01/26/12 6:25 PM EST
Start your engines: Prince arrives in Motown
Fielder returns to place of his youth to make Tigers more powerful
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
He's light years now from the days when he said Tony Phillips would throw him in the trash can, or sneak him candy from the clubhouse kitchen. With Thursday's announcement of his nine-year, $214 million contract, Fielder is a Tigers star in his own right -- as well as half of one of the most imposing offensive tandems in the game with American League batting champion Miguel Cabrera.
"It's awesome," Fielder said. "I really don't know what to say. I just never thought this could happen, and it's happening now. It's an awesome moment. ... It's a really special day."
The Tigers, having agreed to terms with Fielder on Tuesday, introduced the All-Star slugger, who became a familiar face for many Detroiters when he was in Little League. In the process, the Tigers gave an emphatic answer to the question of how they will fill the void in their lineup left by Victor Martinez's knee injury.
The announcement and news conference came nine days after team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski had a conference call to discuss Martinez's likely season-ending injury and the challenge the Tigers would encounter replacing him. In the week that followed, Fielder seemed like an unlikely fit, given his desire for a long-term deal and the Tigers' commitments to Cabrera at first base and Martinez at designated hitter, when he returns.
New Prince of Detroit
The same day Dombrowski talked with reporters, he had to break the news to team owner Mike Ilitch.
"It came about when Martinez got injured and we sat down, Dave and I and some of the other key people in the organization, about how we're going to handle this," Ilitch said. "I got a little dizzy because this person would move here and this person would move here ... and I got to thinking, and I said, 'You know, they're all going to have pressure on them to match that .320 batting average and 100 RBIs. They're going to feel pressure to fill in that slot. I don't want to run into that.' I was telling Dave I'd feel a lot better if we could just totally solve it, then when [Martinez] gets back, I think we'll have a very, very explosive team. That's really how it got going."
Until the Martinez injury, Dombrowski said, "we would not have been interested" in Fielder. Immediately after the injury, the Tigers became interested in a short-term contract, an idea agent Scott Boras quickly dismissed. As Boras put it, they were pretty far along the process with other teams by the time Detroit jumped in.
It took Ilitch's efforts to turn their interest into a long-term commitment.
"I figured we had to do it," Ilitch said later. "I didn't feel right piecemealing people in, trying to fill that. ... I just got the feeling that we're better off trying to get a replacement."
Ilitch directed Tigers officials to go for it at the end of last week. After a few days of negotiation, Fielder and the Tigers came to agreement on the largest contract in team history and fourth-largest in Major League history. The move caught the rest of baseball by surprise, and made much of Detroit elated.
"It was a very difficult process for [Fielder]," Boras said. "But in the end, having this lineup, a city he's familiar with, an owner who really wants to win for a lot of reasons, I told him, 'I think this man will do whatever it takes to win.'"
Fielder grew up around the Tigers in the early 1990s as the son of famed Detroit slugger Cecil Fielder, whose 51-homer season in 1990 powered him onto the map of the game's great sluggers. While Cecil Fielder put together back-to-back Major League home run crowns, the younger Fielder was a frequent presence around the Tigers clubhouse, taking batting practice with coaches and hitting home runs of his own in an empty Tiger Stadium.
"At the old ballpark, Cecil, after Tiger games, would come up to the box and he'd bring me food," Ilitch said. "We'd sit down and all we'd do is talk about Prince. 'Prince is going to do this, and Prince is going to do that.' And I'd say, 'Typical father, bragging about one of his kids.'
"After he started putting [home runs] in the upper deck, I said, 'You don't have to come upstairs anymore. You don't have to tell me any more about him.' He was marked to be a baseball player."
Fielder nearly became a Tiger out of the Draft in 2002. The Brewers had the seventh overall pick and selected Prince, by then a famed high school slugger in Florida. The Tigers had the eighth pick, and were left to take high school shortstop Scott Moore.
Still, Fielder took his Tigers history with him.
"There's a lot of good memories. Hopefully I can give those to my two boys, because I think those memories have actually helped me, especially in professional baseball, seeing how all these guys who I thought were just superheroes, how much they were having fun playing baseball. They were just having fun the way I was at 12. It helped me a lot, and showed me what I really wanted to do."
From there, the younger Fielder made his own name over seven seasons in Milwaukee, where he became the foundation of a Brewers team that earned two postseason berths and won an NL Central title last season. Fielder's 228 homers since 2006 rank third among all Major League players in that span, to go with a .282 average, 646 RBIs and a .929 OPS.
Fielder finished third in NL MVP voting last season after batting .299 with 38 homers and 120 RBIs, 107 walks and a .415 on-base percentage, finishing second in the NL in all those categories except batting average. His 322 total bases and .566 slugging percentage each ranked third.
Fielder said coming back to the place where his father starred wasn't a concern for him. Knowing the city was a big help, but not the overwhelming factor.
"Me knowing the city a little bit, it just made it easier to come back, come here," he said. "I think with the contract and that, people would welcome me a little bit and it wouldn't be such a pressure issue. A lot of people here have seen me grow up, so it's just special."
Manager Jim Leyland said the plan is for Cabrera to move to third base, the position he mostly played during his first five seasons with the Marlins.
"It's my job along with the coaches to figure out how to put that puzzle together, and I don't think it's going to be an issue at all," Leyland said. "I think Miguel Cabrera is going to play third base. ... I feel pretty comfortable about it. You give up a little something, but you get a whole lot in return.
"I did talk to Miguel. He's 100 percent on board. He feels really good about it. He's going to shed a little bit of weight, [but] hopefully not too much."
In listing a potential regular starting lineup in response to a question, Leyland put Cabrera third and Fielder fourth.
"Pretty hard to mess that one up," he said.