Tigers' fate rests with clean Cabrera

As the Tigers cleaned up after their 5-2 victory over the Indians on Friday afternoon, one clubhouse television was tuned to coverage of the Masters.

How fitting.

Win or lose, Tiger Woods will define the 2010 Masters. Win or lose, Miguel Cabrera will be the headline player for the 2010 Tigers.

If Woods wins the Masters, it will be a huge story.

But the more compelling narrative would be Cabrera leading Detroit to the postseason with an MVP-caliber season.

And based on his .471 batting average for a 3-1 team, there's a better chance of that happening than you may think.

I'm not going to compare and contrast the misdeeds of the two athletes. But we can probably agree on the following: Both messed up. Both apologized. Both are trying to rebuild their images. Both returned to meaningful action this week.

The similarities end there. The general public is far more infatuated with, and disappointed by, the golfing Tiger than the hitting Tiger.

Woods' story has included one lewd revelation after another, splashed on tabloids and websites the world over. Formerly one of the most popular athletes anywhere, he fell further than virtually any public figure in our time.

Cabrera, 26, is merely one of the best players in baseball, a potential Hall of Famer. With him, the focus was on one night of binge drinking and an altercation with his wife, which came in the midst of the Tigers' late-season collapse last October. (No charges were filed.)

It's not accurate to say that either is attempting a "comeback." They weren't injured. They made personal mistakes.

Woods' failings had the biggest impact on himself, his family, his sponsors and his business associates. That's the corporate nature of golf.

Sure, thousands of his fans became disillusioned after learning of his infidelity. But in the end, Tiger Woods is a one-man team.

He didn't let down his teammates, because he doesn't have any. He didn't disappoint a city, because he isn't playing for one.

Cabrera was different. His issues with alcohol probably affected his performance on the field -- and not just following the October night in question. If the team's best player hadn't partied so much, would the 2009 Tigers have won three more games? Four? Five?

And one more victory was all they needed to reach the playoffs.

Fan emotions tend to be greater with 110-year-old baseball franchises than 34-year-old golfers, which explains why Cabrera has the better chance to write a new ending. When teams win, their players' flaws are overlooked.

Some Detroiters were justifiably livid with Cabrera after his carousing during the crucial season-ending series against the White Sox. But judging by his reception during Opening Day introductions at Comerica Park -- enthusiastic cheers, with a few audible boos -- time has given way to understanding.

Fans are aware that Cabrera entered into a treatment program for alcoholism during the offseason. The disease can ruin marriages and families, lives and careers. Through that lens, a lost division title doesn't seem quite as important.

And it helps that Cabrera began the season by scalding the ball over three games in Kansas City before going 0-for-3 with a walk in Friday's home opener.

"He's one of the great players in the game," manager Jim Leyland said. "There's just no telling what the guy's capable of doing. He's been outstanding this year, so far, in not giving at-bats away. And that was the last hurdle for him."

When asked about how fans have reacted to him, Cabrera said: "They always say 'hi' to me, always be nice to me, always support me about everything. I'm thankful for that. I'm here for them, to put a good show on the field, do my best and win games."

Cabrera says he doesn't drink anymore and he has lost 10 pounds since the start of spring training. (He said he weighs about 260 now.) Last year's transgression isn't an issue for this year's team. Leyland, Cabrera's teammates and Cabrera himself deserve credit for that.

Cabrera has a different demeanor in the clubhouse now. He seems more at ease with his teammates and reporters. He isn't ducking questions. (We can't say the same for Woods.)

"He knows he was wrong," infielder Ramon Santiago said. "He wants to win so bad for the fans, for the Tigers. I like the attitude he has so far. He's going to be huge for us.

"It's America. Everybody gets a second chance."

There is one obvious way for Cabrera to endear himself to Detroit fans: lead the Tigers to a division title. He nearly did that last year, totaling 34 home runs and 103 RBIs.

Since baseball is a far more demanding sport than golf, Cabrera's summer journey will be more arduous than Tiger's. Woods can pick and choose his tournaments, steering away from unfriendly venues. Marshals will monitor spectators while galleries offer polite applause. Cabrera, meanwhile, must earn his keep every night, home and away. He might hear boos on the road.

He needs to deliver, time and again, over the rugged 162-game schedule. Key hits. Tough at-bats. Big plays in the field. And he will have to hope that his teammates perform, too.

If they don't, Cabrera will be looking for redemption again this time next year. But at this nascent stage of the season, all seems well for Cabrera and the Tigers.

"I feel comfortable," he said. "I've got a good start."

A good finish would matter even more. And unlike Woods, he has only one chance to do it in 2010.