The last time Prince Fielder wore the uniform of the Detroit Tigers he was sitting in the cramped clubhouse beneath Fenway Park with a lost look on his face. Today the former Tiger will probably sport that same look at times during a press conference at which he’ll announce he’s retiring from baseball due to a herniated discs in his neck.
Fielder, 32, played 12 seasons in the major leagues with three teams, the Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit, and Texas Rangers. He was a six-time All-Star and he received votes for most valuable player in six separate seasons. He hit 319 home runs in his big league career, many of them the high-flying variety. Earlier in 2016, Fielder joined his father in the 1,000-RBI club.
The hulking slugger missed the last four-and-a-half months of the 2014 season, his first with the Rangers, because of a similar injury to the vertebrae in his neck. He rebounded to have an All-Star campaign last year but transitioned into the designated hitter role due to concerns over his health. Last month he was told that he had suffered another herniated disc in a similar area of his neck and speculation arose that the problem might be too severe to allow him to play professional baseball going forward.
The Rangers will surely surround Fielder with support at the press conference today, but there’ll also surely be an undercurrent of disappointment. The team acquired Fielder after the 2013 season in a one-for-one deal that sent Ian Kinsler to Detroit. The trade has proven to be extremely lopsided in favor of the Tigers, as Kinsler has continued his All-Star caliber play and leadership while Fielder managed to only play in 289 games for the Rangers in three seasons.
Adding insult to injury, the Rangers are on the hook for the balance of Fielder’s gigantic contract whcih he originally inked with Detroit after team owner Mike Ilitch courted him in 2012. The Rangers, who never seem to meet a bad contract they don’t like, will owe Fielder $20 million each year from 2017 through 2020.
Detroit wriggled out of that fat contract in the 2013 offseason when general manager Dave Dombrowski jettisoned Fielder after a controversial season. Detroit paid a portion of the front end of the contract as a condition of the Rangers taking Fielder, and then they merrily skipped away happy to be rid of a player who was teetering on emotional collapse. In his final year in Detroit, Fielder battled the press and also a teammate who had a much-publicized affair with his wife. The final straw seemed to come in the Fenway Park clubhouse after the Tigers were defeated by the Red Sox in Game Six, ending their season. After a reporter asked how it felt to have the year end so abruptly, Prince shrugged and said, “It hurts, and I know fans will be [upset], but this isn’t life and death.”
The timing of that comment didn’t sit well with Fielder’s teammates nor Dombrowski. As a result, it’s the Rangers who are holding an unfortunate press conference today and not the Tigers.
Fielder grew up in Detroit, the son of Cecil “Big Daddy” Fielder, the Tigers slugging first baseman who exploded onto the scene in 1990 with mammoth home runs at Tiger Stadium as a free agent signee. During his Detroit years from 1990 to 1996, Cecil brought young Prince into the clubhouse where he became friendly with manager Sparky Anderson and members of the team such as Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, and Chet Lemon. When he was only 12 years old Prince hit a home run into the upper deck at Tiger Stadium during batting practice.
The Brewers made Fielder the seventh overall selection in the 2002 amateur draft and three years later, just a month after his 21st birthday, Fielder made his debut with Milwaukee. He hit 28 home runs in 2006 as a rookie and the following year he clubbed 50 home runs, joining his dad in the 50-homer club. Prince was only 23 years old, the youngest man to ever hit 50 home runs.
The slugger battled weight problems throughout his career but still displayed remarkable athletic ability and a lightning-quick bat. A lefty, Prince was a better overall hitter than his father, batting over .300 twice and striking out less than Cecil. From 2007-2011 he averaged 40 homers and 114 RBIs. He finished third in MVP voting twice and fourth once during that span.
Fielder was one of the marquee free agents in 2011/12 offseason but he wasn’t on Detroit’s radar since the team had Miguel Cabrera at first. But when designated hitter Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending injury before spring training, the Tigers shocked baseball by signing Fielder to a $214 million, nine-year deal. The Tigers were coming off their first division title in more than two decades and hopes soared with the prospect of Miggy and Fielder in the middle of the lineup.
Fielder made an impact in his first season beyond his own personal production. He served as protection for Cabrera, who had a season for the ages, winning the first triple crown in 35 years. The team advanced to the World Series but lost in four games to the Giants. The following year the Tigers were even better, winning a third consecutive division crown and rolling to the ALCS as favorites to beat Boston. But the offense struggled, including Fielder who hit just .182 with no runs batted in during the six-game series. Overall in five postseason series for the Tigers, Fielder hit a dismal .178 with one homer and three RBIs in 24 games.
Fielder and his father have a complicated relationship. At one point, Cecil was Prince’s hero, but bad blood developed between the two after Prince became a professional ballplayer. The two went years without speaking before reconciling in his final season in Milwaukee. Ironically, the two will stand tied on the all-time home run list with 319.
Prince will be best remembered for a few shining accomplishments in his career: his streak of 574 consecutive games played was the longest in baseball until it ended in 2014; he won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in Kansas City in 2012; and he and Cecil Fielder are the only father/son duo to each hit 50 homers in the same season.