In the estimation of teammates and others who know him well, Toronto outfielder Melky Cabrera is painfully shy to the point of socially awkward. He refrains from making eye contact in media interviews and enjoys sitting at his locker stall reading the Bible before games.
Tunnel vision is an admirable trait in baseball, but Cabrera invites more distractions than his .752 career OPS and soft-spoken demeanor might suggest. He broke in with the New York Yankees as a fill-in for Bernie Williams at age 20, played the lead role in a bizarre steroid bust two years ago, willingly relinquished a batting title, and either cost himself money or profited from his sins by signing a two-year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays according to whom you talk to. That's not exactly a recipe for anonymity.
As the quarter pole of the season approaches, Cabrera leads the majors with 55 hits and is first in the AL with a .333 batting average. Sound familiar? It's reminiscent of the feel-good story he crafted in 2012 in San Francisco, except that Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler are now providing the soundtrack instead of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow.
As Cabrera scatters singles and doubles like bread crumbs and burnishes his All-Star Game credentials, he embodies many of the conflicts and mixed emotions inherent in Major League Baseball's efforts to move past the performance-enhancing drug era.
Fans profess disdain for players who cheat, but will gladly divert their eyes if those players are discreet enough to avoid detection and put up big numbers for their teams (and fantasy teams). Baseball writers treasure their Hall of Fame votes while simultaneously complaining about the burden they face. Players who insist they want the game cleaned up are likely to tone down the rhetoric when one of those "cheaters" is a teammate and might help them land a postseason share. And club officials are dubious about signing offenders but aren't averse to giving second chances because, if they don't, someone else surely will.
"Obviously everyone knows what happened," Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "No one condones what he did. But he apologized and served his penalty, and there are some things he'll have to live with moving forward. He can't run from that, and he can't hide from the consequences of the decisions he made. That's just reality. It's fair. You make your own bed."
Cabrera, 29, has several more productive years in front of him, but he'll always be saddled with the kind of baggage that can't be checked at customs. He'll receive some telling insight into his worth in November, when he joins Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter and Nelson Cruz as a headliner in a thin free-agent outfield market. How much faith will clubs show in him then?
"I know I committed a huge mistake by doing what I did," Cabrera said through Toronto coach and translator Luis Rivera. "I'm human. It happens, and I really feel sorry about it. But this is a new year and I'm going to go out and show to myself and everybody else that I'm a good player. Whatever people are saying, I can't let that affect me."
Baseball's PED violators come in all shapes, sizes and outrage levels. As big-name stars who likely squandered their chance at Cooperstown and then tried to lawyer their way out of a box, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun are the gold standard among active players.
Cruz and Jhonny Peralta blew it big time, but they could at least take cover in accepting their 50-game suspensions in a group setting this past August. If you can name the other violators among the Biogenesis 13, feel free to claim the Jeff Novitzky Award for eternal PED vigilance.
Cabrera, in contrast, lives on his own little island. He has such a volatile career track and strange backstory, he's destined to elicit more scrutiny than most.
He was riding a career high two years ago when he became enmeshed in a ruse so colossally ill conceived it's hard to fathom even with the benefit of hindsight. In an attempt to beat a 50-game ban for synthetic testosterone use, Cabrera associate Juan Nunez concocted a phony website to reinvent history and cover Cabrera's tracks. MLB quickly ferreted out the plot, and the Giants chose not to add Cabrera to the roster during their title run in October.
The fallout was messy. Cabrera, who led the NL with a .346 batting average, yielded the batting title to teammate Buster Posey rather than accept an honor that he described as "tainted." Nunez has since been decertified by the Major League Baseball Players Association and no longer represents players. The union determined that agents Seth and Sam Levinson of ACES were unaware of the website scheme but failed to exercise proper supervision of Nunez in his role as a paid consultant to the firm. And Cabrera has since changed agents and is now represented by Peter Greenberg of the Legacy Agency.
Cabrera's behavior throughout the controversy created the impression that he's either duplicitous or easily led. A month before his suspension, he flatly denied any complicity or knowledge of pending discipline. Then he compounded the offense by maintaining his innocence with his San Francisco teammates, who bought the denials and sprang to his defense.
Even the aftermath is shrouded in intrigue. In May 2013, when the Giants gave Cabrera his World Series ring, it was in a tunnel at Rogers Centre in Toronto. Cabrera told reporters that it was manager Bruce Bochy's idea to give him his ring in seclusion. That apparently came as news to Bochy, who told reporters that the private ceremony was Cabrera's idea.
The common perception is that the Giants felt betrayed by Cabrera. But Ryan Vogelsong, Gregor Blanco and other San Francisco personnel greeted him with handshakes and hugs last year in Toronto, and Angel Pagan described him as a "great person" in an interview with USA Today. Cabrera's fellow Blue Jays seem amused by the perception of him as some devious, Machiavellian type concocting elaborate plans to evade the law.
"It's definitely not the first thing that comes across," said Chris Getz, who has played with Cabrera in Kansas City and Toronto. "Obviously he has a history that speaks for itself. But as a teammate, he's kind of a goofball. He's just this smiling, fun-loving character. I don't think you're going to find anybody in the clubhouse that doesn't like him."
If there are extenuating circumstances or blanks to be filled in, Cabrera has no interest in providing them. Teammate Jose Bautista, who was besieged by the inevitable armchair PED speculation on his way to a 54-homer season in 2010, is convinced that Cabrera is remorseful over his wrongdoings and prepared to live with the fallout. But Cabrera is too publicity-shy or too self-conscious about the language barrier to provide any context to events.
"I think everybody who does something and is guilty has to be ready to deal with the consequences at all times," Bautista said. "When it's something as delicate as what he went through, the consequences are borderline unlimited. You don't know how people will react, or for how long, or how serious or strong the reaction might be.
"From what I understand, he truly feels that he did wrong and paid his dues, and he wants to move forward and keep playing baseball, which is what he loves doing. But he's not the best communicator. He's not one of those guys who's going to be actively trying to send a message out there. That doesn't help him in this situation."
Some of the intrigue surrounding Cabrera stems from the wild swings in expectations that he has engendered in his career. How good a player is he, really?
• In 2005, Baseball America ranked him as the Yankees' No. 7 prospect and compared him favorably to Jose Vidro, a three-time All-Star and .298 career hitter over 12 seasons in the big leagues.
• In 2006, Cabrera dipped to No. 15 on the BA list, and scouts began to wonder whether he might be a glorified fourth outfielder or a "tweener" -- lacking the speed and defensive skills of an elite center fielder and short on the prototypical corner outfield power.
• In 2010, Cabrera showed up overweight at Atlanta's camp and hit a disappointing .255. The next year, he turned things around, batting .305 with 201 hits and 102 runs scored in exchange for a meager $1.25 million investment by the Kansas City Royals.
• Last year, Cabrera hit .279 in 88 games with Toronto. He stole only two bases, showed negligible power and was so immobile in the field that the Jays had to lift him for a defensive replacement in the late innings. The mystery was finally resolved in August when Cabrera complained of back pain and tests revealed the presence of a benign tumor pressing on his spine. In hindsight, it's a wonder he could even take the field at all.
Cabrera spent a lot of time and energy recasting the narrative this past winter, joining Bautista at a "Mobile Boot Camp" run by a Tampa firefighter and former semipro football player named John Rutledge. The two Blue Jays flipped tires, pushed cars, tugged on ropes and, in Bautista's words, "did a lot of functional stuff where you're not just sitting in a gym doing bench presses."
Some things -- such as hand-eye coordination and the ability to hit a fastball from both sides of the plate -- just come naturally.
"Melky has such a simple swing, and he's so good at getting ready on time and keeping his swing path consistent," Bautista said. "If he's getting good pitches to hit, it's hard for him not to get base hits. He can just square balls up constantly."
Amid any lingering doubts about his off-field habits, Cabrera was tested three additional times in 2013 on top of the protocol that covers other big leaguers under the game's Joint Drug Agreement. He has since returned to the regular MLB regimen of mandatory and random testing, which was strengthened in March as part of an agreement between the players and the owners.
Is abiding by the MLB system enough to allay any concerns about whether he has learned his lesson and is above suspicion? In the absence of something more tangible, it will have to suffice.
"Once you make a mistake and you've been busted for it, people are always going to hold you accountable," said a National League personnel man. "If a guy commits a heinous crime and changes his life, he's going to have to walk that straight and narrow because people will always be sitting there watching. Melky Cabrera obviously falls under that umbrella. But as long as he keeps passing tests, he should be judged on what he's doing. That's the only fair thing for us to do as an industry."
Cabrera will get a better read on his value in November, when he enters the free-agent market and learns what teams are willing to pay. In the meantime, he'll find comfort in his Bible passages and a sense of purpose in the batter's box. He can churn out base hits like few players in the game. But he will never be able to outrun his reputation.