Parts of this interview were conducted in Spanish and have been translated. Read it in Spanish here.
Miguel Cabrera’s baseball resume features two MVP awards, 11 All-Star game appearances, the only triple crown since 1967 and a 2003 World Series ring. But when he came to the U.S. to play, he stepped into an entirely different world from his home country of Venezuela. He struggled to order food at restaurants and to find his way through the minor league ranks to the majors.
In this interview, Cabrera talks about the differences between Venezuelan baseball, homesickness and why he chose to become a U.S. citizen.
How did baseball influence your decision to come to the United States?
Cabrera: The main reason I came to the United States was to play baseball. When my parents and my uncles taught me how to play baseball, the influence from the whole family was geared toward my understanding that the best baseball in the world is played in the United States.
Did you perceive any notable differences between clubhouses in the United States as compared to Venezuela?
Cabrera: It’s very different. Two separate worlds, two very different styles of baseball. Latin American winter ball is very different with the United States. Over there (Venezuela) we play with a lot of risk, while in the United States, baseball is played with a lot more caution, closer to the rules. They’re different. But at the end of the day, it’s still baseball. You have to put a little flavor to make it your own, and that’s what makes them very different.
Which were the three biggest culture shocks you experienced outside of the playing field? For example: opening a bank account, going to restaurants, going shopping? Can you describe some of the culture shocks you experienced?
Cabrera: One of the things that my parents taught me while teaching me to play baseball was discipline, to arrive on time, to respect schedules. In the United States that is important, but in Venezuela, as well as in our Latin American nations, it is somewhat common to be late. The rules here make you a little timid about things that you can get away with, makes you hesitant to bend them.
One of the most difficult things for me (when I came to the United States) was not being able to order at a restaurant. You would let the menus guide you, but at the end of the day, you ended up ordering more than what you wanted or you didn’t order what you wanted. It was difficult to get used to the culture, the food in the United States. Not being able to find those Latin flavors, especially in the small towns where minor league teams play.
In those days, we didn’t have the communications we have now. We didn’t have the Internet like we do now, where we can have a translator at our fingertips so we can ask for help. At that time, you had to solve your own problems, fight through those inconveniences that came about because we didn’t speak the language.
“I’ve never felt comfortable speaking English. I’ve never felt comfortable giving an interview in Spanish. I’ve never felt comfortable in front of a camera, in front of a microphone, in front of a recorder. It has been difficult throughout my career to do that, and I always try to stand to the side.”
When did you feel that you had “arrived” in the baseball world?
Cabrera: It was when I came to the United States. In the minor leagues, you go through moments which mark you for the rest of your career. I think those are the most difficult moments for a professional baseball player, those four or five years where you’re on your way to the Major Leagues. That’s when you have to work the hardest and when you miss home, your family. That’s when Latin players enter a brotherhood, because we lean on each other, we hold each other’s hand and we help each other.
When it comes to celebrations, how does “the code” affect your style of play? There are people who believe that celebrations on the field should not be allowed.
Cabrera: I think there are many ways to celebrate and show your emotions without disrespecting the other team, or the sport, or a culture which is not necessarily used to that. Now you see more stuff because of social media, but before, it was just the same.
Before, you would celebrate a certain way, and immediately a veteran player would set you aside and explain to you that you shouldn’t do this or that; you had to earn that, that you had to earn the respect so that you could celebrate without offending anybody.
But today’s baseball is different. People have to understand that we’re in a different era.
How important was it to you to become a resident of the United States?
Cabrera: Very important. You don’t become a resident because you want to become a resident. I don’t know how people will take this, but with every Latin player who becomes a resident, or citizen, of the United States, a new job is being created by another Latin player. That work visa which you had will go to another Venezuelan or Latin American player who needs it.
How do you feel when you return to your country; how are you received?
Cabrera: Unfortunately in the last three or four years, I haven’t been able to go travel to Venezuela as often, with the exception of the events organized by my foundation. Due to the situation in Venezuela, which is very difficult, going there is a short-term thing, one week or two weeks, and you really can’t enjoy it the way you used to.
But people are happy to see you. You need your homeland. People are proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish in the United States and the fact that you’re from Maracay, from Venezuela.
How about when you visit home? How are you treated? What does it mean to you to be a baseball player, perhaps a future member of the Hall of Fame?
Cabrera: I really do not think about that. I like to keep things simple. I prefer to keep a low profile and try to go unnoticed. I’m very thankful to God for all the things he has given me, for my health so that I could stay on the playing field. Time will tell and pass judgment on what I’ve done once I finish my career.
Are you involved on what is happening in your community, in your city, in the United States?
Cabrera: I am. I play in Detroit and I live in Miami, so you have to give something back to the community that received you and adopted you. The support we get from the fans, the attention they give you, is proof to us that they care about us. I think that as a person and as a player, you have a duty to give back.
President Trump has made some comments which can be described as anti-immigrant. What is your opinion?
Cabrera: That was an important topic which resonated everywhere, in the clubhouses, in our homes, on the street. It’s a topic which affects us all of us who are Hispanic. This is a free country where we can say whatever you want, as long as you do it with respect. But the topic of immigration was important because it was a theme in the campaign.
I hope that he (Trump) does what all politicians do, which is to not follow through on his campaign promises (about immigration). His discourse really didn’t affect me because I come from a situation which is a lot more difficult, a political situation which hurts because it affects all Venezuelans.
But you could sense anxiety from the people, you could feel the anxiety from many Hispanics and I felt people worrying about the future. That did affect me, not what the person is saying, but how people suffer, especially if they’re Hispanic.
How different are fans in the United States when you compare them to fans in Venezuela?
Cabrera: Very different. Just like you can’t compare a Dominican fan to a Venezuelan fan. All fans have their cultures, their differences, their forms of celebration, their ways of getting mad at you. I’d prefer a thousand times to play a seventh game of the World Series in the United States than in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. The passion of the fans in our countries doesn’t compare to other countries.
How different is the coverage from the American media than the media coverage in your country?
Cabrera: The Latin journalist has more feelings toward a ball player who is from his country. Not that they protect you more, but when they talk or write about the Latin ball player, they feel proud of what they’re doing. The American journalist does it as a job, to create controversy. An American journalist who is in the Hall of Fame, Peter Gammons, does express feelings toward people (when he talks about Latin players) like Latin journalists do.
When did you feel comfortable speaking English?
Cabrera: I’ve never felt comfortable speaking English. I’ve never felt comfortable giving an interview in Spanish. I’ve never felt comfortable in front of a camera, in front of a microphone, in front of a recorder. It has been difficult throughout my career to do that, and I always try to stand to the side. When I have to do it, I do it, but it’s not like it’s a part of me to go and do it. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned that it is something that I have to do.
“In the minor leagues, you go through moments which mark you for the rest of your career. … That’s when you have to work the hardest and when you miss home, your family. That’s when Latin players enter a brotherhood, because we lean on each other, we hold each other’s hand and we help each other.”
Are still culturally tied to your country in your everyday life? How much American culture, meaning watching television or things like that, do you consume, or do you still watch things from your country?
Cabrera: With the internet and the movie services, I’ve turned away from news programs. I do not watch news. We’re in an era where a lot people aren’t watching television, with the exception of movies and sports like basketball, football and baseball. But I don’t watch television shows.
How many American players are in your social circle in comparison to Latin players, with people with whom you socialize frequently?
Cabrera: Where I live, the majority of the people are American, my kids’ friends are Americans, I have a lot of American friends. They’re relationships that I have forged, in and out of baseball. I live in the United States and within its culture, so I have to be a part of it.