Prince Fielder signing with Detroit makes history, and marks a return home

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DETROIT – In one of the most stunning days in the 112-year history of the Detroit Tigers, three-time All Star Prince Fielder signed a record free agent deal to return to the city where he spent most of his formative years and where his father had the greatest years of his career. The signing sent shockwaves throughout Major League Baseball.

“I didn’t even see Detroit in the picture,” Cecil Fielder said in an interview with MLB Network Radio minutes after news of the signing broke. “I didn’t even see that happening. I never saw Detroit making a move like this. Adding him to what they already have makes them pretty strong.”

The deal was like a bolt of lightning for the Tigers, who are coming off of winning their first American League Central Division championship and a six-game loss to the Texas Rangers in the 2011 American League Championship Series. Last week, All-Star designated hitter Victor Martinez tore his ACL while working out in Florida and was lost for the entire 2012 season, leaving a big hole in Detroit’s lineup.

Fielder, 27, batted .299, hit 38 home runs, and drove in 120 runs for the Milwaukee Brewers last season. He finished third in the National League MVP voting and was rumored to signing with the Washington Nationals as recently as Tuesday morning before the Tigers swooped in and signed Fielder (pending a physical) to a nine-year contract worth $214 million – an average of $23.8 million per season.

The deal is the fourth-largest contract in MLB history behind Alex Rodriguez’s last two contracts with the Rangers and New York Yankees and the 10-year, $254 million deal Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels in December. Fielder’s contract is also the largest ever given to an African-American player (Only Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies makes more per year than Fielder at $25 million per season).

Fielder, along with N.L. MVP Ryan Braun, led the Brewers to the National League Championship Series last season, losing to the eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals in six games. Fielder, Braun, and teammate Nyjer Morgan became known for their “Beast Mode” celebrations during games. Now, the 5-foot-11, 300-pound Prince is looking to bring “Beast Mode” to Detroit.

“That’s crazy,” Cecil said. “He’s gonna come full circle, after he’s been there in Detroit most of his young adult life. I think he’s comfortable in that place.”

Prince spent most of his childhood along side his famous father in Detroit. Cecil — who, like his son, was massive at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds — played for the Tigers from 1990 to 1996, hitting 245 home runs, making three All-Star teams, twice finishing as runner-up for the A.L. MVP, and twice leading the A.L. in home runs.

In 1990, Cecil hit 51 home runs — the first player in the majors since 1977 to hit at least 50 — and became an instant superstar in the Motor City alongside Isiah Thomas, Steve Yzerman, and Barry Sanders. Cecil often stunned crowds with his tremendous power, regularly hitting tape-measure home runs completely out of Tiger Stadium.

At his side at all times was Prince, who would frequently be seen with his father during post-game interviews, guest appearances, and batting practices. The two even starred in a very popular McDonald’s commercial in 1992, where Prince playfully struck out his father.

By age 8, Prince had already developed a reputation as a talented baseball player with the local little league teams, playing multiple positions and hitting mammoth home runs.

“He’s a natural ballplayer,” said Chuck Thomas, Prince Fielder’s little league coach, in the Detroit Free Press on June 3, 1992. “He’s more intense than the other boys, but that’s natural; that’s his father’s business.”

“I was afraid it was going to take away from the other kids, but he has fit right in. He’s a fun kid, and he’s a go-getter.”

Prince made more waves as a stocky 12-year-old in 1996 when, while taking batting practice with the Tigers, he hit a home run into the upper deck at Tiger Stadium, leaving legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell speechless. The Brewers drafted Prince six years later and he debuted in Milwaukee in June 2005.

In 2007, just his second full season, Prince hit 50 home runs for Milwaukee, making him the “youngest player in MLB history (23) to hit 50 home runs”: — his father was 26 when he hit 51 — and the Fielders became the only father-son duo to each have a 50-home run season. In six full seasons, Prince is a career .282 hitter, with 230 home runs and 656 RBIs.

The relationship between the two Fielder men, however, has been contentious the last decade. The once tight relationship became strained after the Cecil’s divorce and was further exacerbated when Cecil briefly managed his son’s career — and negotiated his first pro contract — 10 years ago.

In a 2004 report, the Detroit News said that Cecil lost millions of dollars through gambling, the divorce, and bad business decisions. Prince was drawn into the situation in 2002 when he was served papers for his father after a minor league game in Nashville.

The two later got into a dispute over $200,000 of his Brewers’ signing bonus that Prince says Cecil took without his permission. Prince has largely remained silent on the relationship with his father, and until a random meeting in Atlanta in 2010, the two had not spoken in six years.

“That would be cool to be the home run champ,” Prince said in 2007 after hitting his 50th home run. “But not because he did it. That wouldn’t mean anything. Not a thing. Now, if it were me and one of my sons, that would be cool.”

In the one meeting the two had in 2010, Cecil was not in the mood to reconcile either.
“I wanted to drop a right on him instead of talking to him,” Cecil said to the Yuma Sun. “Can’t anybody say I didn’t give my son everything in the world,” Cecil Fielder said. “My son was a gifted child but he had some difficulties that he had to overcome. He was an obese kid. Without his dad paying for a trainer to come over six days a week, he would have been an obese kid to this day.”

Cecil has also said previously that he felt that Prince had been too immature to reconcile with him. Prince responded in 2007 by saying “You’ve got to look at who’s saying it. Let’s be honest. He’s not really the brightest guy.”

The relationship between the two men seems to have finally begun to come back together recently. Cecil said in the MLB Network interview that he had chatted recently with Prince, who is now a father of two kids.

“Well, we’re having a few chats,” Cecil said. “We’re doing a lot better than we were. Time heals all wounds, man. Everybody has to come back together at some point. Number one thing: I’m just happy for him.”

Prince Fielder has not made any public statements regarding the contract or his father, but his signing makes him the biggest free agent acquisition in franchise history. With the nine-year deal, he has chance to become an iconic black baseball figure in Detroit, much like past Tigers such as Willie Horton, Lou Whitaker, Cecil Fielder, and Curtis Granderson.

Prince becomes one of the faces of the franchise next to all-star Miguel Cabrera and A.L. MVP Justin Verlander. In terms of his relationship with his father, one of his former teammates knows how Prince truly feels about his famous dad, and it could explain why Fielder made the decision to sign in Detroit.

“It’s not like he’s erasing his dad from his memory,” said former teammate Bill Hall in USA Today in July 2007. “He obviously appreciates everything his dad did for him. They’re not in a good place right now, but their relationship isn’t as bad as people make it.

“He still will have small conversations about his dad. He’ll go out and imitate his dad’s swing. He’ll hike his pants up real high like his dad, and laugh about it. Deep inside, you know that he loves his dad.”

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith