Friday, January 22, 2010

Never Too Early to Hope Cabrera Gets His Life Together

The hard-living, hard-drinking first baseman was a star in Detroit. He thrilled the denizens with monster home runs, master glove work, and always gave reporters a dandy for the papers the next day. He might have been, after Al Kaline---or even before him---the most popular Tiger in town, were you to take a random straw vote.

Everyone who played with Norm Cash knew he was a drinker---a heavy drinker. His managers knew it, the press knew it. But it was all a nice family secret. Of course, it was easier to keep such a secret in those days, when only a handful of beat writers and radio and TV people ran with the team.

The truth came out years later, and by that time Stormin' Norman was off to other pursuits. Television beckoned for a while, until a mild stroke affected his ability to speak. Cash's Texas drawl was hard enough to decipher before the stroke.

Cash's drinking was winked at, and certainly never tackled with any seriousness. I have no way of proving it, but from what I know---and I've been following Detroit sports for 40 years---Norm Cash never set foot in a rehab center.

Then he fell off a dock up north---drunk, they say---and hit his head and was knocked cold, in shallow water. That's where they found his body, on that gray October day in 1986.

Cash was 51 when he died, after a night of drinking at his cottage near Beaver Island.

I wept when Cash was cut by the Tigers the day after my birthday in August 1974. He was my favorite Tiger, by far. Even to an 11-year-old, his gregarious personality had real appeal.

Jim Northrup once told me of his indignation at how the Tigers released his teammate.

"I heard it on the radio," Northrup said. "And I think Norm may have, too. Anyway, Norm called (GM Jim) Campbell and Campbell told him not to come to the ballpark, basically."

Northrup let his displeasure be known, and whether by coincidence or not, Northrup himself was excised---sold to the Montreal Expos the next day.

Cash was hitting in the .220s with seven homers in about 140 at-bats when the Tigers let him go after 15 seasons.

Admittedly, it doesn't take much to get me to think of Norm Cash, perhaps my most favorite of all the Tigers, but it's really not hard for me to think of him now, in the wake of Miguel Cabrera's public cleansing with the press yesterday at Comerica Park.

I would think that even Miggy's detractors---and I've been one---are pulling for him in his struggle with alcohol consumption, which he pretty much admitted to fighting yesterday.

The Free Press' Michael Rosenberg, a wonderfully talented writer with a good feel for the human condition, wrote a terrific piece this morning about the "new" Cabrera.

"I think that's going to be positive for my life, for my family," Rosenberg quoted Cabrera, in describing the humiliation of his late-season drinking/domestic disturbance incident. "I feel good. I feel great."

Rosenberg included this:

Cabrera certainly wouldn't be the first player whose hangovers kept him from hitting hanging curveballs. There is a reason that when former Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch wrote a book about his alcoholism, he called it "Five O'Clock Comes Early." Welch, a Detroit native, drank so much, so late into the night, that late afternoon arrived before he was ready for it.

Nor was Welch the first player, obviously, who drank his baseball troubles away. And not even Norm Cash was a pioneer in that regard, either.

All I know is, despite the stroke, Cash died far too young. Because of drinking, indirectly, and never having slayed that dragon.

Miguel Cabrera is 26 years old.

Think about that for a moment.


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