Everyone has a lasting memory of the first time they heard about or saw Miguel Cabrera, one of the greatest right-handed hitters of his generation.
Marlins assistant general manager Brian Chattin was in the early stages of his career with the organization when the team invested $1.8 million in the 16-year-old Venezuelan. Back then, the international arena wasn't covered like it is now, so the fact that Cabrera's signing made news even caught the attention of those not in baseball operations.
Jack McKeon wasn't with the Marlins at the time, but he remembers visiting friend Bill Beck in Melbourne, Fla., one Spring Training and having Cabrera, then a third-base prospect, turn heads during a split-squad game. McKeon immediately called his son, who was the Reds' scouting director, and told him to try to make a deal for Cabrera. No such luck.
Pitcher Dontrelle Willis had just been traded from the Cubs to the Marlins toward the end of Spring Training in 2002 when he heard someone laughing at him while throwing on Field 3 at Space Coast Stadium.
"I'm like, 'Who the hell is this guy? What's his problem?'" Willis recalled. "He's just laughing at my herky-jerky windup, and my ball's moving all over the place and stuff like that. So then I go out there and I pitch really well. And he's still laughing on the side.
"He's like, 'Are you Willy?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' He's like, 'Man, you're balling. Your leg kick, everything, is crazy.' We hit it off, because I realized that he wasn't making fun of me. He just had never seen anything like me before. From that day on, we hit it off very well."
The following spring, Cabrera's performance during an exhibition game between the Marlins and their Double-A affiliate made it clear to newcomers Iván Rodríguez and Juan Pierre that he wouldn't be in the Minors for much longer.
Sure enough, Cabrera arrived in the big leagues on June 20, 2003, after hitting .365 with 42 extra-base hits in 69 games for the Double-A Carolina Mudcats. But it took plenty of insistence from then-owner Jeffrey Loria and McKeon, who had replaced Jeff Torborg as manager on May 11. Cabrera had been playing third base in the Minors, but the Marlins already had a third baseman in Mike Lowell. Maybe Cabrera could play in the outfield?
"Some of the people in the organization didn't want to bring him up," McKeon recalled. "We had a big discussion about it. I said, 'I don't care, we'll find out if he can play the outfield.' So I finally convinced them to bring him up."
At the time, the Marlins were fourth place in the National League East. The players didn't know where Cabrera would fit in or what his callup meant for the direction of the club.
After going hitless in his first four at-bats, Cabrera lined a two-run walk-off homer in the 11th inning at Pro Player Stadium to cap his debut.
"I could feel this energy in the dugout, kind of like, 'Maybe he's not ready,' which is unfair," Willis said. "It's his first day, we're playing the Rays. I remember telling Derrek Lee, like, 'No, he's going to be fine.'
“And sure enough, he hits that missile to dead center and walks it off. And then the rest was kind of history."
The rookie duo of Willis and Cabrera brought youthful energy to a veteran clubhouse. It didn't take long for Cabrera to slide into the middle of the lineup to protect Rodríguez, the future Hall of Famer, as the Marlins went 56-32 the rest of the season and secured the NL Wild Card.
"They came out with that exuberance, Dontrelle with the leg kick and getting the fans and always smiling," Pierre said. "Miggy was always -- he still is -- we used to call him 'Big Baby.' He was just a fun dude. He didn't take stuff too serious. That was so ironic as a young guy, because you would think the young guys would press just to stay up. But they just fit right in with the team. …
"It pushed all the rest of us, and then we started playing well, and then the rest is history. He's just something special. Generational. It's what you tell your kids about, like, 'I got to play with Miguel Cabrera.'"
When Lowell broke his left hand in August, Cabrera shifted from the outfield to third base. The Marlins then acquired Jeff Conine to bolster the outfield.
"It was unbelievable, but he never took anything for granted," Rodríguez said. "For the age that he was at the time, 20 years old, he was very mature at the plate, with the teammates and with the team, and that's what makes him so good as a player. To see him through the years and through his career and through everything that he did into today is amazing."
That maturity shone brightest on the sport's biggest stage. In Game 4 of the World Series against the Yankees, then-six-time American League Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens brushed back Cabrera to open a first-inning matchup. Twenty years Clemens' junior, Cabrera sent the seventh pitch over the right-field wall for a two-run homer.
The underdog Marlins went on to win, 4-3, in 12 innings to even the World Series. The club captured its second championship by taking the next two games of the Fall Classic.
"The at-bat against Clemens in the World Series might be one of the greatest at-bats I've ever seen," said Conine, who played with Cabrera from 2003-05. "Just the situation. The 20-year veteran vs. the 20-year-old kid. I don't even know if Miggy was born when Clemens broke into the big leagues. [He was, but only by about 13 months.]
“There was the intimidation factor. 'I'm going to go up and in and show this guy who's boss.' Miggy looked back at him, said, 'That didn't faze me.' And then he took him deep. It was just an awesome at-bat, kind of encapsulated what kind of player Miggy was: just fearless."