outfielder Willie Horton, circa 1968.
Every spring since Cabrera arrived in Detroit in 2008, Horton has given him a card. And this year, Cabrera has given it a place of honor in his locker.
"He's like my grandpa,'' Cabrera said of the former All-Star. "From the first day I came here, he's always been there for me.''
It's been 45 years since Horton helped lead the Tigers to a World Series title in 1968, hitting a career-high 36 home runs. Detroit, like America, was a different place then. And on the surface, it's hard to believe that a 30-year-old multimillionaire from Venezuela could have much in common with a 70-year-old African-American who broke into the big leagues in 1963, the year before the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Horton, however, is a big name in Venezuela, having coached and played there in the late 1970s. After Cabrera was traded from the Marlins to Detroit in December 2007, the two immediately hit it off.
"I am so proud of him, like he's a son,'' said Horton, who works for the Tigers as a special assistant to the general manager. "You really can't say how far this young man is going to go or how many records are going to fall. He's that good.''
Some of those records could be set this year. He just became the first player in major-league history to have 30 homers and 90 RBIs at the All-Star break.
At the unofficial halfway point of the season, last year's American League MVP ranks first in batting average (.366), second in home runs (30) and first in runs batted in (94). Last season, he led the league in all three categories (.330, 44, 139), becoming baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Should he find a way to catch Baltimore's Chris Davis, who leads the league with 35 homers, Cabrera could become the first player to win back-to-back Triple Crowns.
"He's just one of those special treats for a manager that comes around once every 15, 20 years,'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He's a great talent and a thrill to watch.''
Cabrera has been heralded as a great talent ever since he burst upon the scene as a 20-year-old slugging prodigy with the Marlins, hitting a home run in his first major- league game. Yet as recently as two years ago, there still was some question as to whether he would be able to make the most of that talent.
Cabrera wrestled publicly with a drinking problem, which led to police being called to his Michigan home because of a dispute with his wife in 2009 and to his arrest for drunken driving in Florida in 2011.
Cabrera does not talk about his drinking. It has been reported that he did not take part in the Tigers' 2012 division-clinching celebration in the clubhouse because he wanted to stay away from the festivities, even though the celebratory champagne was nonalcoholic.
Cabrera has a tight-knit support system in Detroit that includes assistant general manager Al Avila, the scout who signed him for the Marlins in 1999, and Horton, who has become close to Cabrera's mother and father.
"Outside of the ballpark, he had a little problem, and I was there for him,'' Horton said. "I went through things, too, as a player. I had a hard time understanding what the racial problem in baseball was all about, why I had to walk to the ballpark in spring training because no one would pick me up. I had people who helped me get through that. I've tried to be there for him.
"You've got to have people around you that you can have faith in. That's what life and baseball is all about.''
Though they grew up in different eras and on different continents, Horton believes he and Cabrera had similar upbringings and felt similar pressures to succeed.
Before leaving home at 19, Cabrera lived in a house with a dirt floor next to a baseball field. Horton, the youngest of 21 children, was raised in the projects of Detroit. Horton believes that Cabrera and many of the Latin players today feel pressure to succeed for their country just as he felt the pressure to succeed for his race.
Horton, who ranks fourth on the Tigers' home run list with 262 in 15 seasons, has tried to help Cabrera at the plate, too. He always sits in the same seat when he's at the park and has a set of hand signals he uses to convey different tendencies he's seen in opposing pitchers.
"When he sees something, he comes and tells me,'' Cabrera said. "He always has something to say. Sometimes he tells me to move off the plate. I listen a lot and he tells me different things.''
Cabrera is a player who is not afraid to listen to others, absorbing information and observations. While a great deal of his craftsmanship at the plate can be chalked up to physical talent, he also puts in a great deal of work. Cabrera not only studies a pitcher's hitting charts before each game but gets to know umpires and how their strike zones jibe with different pitchers and batters.
"He takes all his information and then puts it together in his own little world,'' Horton said. "That's what makes him the hitter that he is.''
Horton recently underwent a back operation that has kept him from getting to the ballpark as much as he would like to this year. He won't be in New York this week to watch Cabrera and his fellow Tigers compete in the All-Star Game. But he will be watching him on television.
"It's the young people like him that keep me going," Horton said. "I try to be there for all of them, but he is something special."