Napoli and Boston rise, while Fielder and Detroit face uncertainty
DETROIT -- One first baseman seems perfectly comfortable in Comerica Park. A lot of hitters have complained the yard is too big; on a chilly, damp October night, it can seem overwhelming. But Boston's Mike Napoli is not fazed. He said late Thursday night that "I'm always confident when I'm in the box," and in the second inning of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, Napoli hit a home run that damn near landed in Canada.
The homer came on a 3-1 fastball from the hand of Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez. What goes through a batter's mind in that moment? Not much. There is no time. But all the thinking that Napoli needed to do was contained in the first sentence of this paragraph.
"I was in a hitter's count," he said later. "I was looking for a fastball."
The ball landed 460 feet away to dead centerfield. Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson gave up on it early. He knew. You can go a whole season without seeing a home run go that far to that part of Comerica.
Speaking of doubts: Prince Fielder. The Detroit first baseman began the evening with a streak of 15 straight postseason games without an RBI. He ended it with the streak at 16 and received a flood of boos from his own fans. Fielder said he wanted to be "aggressive," but that isn't him. He has always prided himself on being a disciplined hitter who happens to have home-run power, not a free swinger. He has looked awkward and impatient.
Napoli looks comfortable in Comerica. Fielder looks like he would rather be in Tiger Stadium. He never hit there as a pro, but he did as kid, tagging along behind his dad, Cecil. When Fielder was 12, he hit a batting-practice pitch out of Tiger Stadium. Cecil's teammates were stunned, and the swat became an instant legend.
Twelve years old, and Fielder looked like he belonged on a major-league field. That home run landed almost two decades ago, but it follows him still.
Prince Fielder is always supposed to hit. That is the burden of his talent, his name, his lineage, and that childhood home run.
Fielder was the seventh pick in the 2002 draft. He quickly became a star in the major leagues. He arrived for his first game back in Detroit as a young slugger with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007. He led the National League in home runs and was an MVP candidate. The moment had seemed inevitable for many years, but it also provided a reminder that great pitching usually beats great hitting. That night, the opposing pitcher, Justin Verlander, threw a no-hitter.
Fielder signed with Detroit as a free agent two seasons ago, and he was surprised to discover how many fans remembered him as a kid. In his first spring training as a Tiger, he doggedly signed autographs for up to an hour after his workouts, wiping sweat off his forehead in the Lakeland, Fla. heat, and turning around when he got to the end of the line so he could sign more. He did this every day.
Was it a calculated attempt by the new guy with the big contract to win over fans? Probably, but so what? He still did it.
Fielder likes that part of the job -- people are always happy to get an autograph, and he likes making people happy.
This does not mean he likes the spotlight. That's a different thing entirely. His fellow slugger, Miguel Cabrera, is at the center of the clubhouse social whirl; Fielder can often come off as aloof and suspicious. He does not solicit attention and is hard to get to know. But pro athletes generally respect talent, work ethic and toughness, and Fielder has all three. He has not missed a game since 2010. He loves the batting cage.
His body is covered with tattoos, but they are tattoos even a mother could love: hearts all over the place, "LOVE" twice on his right hand, roses on his left arm, a smiling emoticon on his forearm. That desire for love may hurt him in the postseason, which is so often dominated by players who don't seem to give a crap what anybody thinks. See the ball, hit the ball, throw the ball, chug champagne.
The postseason is so often dominated by guys like Napoli. He was a 17th-round pick in 2000, and has been a terrific major-league player. He does not carry the same burden Fielder carries. He has never been the biggest name or earned the biggest paycheck on his team.
Napoli had a magical Game 5. Along with the home run, he hit a double, a single and scored on a wild pitch. Unlike Napoli, Fielder has been a great player at his best. But in postseason baseball, magic comes easier to the very good.
Those spring days in the Florida heat seem like a lifetime ago. Many of the people who received autographs from Fielder are surely booing him now. He understands. He signed a $214-million contract, after all. The Tigers don't pay him to be nice. They pay him to hit. He had a rough year by his standards. And so they boo and boo.
"They're fans," Fielder said to the media crowd in the Tigers' clubhouse. "That's what they do. It's definitely not pleasant, but they're fans -- that's what they do. They paid to come."
In a way, he signed up for the boos. The burden grew as soon as he signed that contract.
"It's part of the deal," he said after Game 5. "My kids are taken care of, my family is taken care of, but this is all part of it."
He also said of the fans, "If they could do it, they would play." That is a fairly innocuous statement that may be held against him now in Detroit, because Fielder is at the point where the booing self-multiplies. He has transitioned from ballplayer to storyline.
The Tigers trail this series for many reasons: the Red Sox are deep and talented, Cabrera has an injured groin, third base coach Tom Brookens foolishly sent Cabrera home in the first inning when he had no chance of beating a throw ... the list goes on. But Fielder's struggles are at the top of that list. Prince Fielder is supposed to hit.
It's, Napoli, now, who goes home for Game 6 in a rare position for a Boston athlete: It doesn't really matter what he does. Fans will love him this weekend. He carried their Sawx in Game 5. He is not supposed to carry them every game.
For Fielder, the sample size just got larger and more worrisome. He is not even a .200 hitter in his postseason career. He has failed his team and his talent in October. He is smart enough to know it.
But great players don't need a month of therapy or a year of film study to pull out of a slump. Sometimes they just need a day off, which Fielder gets Friday, and a new locale. Most Tigers would rather be home for Games 6 and 7, but at this point, a visit to Fenway Park might be good for Fielder. When the fans there boo him, it is OK. They are not his fans.
He said: "I'd like to hit a little more balls in the air, but I don't have a magic wand. I'm just trying to hit it hard." Anyway, magic is for the very good. Fielder's excellence has always been borne of hard work. He has spent extra time in the batting cage this week.
"Just to feel good," he said. "Hitting is a feel, so you try to get a good feeling before the game."
And while Tigers fans booed him for his seventh-inning strikeout, they probably didn't notice: He actually looked a little more comfortable at the plate. He took the first pitch for ball one. He fouled off the next one. He grounded out to second base, but he wasn't lunging desperately or hacking at the first pitch. Fielder just needs one mistake from a Boston pitcher and one good swing to be a hero, and to play freely. The other first baseman in this series has proven it. There is still a chance in this postseason for Fielder to feel like that boy in Tiger Stadium again.