The many accomplishments are impressive. Let’s start with 2,055 career hits. Then there were the two Gold Gloves and the hard-earned World Series ring. But when Orlando Cabrera retired last week after 15 years in the major leagues, fellow players and fans will remember most about the way the 37-year-old middle infielder approached his profession.
Cabrera will never be a Hall of Fame candidate. Hell, he was never even selected to play in an All-Star game. Too bad, because Orlando accumulated a career batting average of .272 and a fielding percentage of .973, which are decent numbers over 1,985 big league games. The Cartagena, Colombia, native was also a daring base runner, with 216 thefts. Once, he even stole home, just like Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez in the movie “Sandlot.” It was Cabrera’s feisty flair that earned him the most recognition, and sometimes a bad rap.
A case in point came in a controversial moment during a 2008 playoff game between the Chicago White Sox and the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays. Cabrera, the Chicago shortstop, was at the plate with the bases juiced and reliever Grant Balfour on the hill. When his first offering of the at-bat sailed low and outside, the eccentric Australian became upset and barked a four-letter expletive. Not to be upstaged, Cabrera countered by stepping in front of the plate, shouting back at Balfour and kicking dirt in his direction. Many Rays fans and members of the press were critical of Cabrera, branding his reaction as an act of poor sportsmanship. But the display was just vintage O-Cab, always battling for an edge and trying to motivate his dugout.
Cabrera broke into the big leagues in obscurity as a 23-year-old rookie for the ill-fated Montreal Expos, but gradually gained respect as an upper-tier player over the next seven years. Orlando’s breakout year was in 2003, when he hit .297 with 80 RBIs and played flawless defense. Surprisingly, he was traded midway through the following season to the Boston Red Sox, part of a four-team swap that involved another shortstop, Beantown icon Nomar Garciaparra. Cabrera would not disappoint the Fenway faithful. Clutching up in the post season, Orlando batted .374 in the 2004 ALCS, helping bring the Red Sox back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the hated New York Yankees. This, of course, allowed Boston eventually win the World Series for the first time since 1918, breaking the “Curse of the Bambino.”
“I never believed in any curse,” the scrappy leader would say later.
Indeed, Cabrera would become a good luck charm for numerous clubs down the road. Prior to last season, Orlando had played in October five times over the last six years, accomplishing the feat with five different teams. That’s probably because Cabrera was a proven winner who loved to compete, and his cocky confidence became contagious among his many teammates.
Thanks to Cabrera and rival countryman Edgar Renteria, baseball is on the upswing in Colombia. Young pitching stars Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves and Ernesto Frieri of the San Diego Padres are examples of the fresh talent that has emerged from the South American nation. Cabrera has owned a professional team there, and would make an excellent major-league coach or manager if the offer would ever come along. For now, though, I applaud Orlando for taking a break from baseball to re-energize. He has plenty of money with beautiful homes in Colombia and South Carolina, and wishes to spend more time with his daughters and family. Cabrera has also bought into the American dream, becoming a naturalized United States citizen last May while employed with the Cleveland Indians.
“I’m really proud to be an American,” Cabrera said. “It’s very special and opens up a new chapter in my life.”
It’s hard to please everyone around you, and Cabrera’s dominate personality occasionally rubs people the wrong way. Billy Martin was the same way. But as a friend, I understood his combative nature and knew he had a good heart.
That’s how I feel about Orlando Cabrera. Thanks, amigo, for playing the game the right way.