VIERA, Fla. -- Baseballs were flying over the shrubs beyond the left-field wall and scattering the cattle just as the bad guy rustlers did each week on "Rawhide." It was a while ago. The Marlins were the home team at Space Coast Stadium then. The immediate area was pasture surrounded by pasture. And beyond that, more pasture. The hitter/rocket launcher during the Marlins' batting practice was a recently signed kid shortstop from Venezuela. His weight was measured at 180 pounds, give or take a roll or two.
Sunday, or 12 1/2 years and a few hot dogs later, the erstwhile, borderline scrawny shortstop was back on the same field again, though he, the Marlins and the cattle had been relocated. And the shrubs had become much needed shade trees. Miguel Cabrera, third baseman, batting champion, borderline MVP and now prominent member of the Detroit Tigers, was standing at shortstop again, this time chatting with another shortstop in need of a few milkshakes and candy bars, one Dixon Machado.
Mike Russell was an interested observer in both instances. He was a Marlins scout in the instructional league in 1999. He is a Tigers scout in Spring Training these days.
"I'm not following Miguel around," Russell says. "But it was fun to watch him then when you were trying to figure out how good he might be. And it's fun to see him now that he's one of the premier players in the game. Back then, when we first saw him, it didn't take long to figure out he was gonna be special. The cows told ya. They must have thought they were under attack."
Russell clearly is not among those who question whether Cabrera will prosper as the Tigers third baseman this season.
"He's always had great hands," Russell said, "and his arm may be one of the five best in the game. And now you can see him working with kids. You like to see that. And you know he's gonna hit."
Prince Fielder has displaced Cabrera at first base, returning Cabrera to the position he has played in 398 big league games, 381 as a starter. He finished 328 of the 381. And now Tigers manager Jim Leyland promises Cabrera is again a nine-inning defender. That bat doesn't come out for defensive purposes. Moreover, Leyland says, "He can play third fine. Why would we need to take him out?"
"He's put on some pounds since the first time I saw him," Russell says. "But he still might be able to play short in a pinch."
Russell spoke wistfully as he recalled the cows.
"There was nothing else around for miles," he said. "We'd just sit and watch that kid swing."
The cattle are long gone. The beef is in the middle of the the Tigers' batting order.
The home run by Clete Thomas in the seventh inning of the Tigers' 11-7 victory against the Nationals on Sunday was the Tigers' 23rd. They have played 16 games. They're batting .299. They have scored at least 10 runs four times. And it's only Spring Training.
Doug Fister struck out five of his first seven batters, allowed eight of his 14 batters to reach base (errors were responsible for two of them) and retired the side in order on four pitches -- three gound balls -- in the fourth, his final inning. He allowed three runs, one earned. He has allowed one earned run, five hits and two walks in nine innings.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland, speaking of Delmon Young, who is eligible for free agency after the 2012: "I love guys like that [motivated by the promise of a big pay day]. I like any guys paying for the groceries."
Add this to Leyland's long list of characterizations of Prince Fielder: "He's much more athletic than I knew. I heard he was. But I hadn't seen it. He's very professional. He's a very good dad. His family is important to him. He's very impressive."
Best feature of Space Coast Stadium on Sunday: A "Stephen Strasburger" is sold here. The purchaser is required to eat it with speed and with a lot of stuff on it.
Thomas' home run was hit to right, well to the right of the light pole on which an endangered species owl and her babies live. "If he hadn't pulled it so much," Leyland said, "it would have been and owl ball."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.