On Josh Wilson, Miguel Cabrera and his Duquesne t-shirts
I’ve written a few times over the years about the long-running ties between Miguel Cabrera and his Duquesne baseball t-shirts. He explained back in 2009 that he wore them on his way up, having gotten them from former minor-league teammate Josh Wilson.
“It’s superstition,” Cabrera said at the time. “I wore the shirt when I got called to the big leagues.”
Wilson and Cabrera were teammates as far back as 1999, the year both of them signed as teenagers — Wilson out of high school, Cabrera as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela. They were teammates at Double-A in 2003 when Cabrera got the call to the Majors, and they were teammates again in 2005 when Wilson made his big-league debut.
They hadn’t been teammates again until this spring, Wilson having come to Tigers camp on a minor-league camp. So finally, after years of watching Cabrera wear Duquesne t-shirts — the lone remaining symbol of a baseball program that ended in 2010 — I had the chance to ask Wilson, whose father Mike was the baseball coach at Duquesne for 17 years, about the shirts.
Turns out, Cabrera had already asked about them.
“First thing he asked,” Wilson said. “He asked how I was doing, and then he asked if I had any T-shirts for him. I told him the supply was gone, and then I told my dad, and he said, ‘I’ll go get some made.'”
Cabrera actually wasn’t the only one wearing them in Florida, Wilson said. He not only gave some to Cabrera on his way up, he gave away some in his first big-league camp. Guys like Mike Lowell and Juan Pierre got one. He probably gave away a dozen.
Lowell is long since retired. Pierre just announced his retirement. Duquesne’s baseball program was retired five years ago. Lefty reliever Joe Beimel still represents Duquesne baseball in the Majors, but it would be understandable if he doesn’t want to wear the shirt of the university that disbanded the program. In many ways, Cabrera and the t-shirts are the last link.
That ended up starting a conversation about watching Cabrera develop as a teenage phenom on his way up.
“For a 16-year-old kid, his bat speed was one thing you definitely noticed, especially for how young he was,” Wilson said. “He swung the bat like a man. He had a lot of movement. You could tell he hadn’t played against a higher level of competition, but I saw him. …
“What’s amazing is, I don’t think he ever really got the credit for being the athlete he is. He played shortstop in Gulf Coast League.”
Actually, he played shortstop in Class A ball, too. And he wasn’t bad at it.
“The first year we played together in low-A, I was at second base, and he was playing short,” Wilson continued. “When we’d take ground balls, he would catch balls and not even look at first base and just throw it over there and hit the guy right in the chest. He would do stuff, flipping balls behind his back. I mean, it was crazy, the athleticism.
“I think because of how big he always was, and he wasn’t the quickest guy, fastest guy, I don’t think he ever got credit for being an athlete. But he’s got some serious hand-eye coordination and athleticism. And that was probably the most impressive thing I ever saw about him. If he got to the balls, he could make plays at short. His range maybe wasn’t the best, but he could do stuff with his mitt and get rid of balls and make throws that a lot of guys just couldn’t make.”
The hitting, of course, was another matter. Wilson posted a .383 slugging percentage and a .708 OPS for Kane County in the Midwest League in 2001. Cabrera, then 18, had a .382 slugging percentage and a .709 OPS. That’s the last time Wilson could claim Cabrera-like numbers.
“Midwest League when we played together, he was a good player,” Wilson said. “Obviously you could see the tools, the spurts or whatever. But with all baseball players, it’s the consistency, figuring out, learning how to do it every day. And then the next year in high-A, he started showing his power. He hit some homers that year.
“That year in Double-A, in ’03 before he got called up, I still have never played with a guy that was so dominant. He got called up in the middle of June. … It was a joke. They’d send those leaderboards out every day, and he was leading every category, and it wasn’t close. And this was the Southern League, not a hitters league necessarily.
“It wasn’t fair. I mean, it really wasn’t fair. And the power, he was hitting balls oppo, he’d hit them dead center. It didn’t matter. And then for him to get called up and watch him do what he did, hit a walkoff home run his first game, we were all glued to the TVs any chance we had to watch him. And to watch him in the playoffs that year, that was amazing, man.”
To watch him now and remember back then, Wilson said, is “awesome.”
“Everybody always compared him to [Andres] Galarraga,” he said. “I remember when he signed, people saying this kid could end up being the greatest hitter in baseball. And you watch and you’re going, ‘OK.’ But for somebody to actually do it, that has that kind of expectation or demand on him that people think that they’re going to do that, obviously I can’t imagine what that’s like. We’d all love to be the greatest hitter in baseball, but for somebody to say you’re going to be and to do the work that it takes to get there, it’s pretty awesome.”