When Big Daddy came to Detroit

In his first season with the Detroit Tigers in 1990, Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs.

In his first season with the Detroit Tigers in 1990, Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs.

Few took notice of the one line entry in the daily sports transactions on January 15, 1990:

“Free agent C Fielder signs with the Detroit Tigers”

“C Fielder”? Was that a center fielder? Did the copywriter forget his name? Who is this free agent and why did the Tigers sign him?

Just weeks before the first day of spring training the Detroit front office had taken a shot on a former major leaguer who had spent the 1989 season wearing the uniform of the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Baseball League. Cecil Fielder was not a household name. He was built like a house.

No one knew that Cecil Fielder, a behemoth with quick wrists and otherworldly power, would become a superstar for the Tigers in 1990. It’s been 25 years and his home run exploits (and those of his son) are in the record books, but it’s still hard to believe that Fielder (“Big Daddy” to his teammates) was real.

“I know he can hit the ball a long way and in this ballpark that can mean something,” Sparky Anderson told reporters in Lakeland on the first day of spring training. Big Daddy was sitting only 30 feet from Sparky’s office but the gray-haired skipper spoke of him as if he was a myth, a phantom that no one had ever captured on camera. But the footage of Fielder swatting the baseball in Japan, where he became known as “Wild Bear,” showed a man who could propel a baseball into the sky like few others. The Tigers scouting department noticed and that’s why they nabbed him for a one-year, $1.25 million deal that was heavily laden with incentives. If the six-foot-three, 280+ pound Fielder couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t play 100 games, that figure could be sliced by more than half.

But Cecil was determined to make sure that his return to North America would be a success. But it started a little slow.

In the opening three-game series of the season against the Red Sox in Boston, Fielder managed one hit and struck out several times while swinging from the heels. He was trying to hard to impress his new skipper and teammates. In the sixth game of the season back at Tiger Stadium against the Orioles he finally broke through and he did it in grand fashion. Alan Trammell led off the sixth inning with a double. One out later he was standing on third and Cecil ambled to the plate. There was still a lot of “Who’s this guy?” muttering through the stands at The Corner. Dave Johnson was on the mound for the O’s and he tried to sneak a fastball past Fielder. The big right-handed slugger sent his bat through the strike zone and sent the baseball soaring deep to right field far into the upper deck stands. For an opposite field homer it was about as impressive as you could get in Tiger Stadium. It was the first homer of his (Detroit) Tigers’ career but only the first of many. Four days later Fielder deposited a Clay Parker pitch into the upper deck in left field. That one got his skipper’s attention.

“That’s where the big boys hit ’em,” Sparky said after the Tigers won that game against the Yankees.

Five more homers followed in April, including two in a rout of the Brewers, and Fielder had seven home runs as he entered May. By now the cleanup man was driving the ball all over the place, and he raised his average to over .300 by the second week of May. It didn’t take long for #45 jerseys to start popping up at Tiger Stadium that spring. In a game on May 6 against the Blue Jays (his former team) in Toronto, Big Daddy hit three taters and had five RBI. he hit three more homers in the next four days and had 13 home runs in Detroit’s first 30 games. This former Japan league slugger was on pace to hit 70 home runs. At a time when the success of the 1980s was in the rear view mirror and some of the longtime Tiger stars were growing long in the tooth, the city of Detroit was suddenly home run crazy and they had a new hero.

“We haven’t had anyone like this since I’ve been here,” Trammell told the Detroit News. “As soon as [Fielder] steps to the plate he’s in scoring position.”

Fielder his 11 homers in May to run his total to 18 and on June 6 in Cleveland he had his second three-homer game of the season to push it to 22 through one-third of the season. He was still on pace to eclipse the Babe’s mark of 60 and Roger Maris’s record of 62 in a single-season. This was back when hitting 40 homers was news and hitting 50 was unheard of. The last player to reach 50 had been George Foster of the Cincinnati Reds in 1977, who also did his home run swatting under Sparky’s watchful eye.

A dry spell in June slowed Fielder’s pace but he still had 28 homers at the All-Star break when he went to Chicago to play for the American League at Wrigley Field. Fielder didn’t start the game at first base, that honor went to Mark McGwire who would later make a notorious assault on the home run record book. Fielder hit a fly ball as a pinch-hitter and later walked. It was all pretty surreal for Fielder, who had not been able to get a job in the major leagues just a year and a half earlier.

As the calendar flipped to August, Fielder had 33 home runs and led baseball in runs batted in. His efforts were not going to lift the Tigers into a playoff spot, but it was helping to bring fans to the ballpark and keep intense interest on the team. On August 25 at Tiger Stadium Fielder squared off against baseball’s most intimidating pitcher, Dave Stewart of the Oakland A’s, who were on their way to another pennant. Stewart tossed a fastball and Fielder crushed it onto and over the roof in left field. For a moment everyone in the ballpark just stopped what they were doing and stared. Even the ballplayers. Fielder tossed his bat and watched the ball disappear like everyone else, and who could blame the big fella? “That one’s loooooong gone!!!” Ernie Harwell told his radio listeners. It was one of the most mammoth home runs ever hit at The Corner. Fielder became only the fifth or sixth batter to clear the left field roof (depending on what stories you believe). He added one more homer in that game and had 42 by the end of August. The chase for 50 was on. Only ten batters had ever hit 50 homers in a season before 1990. Some of baseball’s greats had never done it. Lou Gehrig never did it, neither did Ted Williams or Reggie Jackson. It was a rare feat at that time in baseball.

By this time Fielder’s story was front page news everywhere, not just in Michigan. The Sporting News and Time magazine had reporters following him. All three national TV networks had their cameras trained on his every at-bat. On September 3 he hit #43, two days later he hit #44, and two days after that he socked #45. But nearly a week went by before Fielder hit his 46th, in an afternoon tilt at Tiger Stadium off Mike Witt of the Yankees. Three days later he victimized the Bombers again, hitting #47 off Mark Leiter deep into the upper deck in left field. It was one of his longest homers of the season and it delighted the Tiger fans at The Corner. On September 23 in Oakland the Tigs were rallying in the second inning when Fielder came to the plate with the bases loaded. He flicked his big bat at a pitch from Mike Moore and belted a grand slam to left field at The Coliseum for his 48th homer. He had 126 RBIs to lead baseball as well.

With nine games left, Big Daddy needed two more homers to join the exclusive 50-homer club. Six of those games would come at home before Detroit would travel to New York to finish the season. On September 27 in a makeup game against the Red Sox at Tiger Stadium, Fielder was homerless when he came to the plate in the 8th inning to face reliever Dennis Lamp. After swinging and missing twice at pitches down and away, Fielder made a read on a Lamp fastball and laced it to left field and the upper deck for a no-doubt home run. It was #49. Only 13,00+ were in the stands for the game which was the replay of a game rained out in April, but they managed to give Fielder a nice ovation. Sitting on 49 homers, Fielder had three more games at Tiger Stadium against the Twins but he couldn’t muster a longball. The pressure was mounting, though Fielder never seemed fazed.

“The pressure is on the other guy,” Fielder sad, “I wasn’t even supposed to be here and [this was] never gonna happen.” His big smile made everyone understand just how thankful and joyous he was to be playing baseball in the major leagues again. A 50th home run would be icing on the cake for Fielder, who had already proved to himself that he could play in the big leagues.

Wouldn’t you know it? Fielder failed to homer in either of the first two games in The Bronx. It wasn’t for lack of trying or opportunity. Opposing pitchers were giving him stuff to hit, but Cecil was trying too hard. He struck out three times on Friday night and twice more on Saturday afternoon. That left Game #162 and the final day of the season for Fielder to get to 50. To give him perhaps another at-bat, Sparky batted Fielder second in the lineup that day against Steve Adkins, a rookie making just his fifth start in the big leagues. In the first inning Adkins might have been as nervous as Fielder since he walked the big guy on four wide pitches. Cecil trotted home moments later on a home run from teammate Gary Ward, but it wasn’t Ward’s home runs they crowd wanted to see. In the second inning Fielder lined a ball to left field and into the glove of Hensley Meulens, another Yankee rookie playing in what was generally a meaningless game.

Then in the fourth, Fielder came up with two outs and Tony Phillips hugging first base. Adkins was still on the mound for the Yankees and the young lefty went to 2-1 on Fielder before trying to get a fastball in on him. Fielder met the pitch and sent it to left field deep — there was no doubt about it — it was home run #50. The home run was typical of many off Fielder’s bat in 1990 — a high towering drive. First to greet Cecil at home plate was Phillips who scored ahead of him, and second was Trammell who was batting third behind the big slugger.

“I never saw a guy who could hit home runs as far as often as he did,” Trammell recalled later.

But Fielder wasn’t happy with 50. In the sixth he came up with two men on base facing Alan Mills (another Yankee rookie) and on a full count he sent a fastball to left field for another home run. It was a three-run blast and his 51st homer of the season. This time it was a screaming line drive that got to the seats practically before Mills could say “Oh crap!” Fielder exited the contest in the 9th, the Tigers won the game 10-3 (Jack Morris won his 15th game of the year and the final game of his Tiger career), and Fielder had his milestone.

Fielder finished the season with 51 homers and 132 RBIs, both totals leading the major leagues. He finished second in American League Most Valuable Player voting.

Not bad for a Big Daddy few people had ever heard of before his signing as a free agent eight months earlier.

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