This week’s news that baseball megastar Miguel Cabrera signed a record $292 million contract extension with the Detroit Tigers sent me on a treasure hunt of sorts.
It wasn’t the kind of treasure any of Cabrera’s millions could buy (though I certainly wouldn’t mind that), but just an old copy of the Rocky Mount (N.C.) Telegram stuck between the fading stacks of newspapers in my garage. After about 20 minutes of sifting through old stories about high school sports and college basketball, I found it: Cabrera waiting for the call from June 4, 2003.
The Telegram was my first full-time newspaper job, and I viewed living in rural eastern North Carolina as a training ground for what I hoped would be my eventual gig as a Major League Baseball writer. I was all about baseball at the time (I’d just finished a spring training internship for the Philadelphia Phillies) and I dreamed of traveling the country covering ballgames.
So the Double-A Carolina Mudcats, located in nearby Zebulon, seemed like a really huge deal to my 22-year-old self. It certainly didn’t hurt knowing the Mudcats were full of big-time Florida Marlins prospects in 2003 — and I was covering them about once a week.
Cabrera, an unbelievably talented 20-year-old, was the team’s top prospect along with pitcher Dontrelle Willis. Cabrera had already been labeled as a future star, and there was talk the Marlins might call him straight up from Double-A to the big leagues later that year.
Since Cabrera was starting to get attention, the team scheduled a media event at the North Raleigh Hilton’s Skybox Grill. I was dying to go, so I made a deal with sports editor Ted Newman: Let me go talk to Cabrera and I’d promise to get back to Rocky Mount in time to cover the city’s 8-year-old girls softball championship game that night.
Ted gave me the green light, so I drove to Raleigh (about an hour away) and waited my turn to sit with Cabrera on bar stools at a high-top table.
I don’t remember that much about the interview, other than it mostly sucked. Cabrera spoke broken English and I asked him broken questions. He brought his then-girlfriend Rosangel with him (they later married) but she didn’t speak much English, either.
The result was a ho-hum article about a future star who said he was “very excited” about the opportunity to play in the big leagues someday (breaking news!) and said it would be “the best day in my life” when it happened.
It wasn’t very good, but the Cabrera interview was still better than one I did for our big sports story of the day. An 8-year-old girl ran away from me crying when I tried to interview her after the softball championship game, so I settled for interviewing the coaches instead.
Anyway, I would have never guessed that just two weeks later, Cabrera would be called up to the Marlins. The game where he made his MLB debut was somehow on TV, and we all watched in the newsroom that night while we put out the paper.
It was surreal for me, almost magical. I wasn’t experienced enough at the time to wrap my head around suddenly seeing someone on TV who had just been playing in front of a few hundred fans at a middle-of-nowhere ballpark.
And then this happened:
Yes, Cabrera had arrived. Baseball fans might already know the rest of story. Cabrera and the Marlins went on to beat the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs (the Bartman game!), then toppled the New York Yankees to win the World Series.
I figured I’d interview Cabrera again someday if I made it to the big leagues myself. But instead, I discovered NASCAR, became a racing writer and ultimately lost interest in baseball altogether.
Somehow, that change of plans has turned old articles like the Cabrera one into personal treasures. It might be just an average story on a piece of newsprint to anyone else, but it’s a souvenir from a past life to me.