500 Belongs To Me
11:13 AM EDT on August 23, 2021
It drives you nuts. It is designed to drive you nuts. The other night in Detroit, Miguel Cabrera sent a Raisel Iglesias slider to deep right-center, and the crowd tensed up and roared for the few seconds the ball was in the air and not in the glove of Jo Adell, who caught it on the warning track, no problem. Edgy times at the ballpark. The outfield had been packed for days, everyone drawn there to see history for themselves.
History’s sold more tickets, but the present’s been OK. The 2021 Tigers emerged from a gutting April to put something, let’s call it respectable, on the field. Since the all-star break, if you squint just so and tilt your head about one-free-agent-shortstop degrees, they don’t look bad at all. The new pitching coach, a lean, sleepy-looking guy, works miracles. Rule 5 Cinderella story Akil Baddoo crashed to earth after a magical start but climbed right up again. Our other total revelation, hometown “kid” Eric Haase, turns 29 in December. The day he won AL Rookie of the Month, his wife shared a video of him mowing the lawn while their children played on the swings in the backyard. These Tigers run aggressively on the basepaths; A.J. Hinch has them playing an assured small-ball style that can be downright thrilling on good days. In late July, they won a fever dream of a game against the Twins, 17–14, without hitting a single home run. (The Twins hit seven.) April quickly and sensibly established the stakes for the season, but I've never liked a losing team more.
So what was billed as the main attraction became a cherry on top: On this anonymous, sometimes lovely Tigers team is the greatest hitter I've ever seen. His knees slowed the chase but couldn't stop it. Cabrera hit his 499th career home run to left-center off Matt Harvey earlier this month in Baltimore and so began a maddening, all-consuming wait for the next one. It ended, finally, after eight homerless games, on the road against the Blue Jays Sunday afternoon. He's the 28th member of MLB's 500 club.
It frustrates me how few of the 500 I remember. The gripe applies generally to my sports memories: names of players, moods of certain eras—those all stick with me. The actual moments feel much fuzzier. And that scared me a little. I might never see 3,000 hits and 500 home runs again. The fear of forgetting pushed me to the scorebook I bought at the beginning of the season to teach me patience and focus. (Mostly it taught me I don't know the rules of baseball all too well. Explain why a passed ball isn't an error but catcher interference is!) The night of 499, I decided to start scoring every game so I'd have a free souvenir for myself, a piece of the moment when it happened.
This proved dumb almost immediately. The Tigers caught wind of my idea—everything in the universe happens to or because of me—and slid into misery. The offense lost a few good bats to the IL: Haase strained his back, and in the Baltimore series, Baddoo and Derek Hill, the two coolest guys on the team, had sprinted right into each other chasing down a fly ball. (Somehow Hill held on to it.) The middle infield re-entered its April era. I don't recommend it, canceling your plans and clearing your evenings to dutifully record every single thing this stupid team does. They were nearly no-hit by a Cleveland pitcher who could maybe be swept away by a light breeze. Then they were hapless canvas to a Shohei Ohtani masterpiece. The next day they blew a 10-2 lead in the sixth to the Angels. The losing stopped on Friday night against the Jays in extra innings, but Cabrera went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. I scored it all. Maybe baseball, a sport best half-ignored, can tell when it’s being corrupted by attention.
That’s my working theory, and it must be right, because when Cabrera finally did it, scoring the games had become more mindless habit than anything. I heard 500 before I saw it; the radio was on and the television was muted. Steven Matz delivered a changeup off the plate and Cabrera mashed it 400 feet opposite field over the right-center wall and into the Tigers batting cage, where a bullpen catcher scurried to retrieve it. (Thus died Detroit sports talk radio’s favorite conversation topic of late, "Should you do extortion if you catch it in the stands?")
Nine games of waiting, and I had no clue what to do. My piece of the moment is a little box on paper, colored pastel green, outlined with black pen in a panic.
The Jays took a 2–1 lead in the eighth, a good, stern reminder that individual milestones exist on a separate plane from the humdrum business of winning games with the team. It occurs to me that 500 home runs is kind of a lonely achievement. Your teammates can set up big goals and buckets, but an at-bat is all you. The whole season, the glorified Toledo Mud Hens filling out this roster have been asked how it's felt to be part of Cabrera’s chase. Was that proximity and contribution being confused? Is anyone else really part of a solo homer? Maybe the pitcher. Cabrera's 400-foot sigh of relief being the Tigers' only run in a loss would be, if not very satisfying, appropriate.
But then something funny happened. Marcus Semien, a Gold Glove–type infielder, put what should have been a game-ending routine throw to first right into the dirt. My pastel green highlighter was pressed back into service; on the E4!, the Tigers tied it up. An hour later, they’d stolen the game in extras—you have to understand, every single game this sorry bunch wins is theft. The team shared some videos from the locker room. In everyone's dazed faces, I saw the same thing. It was what made people hold up their phone cameras each time Cabrera appeared at the plate for the last week. It was what Justin Verlander talked about in his congratulatory video, remembering when he'd begged Cabrera for his helmet after the game he clinched the 2012 Triple Crown. I recognized it as what I'd wanted every day I flipped to the next page of the scorebook. His teammates beamed, taking in the pieces for themselves.