Melky Cabrera returned to baseball with a soft landing Friday. There were hugs all round and a waiting Blue Jays locker stall alongside fellow Dominicans Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.
But despite the warm welcome, Cabrera comes to Toronto’s spring training wearing the scarlet letter of a drug cheat.
“It’s a burden he’s going to have to live with his entire career,” said Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos.
Baggage aside, Jays management sees Cabrera as another piece in a potentially championship puzzle. The players apparently view him as another brother in arms.
“When he walked into the clubhouse, everybody received him with open arms,” said Toronto third base coach Luis Rivera, acting as translator for Cabrera. “He got a hug from everybody.
“He knows a lot of people on the club — Bautista, Encarnacion, Jose Reyes — and they already told him ‘This is your home, don’t worry about it, feel like this is home for you. This is our home now.“’
Bautista even offered to have players come to Friday’s news conference as a show of support, Anthopoulos said.
“We did not think we need that but I thought it was nice that they would offer something like that,” he added.
Cabrera arrives in the wake of a 50-game drug suspension last year for a positive test for testosterone while with the San Francisco Giants. His name has also come up in reports about a now-closed Florida anti-aging centre linked to banned drugs.
Handcuffed by his lawyers and the language barrier, the 6-foot 200-pound Cabrera had little of substance to say about his drug-tainted past Friday.
“That was a big mistake that he committed last year. He understands that, he’s paid the price for it. He’s just looking forward to 2013,” Rivera quoted Cabrera as saying.
The same sentiment was repeated several times during the news conference.
Cabrera did say he had been working out six days a week in the Dominican to prepare for the season and that his love for the game has not withered.
“He feels he was born with the energy and desire to play baseball. He always had that and he’s never going to lose that,” Rivers said by way of translation. “He always had fun when he played the game.”
Toronto sought to ease his entry to camp by releasing a statement from Cabrera less than two hours before he met with the media. And a Jays spokesman opened the news conference by saying Cabrera would not address the 2012 situation.
In the statement, Cabrera said he has served his punishment and worked hard to get ready for the 2013 season.
He said is co-operating with Major League Baseball and federal authorities on the investigation into the Florida anti-aging centre.
And while he will co-operate with authorities “the best I can,” he says his legal counsel has told him not to answer questions relating to the pending investigations.
“This statement will be the last comment I will make on the events of the 2012 season. I have put my mistakes behind me, have learned my lesson, and have served my punishment. I am here to play the best baseball I can to help the Toronto Blue Jays win a world championship.”
Anthopoulos, who spoke at a separate media gathering, said his understanding from Major League Baseball was that Cabrera did not face any further sanctions.
The Jays GM also said he spoke to the player about why he had taken the banned substance, but declined to share the answer saying it was a private conversation. He also refused to get into whether there had been discussions on any past drug use.
The talks were part of the Jays’ due diligence before investing $16-million over two years in the 28-year-old.
Anthopoulos did say he respected the fact that Cabrera had not pointed fingers other than at himself.
But he also acknowledged that the organization had debated taking on Cabrera, given “the elephant in the room.” But he said their investigation into the player’s past had been otherwise positive and history has shown players caught using performance-enhancing drugs have responded to a second chance.
Plus Cabrera can play and, given his suspension, the price was right.
“Make no mistake, he can help us win games. That was part of it as well,” said Anthopoulos.
How well he plays is up in the air.
“There’s absolutely no guarantees, there’s certainly an element of risk, we knew that going in,” the GM said. “I cant tell you what the numbers are going to be, it’s so hard to tell.”
The Jays do expect effort, the ability to make contact with the bat, and the versatility of playing all three outfield positions.
“He’s not expected to carry the load,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s just another good player. But he’s certainly not the key to the offence.”
Manager John Gibbons, for one, is looking at Cabrera’s positives.
“The kid can hit,” said Gibbons, who worked with him in 2011 in Kansas City when he was bench coach.
Cabrera was leading the National League in hitting at .346 in 113 games when he was suspended Aug. 15.
He had 25 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs, 60 runs batted in and 13 stolen bases in that span.
The Giants didn’t put Cabrera on their post-season roster on the way to winning the World Series.
The switch-hitter has appeared in 984 career games with the New York Yankees (2005-09), Atlanta (2010), Kansas City (2011) and San Francisco (2012). He’s posted a .284 average with 69 home runs and 417 RBIs over eight seasons.
Anthopoulos did say there have been two examples during his tenure as Toronto GM when he declined to even contemplate bringing on a player with a past problem. He did not name the players or identify their transgressions but made a reference to facing players’ wives, suggesting it might have been a domestic abuse issue.