SAN FRANCISCO -- It was a night game at the most famous ballpark in The City, and like every night, there was a buzz.
The wind was howling, the flags were snapping high above the center field scoreboard and Melky Cabrera, stationed in the outfield, vividly remembers the details of those magical moments. He was trying to understand how he had become a cult hero in a town full of baseball idols so quickly.
The fans all lived up to their reputation as some of the craziest in all of sports. That says a lot when you consider Cabrera used to spend his winters playing ball in rambunctious parks across the Dominican Republic, where the sport is a religion and rum flows as freely as the baseball chatter.
They loved their hometown team, Cabrera recalls, and they really loved their "Melk Man." The feeling in New York was mutual. Short-lived, but mutual.
Cabrera can probably understand why Joe DiMaggio thanked a higher power for making him a Yankee, but he's probably better off showing gratitude to San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean for making him a Giant and bringing him to The City in this part of the country.
Cabrera, the one-time Yankee, Brave and Royal, is now a first-time All-Star. Like in New York, he's found a home in the clubhouse, a dedicated fan base that goes wild every time he takes the field and another famous ballpark that oozes its own version of Americana, down to the Tony Bennett -- and not Frank Sinatra -- serenade throughout the stadium after each victory.
The only difference this time around is the notion that Cabrera is better than ever, and he might be here to stay. A free agent next year, Cabrera is hitting .354 for the first-place Giants and leads the Major Leagues with 114 hits. He has been a force in the middle of the lineup all season, and last month, he broke Willie Mays' San Francisco record for hits in one month by two with 51.
"Let me put it this way, I'm super happy to be here and I know what I have to do each day," the 27-year-old Cabrera said. "I've learned that you have to be prepared mentally and physically every single game, and that this is a business. You have to be prepared always. You can be in one place and the next day somewhere else and you have to keep on playing."
Cabrera speaks from experience.
Signed by the Yankees as a teenage international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, Cabrera made his big league debut four years later at age 20. By 21, he was a regular in a lineup that included Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams and a young Robinson Cano. In 2007, his play in center field had some people thinking he would be Williams' long-term replacement at the position, but the play that followed had others thinking he was nothing more than a glorified fourth outfielder.
Overall, Cabrera hit .269 with 36 home runs, 228 RBIs and 250 runs scored in his five seasons with the Yankees, before he was eventually traded to the Braves as part of a package for Javier Vazquez before the start of the 2010 season.
The move rattled Cabrera to the core.
Not only was he leaving his beloved Yankees, he was also saying goodbye to his good friend in Cano and his mentor in Rodriguez -- both key members of his support team. His mother Maria Teresa Astacio was going to Atlanta with him, and she's followed him since he began playing regularly in the United States, so that helped. Astacio now lives with her son in San Francisco.
"Maybe if he would have stayed [in New York], he would have learned more and had better seasons," Cano said. "Especially since we play in a small field. Who knows? He might hit 20 or 25 [home runs], with .300, maybe 100 RBIs on a different team. We've got a lot of guys who get on base. Who knows? It could be different."
Perhaps plagued by the "What Ifs," Cabrera showed up to Braves' camp overweight. He never seemed comfortable with the fact he was no longer with the Yankees, and the extra weight limited him at the plate and on defense. Frustrated, Atlanta's front office was happy to get rid of the player they had traded for the previous year, and released him after the season.
Despite whispers about his work ethic, Cabrera eventually signed a one-year deal with the Royals as an extra outfielder for 2011 at the recommendation of international scout Rene Francisco and former Braves bench Chino Cadahia, who was by then a special assistant in player development with Kansas City. At the urging of Rodriguez, Cabrera showed up to Spring Training 20 pounds lighter and in the best shape of his life, and he has grown even stronger in the last two years.
"We didn't think we were outsmarting anybody or we didn't know what we were getting, but we knew he broke into the Major Leagues at a very young age, 21 years old, and you have to have special talent to do that," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "He was only 26 and we needed to believe in the talent and feel like he would re-establish himself. It was the right opportunity and the right fit for us, and Melky obviously felt so as well."
Cabrera went on to hit .305 with 18 home runs and 87 RBIs with Kansas City, reinventing himself as "a good guy" in the clubhouse and a mainstay in the weight room along the way. He was traded to the Giants last winter for Minor Leaguer Ryan Verdugo and pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and became an instant sensation in The Bay Area.
"I am more surprised to people's reaction to how well he has played," Sabean said. "He was a real good all-around player on a real good Yankee team, and maybe he was overshadowed a bit. Guys can have bad years like he did, but you also have to give credit when credit is due. We expected a good all-around professional player, and that's what we have gotten and more."
Cabrera still keeps in touch with Cano and works out with Rodriguez during the offseason, but the newest members of his support team include infielder Joaquin Arias, a former Instructional League teammate with the Yankees, fellow outfielders Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco, along with catcher Hector Sanchez and reliever Sergio Romo. Barry Zito, Brian Wilson and Tim Lincecum are among Cabrera's biggest fans.
The "Melk Man" now has "Melkmen," fans dressed as milk delivery men, and "Melkmaids" showing their support in the stands at AT&T Park. Cabrera has the words "Melk Men" stitched across the back of his shoes.
"I'm so happy I have the opportunity to play every day, and help this team," he said. "To have 40,000 people in the stands cheering every night is incredible. I'm so grateful for how they have taken me in."
But how long will Cabrera stay in San Francisco? The Giants are open to discussions on a multi-year deal with the outfielder, but they are not in a rush to sign him. Earlier this year, the Giants agreed to a six-year, $35.56 million deal with pitcher Madison Bumgarner and a six-year, $127.5 million deal with ace Matt Cain.
"We'll see as things play out," Sabean said. "We are not halfway into the season, but we are open-minded. We certainly like to have him in our uniform."
Cabrera is playing it cool. He says he's been around the game long enough to learn that no player can predict the future, so he's not going to worry about it. One thing is certain: Whether he ends up in this city or some other city in the big leagues, he's confident he will be in great shape.
"I'm not thinking of that right now, but I know I will be a free agent," Cabrera said. "We will see what happens and what we decide to do. But I would love to stay here. This is a really good team and there is a lot of support for me here."