Spring starts without Miguel Cabrera

LAKELAND, Fla. -- His spring training parking pass was still taped to his locker. His uniform still hung on the rack. His name was still etched on the board in the manager's office which tallies up every hitter's spring at-bats.

You could still feel Miguel Cabrera's presence Saturday morning, on the day the Detroit Tigers kicked off spring training, 2011.

But even more powerfully, you could feel his absence.

Spring training started without him Saturday. It will go on without him Sunday and Monday and who knows how long after that.

So as he stared out into the hazy future, about all that general manager Dave Dombrowski could say definitively is that the Tigers hope to "have some type of feel" for Cabrera's next step "by the middle of next week."

But three days after Cabrera's car was discovered parked on the side of a road in Fort Pierce, Fla. -- its radiator smoking, its driver allegedly intoxicated, a bottle of Scotch on the front seat -- there is still much, much more that the Tigers don't know than what they do know.

On Day 1 of spring training (full-squad edition), we should like to be telling baseball tales. But this isn't just a baseball story. Not anymore.

This is a story about a 27-year-old man whose beautiful life has just spun out of control. And even the people around him aren't sure why or what happens next.

But whatever the next step is for Miguel Cabrera, it won't be the cleanup hole on his team's lineup card.

That next step is Major League Baseball's call now. MLB and the players' union have a program in place for players such as Cabrera who have addictions, seem to be on track but then derail, with or without warning.

So Cabrera has to be evaluated early next week by a doctor assigned by the commissioner's office. And until that evaluation is completed, no one knows whether Cabrera is about to head for a rehab facility, for some other sort of treatment or for the welcoming gates of Joker Marchant Stadium.

Whenever Cabrera does walk through the gates of that stadium, however, the people who employ him and the teammates who depend upon him will heave a sigh of relief so large it might blow over a few sign posts back in Ann Arbor.

"When he comes back here, I feel like he'll be better off because we didn't change this team much, except for [adding] Victor [Martinez]," Cabrera's longtime teammate, Brandon Inge, said. "So as a whole, he's got the same support system here that he had last year. I think we were good for him. So coming back here, I have a feeling he'll be coming back to a place that will remind him of how well he did last year."

In this environment, embedded in his baseball cocoon, his friends and teammates trust Cabrera will be fine. They trust that he will be surrounded by so many people who care about him and point him in the right direction that he can still be the great player and great teammate they know him to be.

"During the season, I don't worry as much, because you've practically got somebody there all the time, between players, staff members, people that were with him, family members. His wife was very much involved," Dombrowski said. "He almost had somebody with him all the time. Where I always have more worries is the wintertime."

Yes, it's that wintertime, when players disappear into their own worlds, away from the regimented life and the friendly faces and the never-wandering eyeballs, that the bad news can lurk around every corner.

But even this winter, from all accounts there wasn't a hint that anything like this was coming for Cabrera. After the disastrous morning in 2009 when Dombrowski had to retrieve Cabrera from a jail cell after his alcohol issues had sent him hurtling to what seemed like rock bottom, this was a man who appeared to have straightened out his life.

He spent all of last season in what looked to those who knew him to be a different place, on the field and off the field. And if he wasn't the best player in the entire American League, he was definitely in the argument.

But he was also surrounded last season, not just by friends and teammates, but by protectors -- people assigned to keep him company and keep him sober. They were there at every milepost in the marathon, there to thwart any temptation, there to make sure Cabrera would never again be overwhelmed by the demons inside the nearest bottle.

Then this winter, Dombrowski said he was on the phone constantly -- to Cabrera's agents, to his trainer, to his workout partners, to the people who saw him on a regular basis. And the reports were all positive, glowing and reassuring.

Until the shocking phone call that came early Thursday morning.

"What caused him to have a drink?" the GM asked. "I really do not know that. But we all know that, when you deal with alcoholism, you're in a position that's a daily battle. I've known that all along.

"And [Cabrera] understands that. That's why he feels so terrible. He's worked very, very hard on this. What caused it? I do not have any idea. But he feels terrible because he's worked very hard to [beat] it."

I'm not angry one bit. I love this kid. I can't wait to see him. … He has a situation that he has to deal with. And somebody a whole lot smarter than me is going to help him deal with it."

-- Tigers manager Jim Leyland

There were a lot of times last summer it was easy to wonder where this team would have been without this man.

When we raised that question ourselves last September his manager, Jim Leyland even joked, "If he wasn't here, you'd be asking this question of somebody else … because I'd be out of work."

So who would have imagined the manager would find himself sitting at his desk on the first morning of his very next spring training, talking about what it meant that Cabrera wasn't here. How ironic was that, huh?

At one point Saturday, as Leyland was waxing as poetic as he ever gets about how much he loves "this kid," someone asked, "What is it that you love most about Miguel the person?"

"Three-run homers," Leyland quipped. "In the eighth inning. I love that son of a gun."

But that was the only time the conversation ever turned light on this uncomfortable day. What was most noticeable, though, was that none of the tension hanging in the manager's office seemed to be directed at Cabrera himself.

"I'm not angry one bit," Leyland swore Saturday. "I love this kid. I can't wait to see him. That's just the way it is. He has a situation that he has to deal with. And somebody a whole lot smarter than me is going to help him deal with it."

The only anger in Leyland's voice on this day wasn't over on the mess his cleanup hitter had created. It was over the way his remarks the day before had been interpreted by his friends in the media.

At one point Friday, Leyland uttered these words: "All of these people getting dramatic about this [expletive]. All this negativity, it's not going to affect this team one bit." But for all of those who looked at those words and decided the manager was ignoring the big picture, the real story here is Leyland had this message Saturday:

"I didn't want to make light of it. … All I'm saying is it's not going to be a distraction in the clubhouse," he said. "That's what I was trying to make the point. It doesn't mean I'm not concerned for the young man's personal life, because I am. But I'm not in a situation to make any comments because people a lot smarter than me will handle that situation.

"Hopefully, my expertise is as a manager. So talking about a situation on the field, a play or something, that's supposed to be my expertise. When we're talking about another type of situation, that's somebody else's expertise. So I think we just totally support him, and I'm going to support him to the hilt. I love the kid. It doesn't mean that I'm making light of the situation. I want to make sure everybody understands that."

Not everybody will, though. That's the deal. There are going to be many people on the outside who will look at Cabrera as just another star athlete who didn't care, screwed up and never considered the havoc he was wreaking on his team and the folks who root for it.

But to those on the inside, they don't think those thoughts. This is not one of those times to think of what a great player can do for you. It's a time to worry about what you can do for your player.

So when Dombrowski was asked Saturday how much disappointment this incident had caused him and his team, he replied, "I don't think that's the word I'd use."

"I think any time you deal with alcoholism and addiction, and I've been dealing with it for a long time in my career, you realize that it's an ongoing battle," Dombrowski said. "It's not easy. And if it's a player or it's personal, it's hard. And what sets somebody off at a certain time to take a drink, I'm not wise enough to know that. But it happens. And you need to make sure the player, or the person, follows the program."

So this is where "the program" takes over and the baseball people step out of the way. At some point, said Jim Leyland on Saturday, Cabrera is "going to be our first baseman." At some point, this man will be back in a batter's box, doing what he does best and loves most. But whether that's next week, next month or on Opening Day is not something that's in the Tigers' control. Not anymore.

Asked Saturday if he was concerned that his team wouldn't get its MVP back before the regular season, Dombrowski swirled those words around in his head for a moment, then replied:

"The regular season is a while away yet."

And that may be true. But it stampedes toward you faster than you think, especially on the first morning of spring training.

So for now, the Tigers will plow forward. They'll give guys such as Victor Martinez and Don Kelly a few more spring reps at first base. They'll find nine position players to run out there every day. Life will go on, because it has to go on.

But there's a reason the Tigers were so powerfully attuned to Cabrera's presence Saturday, on a day he was marked absent. They need him. They owe him 106 million bucks over the next five years. They've wrapped their franchise around him. And most of all, they care about him.

"We will help him take care of this problem," Dombrowski said. "And most important, he knows he has a problem."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.