Relaxed Prince thriving in the moment
Milwaukee slugger remaining focused amid uncertain future
NEW YORK -- Prince Fielder, in case you didn't already know, is an expert at the undervalued art of imitating batting stances. His best, he claims, is Mo Vaughn. And the one he hasn't yet perfected is Hunter Pence.
"His swing, I can't quite get it," Fielder said of the Astros right fielder. "But I'm getting better at it."
Impersonating his counterparts has helped Fielder freely and successfully alter his own stance from time to time. Like a month ago, when he began to stand slightly more upright to make him more comfortable and productive at the plate.
Odd as it might be, it seems that innate ability has actually helped Fielder have what is perhaps the best first half of his already illustrious career.
"A wise man once told me that if you show me a hitter who can imitate another hitter, I'll show you a guy you can work with to be a good hitter," Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum said.
But most everyone, Fielder included, will agree that the biggest reason he's an early MVP candidate is because he's just so relaxed -- in a year when he's supposed to feel the exact opposite.
Sure, players always claim that the off-the-field stuff doesn't bother them. Why wouldn't they? Admitting to the fact -- no matter how obvious -- only leads down the wrong path. But when the Brewers tell you the pending free agency of the franchise's mightiest slugger since Hank Aaron has been a non-issue all year, you tend to believe them.
Fielder's focus has been that sharp.
"His numbers have been very impressive, but I think the way he's been able to focus is even more impressive," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said about the man who leads the NL in RBIs and ranks second in OPS and homers. "He's in a very good position. But at the start of the year, we had this agreement to go out there and play and perform; that we were good for him and he's good for us, is what it came down to."
Let's get one thing out of the way: Barring a miracle -- or maybe a World Series championship -- this will probably be Fielder's final season in Milwaukee.
It's hard to figure out a way for the Brewers to sign him to the monstrous deal he'll garner as a free agent. Not when you consider that this mid-market club handed out extensions to Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks last offseason, and would likely want to do the same for newly acquired starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
Besides, it's not often that a Scott Boras client re-ups with his club.
Sure, Melvin and Boras talk rather frequently, but the topic of Fielder's contract hasn't come up since Spring Training, and it won't again until after the season (if then). So, with July starting today, it looks like Fielder -- in his seventh season -- now has at most four months remaining in the uniform of a team with which he was a first-round Draft pick, a 50-home-run hitter and an All-Star Game starter.
Amazingly, though, there has been no sign of that big, white elephant in the Brewers clubhouse.
"It's really, really easy, actually," veteran starter Randy Wolf said. "First and foremost, he's a very good teammate, and he's having a very good year, and he's helping us win. And this team here is really concentrating on this year and trying to win every series, win every game, and try to get to the postseason and win a championship. That's our goal. All of us want what's best for Prince, and of course all of us would love to have him here and keep him here, but he's got to do what's best for his career and what he feels is right."
The fact the Brewers don't reside in a big market and remain a playoff hopeful -- holding a share of the lead in the National League Central despite getting swept by the Yankees -- makes it easier for their sole focus to remain on the present.
But it's more than that.
Teammates have raved about Fielder's attitude amid an uncertain future since day one. First-year manager Ron Roenicke noticed it during an early Spring Training meeting, when he called Fielder into his office to get a feel for what he was thinking heading into the biggest season of his life and immediately came away at ease.
Fielder himself has an interesting theory for why he's so relaxed these days.
"I look ahead a lot," he admitted. "So now the fact that there's nothing to look ahead to, I'm calm. Which is weird."
Last year didn't go this smoothly. Extension talks broke down, the Brewers weren't winning and Fielder was a wreck en route to just 83 RBIs -- while slugging just .301 with runners in scoring position -- and a career-low .261 batting average.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," Fielder said, "whether I was going to get traded or whatever."
This year, the Brewers did a fine job of addressing Fielder's contract uncertainty early and getting it out of the way quickly. And Fielder has brushed it off as nothing more than additional questions he'll answer upon arriving at a new road city -- something he seems extremely comfortable doing.
"Everything has kind of gone, I wouldn't say perfectly, but as good as it could," veteran outfielder Mark Kotsay assessed.
It's not just the .302 batting average, 21 homer and 69 RBIs that have made Fielder's first half so remarkable. It's the success he's having against lefties, the way he's producing with men on base and the patience he has displayed while teams continue to pitch around him.
Another half like this, and Fielder could be the first player to win a Most Valuable Player award in his potential walk year since Barry Bonds in 2001.
And then, unlike Bonds -- who signed a five-year extension with the Giants that following offseason -- Fielder will likely walk.
It's not the most pleasant of thoughts, but it's part of the game. And, as Wolf points out, "Baseball is one of those things that if you have separation anxiety, it's not a good game for you."
Fielder learned the realities of the game as a toddler bobbing around Major League clubhouses with his father, Cecil. He knows all about the grown-up aspects, and that has helped him in this process.
"I understand the business, but if I were to leave, it'd be sad, just because this is where I started my career and I have a lot of good friends here," Fielder said. "You'd like to stay here, because this is the only team I've been on. So I'd like to. But like I said, it's a business, and you never know."
That business will have an assortment of teams falling all over themselves to give the 27-year-old lefty slugger big money -- the type that will be nearly impossible to pass up.
So, to borrow a phrase from Donna Summer, 2011 is likely "the last dance" for Fielder and the Brewers.
They're poised to make it a memorable one.
"In the end, both [parties] want the best for them," Fielder said. "They have to do the best for them, and I have to do the best for me. But as far as right now, I'm a Brewer, and I'm here to win."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.