Miguel Cabrera's journey: From Venezuelan teen to world fame

Miguel Cabrera rounds the bases after homering against the Marlins for while playing for Venezuela during a 2013 exhibition game. Julio Cortez/AP Photo

Al Ávila was assistant to Florida Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski in 1999 when he attended his eagerly awaited meeting at a restaurant located in Las Delicias, a wealthy area in the city of Maracay, Venezuela, around 70 miles from capital of Caracas. There at the restaurant El Portal de la Abuela, Ávila met with a 16-year-old boy and his father, a welder by trade and a baseball fan who was married to a former member of the national softball team.

The Marlins executive was really the host that evening, although it was he who was visiting the South American country. The other diners were Venezuelans.

The young man stayed with them, even as the clock approached midnight. Finally, after the clock had struck twelve, Ávila placed a sheet of paper on the table and signed his name next to the signatures of the father and his son.

The date on the calendar had just changed. The adults raised their glasses. When a waiter approached the table, Ávila told him excitedly: "We're signing the best Venezuelan player since David Concepción."

That July 2, 1999, with a $1.8 million signing bonus, Miguel Cabrera made the jump to professional baseball.

Concepción was born nearby, in the town of Ocumare de La Costa. During the 1970s and '80s, he was the most popular sportsman in this baseball-loving nation -- a mantle he inherited from the immortal Luis Aparicio and would later pass on to Andrés Galarraga and Omar Vizquel -- and a member of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine.

Venezuela is located in the north of South America, a region whose first and greatest love is soccer. But not here. In Venezuela, the great love is baseball. And the greatest baseball idol is Cabrera.

The Detroit Tigers first baseman is the most popular cover star on the sports pages. And that is true not only because of the size of his achievements.

Carlos Valmore Rodríguez, director of the Meridiano newspaper, has the numbers to prove it.

"Having Cabrera on the cover boosts our sales," he says. "Other athletes like Félix Hernández have the same effect. But the true king of the front pages is Cabrera, by far. That's why every time he does anything, [it] should be on the cover".

That was not always the case. The infielder was a key figure in the Venezuelan winter league since he was 19 years old, when he became the cornerstone of the greatest dynasty in the history of the local circuit.

The Tigres de Aragua signed Cabrera even before the Marlins. In Venezuela it is legal for a 14-year-old to join one of the eight teams who compete in the winter league. Cabrera was 16 when he got his first hit in the league in December 1999. And when he made the transition from Class A Advanced to Double-A, he was already a third baseman for an Aragua team that would go on to win six titles in nine finals in 10 tournaments.

The Tigres enjoyed the services of the young slugger until January 2008, when they won their fourth title in five attempts. Two months later, in Lakeland, Dombrowski gave a press conference to Venezuelan reporters that would change this story.

It took place moments after it became official that Cabrera had signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar extension with the Detroit Tigers.

"Today, I am officially announcing Miggy's retirement from Caribbean baseball," said the executive, who by then, along with the inseparable Ávila, had left the Marlins and moved on to Detroit, taking with him the group of scouts who had discovered the slugger in Maracay a decade earlier.

Dombrowski was able to bring Cabrera to Detroit from Florida in a trade in December 2007 and has since given him two contract extensions to make him the one of the highest-paid players in major league history.

Cabrera was admired for his achievements in the majors, but it was a blow when he stopped playing for a team in his homeland. He then became more like just another MLB superstar.

In 2009, Vizquel was the favorite among Venezuelan fans thanks to his 11 Gold Gloves and his infectious smile. That year, he also surpassed Aparicio as the Venezuelan with most hits in the majors, 2,877 at the time of his retirement.

When asked who could break his record, maybe Bobby Abreu or Magglio Ordóñez, Vizquel had no doubt that it would be Cabrera, who was on around 1,200 at that time.

"That kid is going to break all our records," predicted the shortstop.

Then came Cabrera's first American League batting title in 2011, which was followed by the Triple Crown a year later along with his first of two consecutive AL MVP awards.

That's how he became the most popular cover star on Venezuela's sports pages. That's how he ended up in the ESPN World Fame 100 list of the planet's most famous athletes.

"He's a phenomenon," said compatriot Tony Armas, the American League home run leader in 1981 and 1984. "I was strong, but only on one side. He's as strong to the right as he is to the left. It's extraordinary."

"And his discipline goes unnoticed because everyone pays more attention to his home runs," Abreu added. "He seeks out his pitch and ensures he makes the best contact."

Ávila was not wrong on that early morning of July 2, 1999, that the teenager would go on to become the best Venezuelan player since the days of Concepción.

"We're very proud of him." Concepción said. And Aparicio, the only one among his countrymen with a plaque in Cooperstown, agrees with the man who took over his mantle: "Right now, I would vote for him for the Hall of Fame."