Even before Miguel Cabrera made the major leagues, coaches and scouts in Venezuela were predicting he would be a big star.
They were proven right in a big way this year as the 29-year-old Detroit Tigers slugger became the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, leading the majors in batting average, home runs and RBIs. Now, Cabrera is also the favorite on Thursday to be named the Most Valuable Player of the American League.
His achievements have made many proud in baseball-loving Venezuela, where he recently won the annual Luis Aparicio Prize, presented to the best Venezuelan major leaguer of the year.
"For as long as I can remember, playing baseball has been my life. That's why I don't lose sleep over winning prizes," Cabrera said last month after receiving the Venezuelan award.
"If I win them that's fine, but what I think about first of all is my responsibility. I value (prizes) as a nice memory to share with my family, with my grandchildren when I'm old, and for the happiness it brings to all Venezuelans."
Fans in the South American country had much to cheer about during this year's World Series, with a record nine Venezuelans on the rosters. And although Cabrera couldn't prevent the Tigers from getting swept by the San Francisco Giants, his stellar performance during the past season has made him a hero for many Venezuelans, from little leaguers to big league veterans.
"Miguel is one of the best batters of all time. I have no doubt about that," said Tony Armas, the retired Venezuelan outfielder who played for the Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and other teams during his 1976-1989 major league career. Armas said Cabrera has shown his prowess by frequently knocking the ball out of Detroit's Comerica Park, and has also shown a commitment to his team.
"He's a simple kid, always willing to cooperate with his team no matter where they put him. He just wants to play," Armas said, noting that Cabrera moved from first base to third base during the season to make way for Prince Fielder.
Cabrera came from a poor family that was steeped in baseball. His mother, Gregoria, played 12 years on Venezuela's national softball team. An uncle, Jose Torres, still runs a baseball school in the city of Maracay where Cabrera started playing at age 4.
Cabrera came up through a large and well-organized system of youth leagues and baseball schools that has helped make Venezuela a prime destination for major league scouts.
When he was 16 in 1999, Cabrera signed with the Florida Marlins for $1.8 million, the highest ever for a Venezuelan prospect.
"It wasn't a big surprise when they signed him because you could see it coming since he was little," said Bertha Torres, his aunt.
The baseball diamond where Cabrera once practiced is located right next to the house where he grew up, and is named after a late uncle, David Torres, who was Cabrera's first mentor. Nowadays the infield is pitted and the grass is ragged, but many of the children who practice on it every afternoon say they hope to play like Cabrera one day.
"That field has been the cradle for many dreams," his aunt said. As for Cabrera's childhood, she recalled, "he escaped from his mother to keep practicing every day, at any hour."
Fans in his native country are so devoted that they have easily forgave Cabrera for his February 2011 arrest in Florida on suspicion of drunken driving and resisting an officer without violence after refusing to take a field sobriety test. He later pleaded no contest to driving under the influence and avoided jail time.
"The fight against alcohol is long. It never ends. But he's shown that when he starts something he achieves it, and to me he seems more mature. I think he's left behind that bad moment," said Carolina Martinez, a housewife who lives in the working-class neighborhood where Cabrera grew up and where his relatives still live.
Cabrera now lives largely in the United States, and has stopped playing in the offseason with his Venezuelan team, the Aragua Tigres, or Tigers. His latest contract with Detroit in 2008, for about $152 million, locked him in to an eight-year deal.
Since 2008, his batting performance has soared. He led the American League in home runs in 2008 with 37, then topped the league with 126 RBIs in 2010 and with a .344 batting average in 2011.
"My goal has always been to play hard for my team, improve every day to be able to keep doing what I love: playing baseball," Cabrera said earlier this year during a visit to Venezuela.
As for his influences, Cabrera said he's always looked up to Venezuelan major leaguer Dave Concepcion, who played with the Cincinnati Reds' "Big Red Machine" when the club won the World Series in 1975 and 1976. "He's always been an example as a person and as a player," Cabrera said.
Some Venezuelans say they hope that Cabrera will one day be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The only Venezuelan with that honor so far is former major league shortstop Luis Aparicio.
"I think Miguel is a natural candidate for the Hall of Fame. He's an exceptional player and very young," Aparicio said in a telephone interview. "If he stays healthy and away from problems, I'm sure he's going to achieve it."