Tuesday July 14th, 2009

To anyone who would ask if he tried to hit home runs when he went to bat, Mickey Mantle would always laugh and say, "Every time." To his managers and teammates, such a simplistic approach could be infuriating when a simple base hit would suffice and Mantle would be headed back to the dugout with one of his 1,713 career strikeouts after trying to hit the ball out of the park. But for those blessed with the ability to hit a baseball to the heavens, to make it shrink so fast it appears to be headed into orbit, why waste time with such trivialities when you can just grip-it-and-rip it.

If Mantle has a successor in today's game, it is someone who bears almost no resemblance to him otherwise. Mantle was nearly 6-feet tall and rippling with muscle, while Prince Fielder is squat and heavy-set. One man played on the game's greatest dynasty in the world's most famous city, the other for a mid-market team that has made just one brief playoff appearance in his tenure. One was a fixture in the national consciousness, while the other has been removed from the glare of the national spotlight in Milwaukee. But the two men share the same DNA when they grip a bat and stare down a pitcher 60 feeet 6 inches away. Swing hard, just in case. "In high school, people used to tell me to swing easy, but I don't know how to do that," he said. "I'm not quite sure about my mechanics. I just know I have to swing hard."

Fielder swung hard enough and well enough to produce not only a Derby title -- but the only memorable moments of an otherwise ho-hum Home Run Derby. This may not get him mentioned in the same breath as the Mantles within the game's rich history, but it should at least give him a well-deserved glimpse at the national spotlight. Fielder has been getting his share of attention for years -- first as the son of a former major league All-Star, then as a high school player with incredible power and then as one of the game's premier sluggers. He has also played too well (the fifth most home runs in baseball since 2006 and one of only four players since then with a 50-home run season) to have been completely overshadowed. But in a week in which every player here not named Pujols has been relegated to second-class status, Fielder managed to wrest not only the tile, but the spotlight from Albert Pujols, reminding all that this week, and this game, is bigger than just one man.

Appropriately, that man is Fielder, who has been overshadowed by his NL Central counterpart throughout his career. In the eyes of the nearly 46,000 fans who came to Busch Stadium to watch Pujols cover himself in glory, it may seem the wrong prince is wearing the crown of Home Run Derby champion. But Prince Fielder, not Prince Albert, won, while reminding baseball fans everywhere of his phenomenal skill. Fielder was the only one of the eight participants who consistently delivered the jaw-dropping power the Derby has become famous for. In the semifinals, he launched a 503-foot moon shot ("the first time I've ever hit a ball 500 feet" he would say later) on the heels of a 497-foot bomb in the opening round.

If Josh Hamilton's memorable performance last year resembled fireworks, this was more like sparklers by comparison, but Fielder's final total of 23 is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, only six players in Derby history have crushed more in one evening. If there was a down note to the night, it is that while Hamilton's heroics last season evoked one of the great personal stories of all time, Fielder's triumph calls attention to a different personal tale. He is famously estranged from his father, Cecil, the one-time slugger who had participated in this event with a young and pudgy Prince watching in awe on the sidelines. On Monday, Fielder's own children watched their dad win the Derby, which Fielder called, "cool." But when asked if he had spoken to his father, he answered with a polite but fast, "No."

Even without the relationship, there are traces of Cecil in his son. Both had prodigious power that became their calling card and that same all-or-nothing batting style. But son has the all-encompassing gifts at the plate his father only wishes he did. He ended the first half with a .315 average and .442 on-base percentage, both of which would easily be career highs. He still hits for power, of course, with 22 homers at the break, but he is becoming even more dangerous at the plate, given the variety of his talents.

Fielder's basic approach to hitting extends to his bats. He says he can't even remember the last time he used his own bat. He has been borrowing teammate Rickie Weeks' lumber of late, only to switch to that of another teammate, Ryan Braun, during the Derby. Regardless of his weapon of choice, the result has been the same: A slew of tremendous home runs that recall the fun of simply grabbing a bat, no matter who's it is, and swinging for the fences.

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