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Prince Fielder heads home and his father hopes to join him

NEW YORK -- Cecil Fielder was in the air on a cross-country flight for most of Tuesday, but when he landed that afternoon, he powered on his cell phone and immediately started receiving calls.

The first came from a radio station seeking a reaction to news Cecil hadn't yet heard: his son Prince, the 27-year-old slugging first baseman, had not only agreed to a lucrative nine-year, $214-million contract but would be playing in Detroit, the city where his father was a three-time All-Star with the Tigers.

"No way," Cecil recalled saying. "I wouldn't have imagined that he would be there. That was a shock."

About five minutes later, the next call came from Willie Horton, the former Tigers great who is now a special assistant to the team president. "I couldn't tell you what was going on, but we got him," Horton said, according to Cecil.

The Tigers had emerged from nowhere to swoop in and lock up the sport's top remaining free agent, inking him to the fourth-largest contract in baseball history. The Tigers were courting Prince secretly, and Prince hadn't communicated this opportunity to his father.

Cecil and Prince had a well-publicized falling-out years ago. According to The Detroit News, in 2004, Cecil lost millions of dollars to gambling and to business investments that went poorly, and Prince accused his father of taking a chunk of his first signing bonus without permission. (Cecil has denied that he did so without permission.) Cecil and Prince's mother went through a difficult divorce. The father and son were estranged for years.

But recently, according to Cecil, they've begun to repair that relationship.

Cecil reached out to his son on Christmas Eve and left a message, which Prince returned and they had a conversation.

"At some point somebody had to break the ice," said Cecil, who declined to elaborate on the specifics of the conversation. "When you've got two stubborn folks, two stubborns don't make a right, you know what I mean? I think at some point we needed to break the ice and just say hello and how you doing and those types of things. I made sure he was okay. He made sure I was okay. And then I asked about my grandkids and how they were doing. At the end of the day, man, I think it's going to be fine."

He recognizes reconciliation will take effort from both of them.

"It's going to take us to make it happen," Cecil said. "At some point you've got to throw out those olive branches and see if somebody's going to catch hold of them."

Prince has been reticent to speak publicly about his father. He declined a request from SI.com through a spokesman at the company run by his agent, Scott Boras.

Cecil, who had arrived in New York to attend a fundraiser for Major League Baseball's charity, the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), met with a reporter from SI.com in a men's clothing store in midtown Manhattan where he was visiting with a friend, Joe Oks, who works at the store.

Cecil Fielder is now 48. His head is shaved and his goatee is mostly grey. He wore a blue sweatshirt with the initials TBL stitched in red just below the neckline for The Baseball Legends, the company Cecil owns and manages. It runs baseball leagues, tournaments, showcases, camps and clinics for youth in the U.S. and Mexico. He's also remarried with two young children at home: a seven-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. Cecil boasts that his young son, Grant, is already showing signs of being quite the athlete.

Cecil had been wondering where his older son would sign, speculating like most of the baseball world that the Washington Nationals were the frontrunners. Friends who work for the Nationals and Mariners had given occasional updates about their courtship of Prince, but Cecil never saw the Tigers -- whom he played for when he led the majors with 51 home runs in 1990 and 44 homers in 1991 -- as a serious suitor. He and Prince are the only father-son pair to each hit 50 home runs in a big-league season.

"I sent him a message [Tuesday], just telling him congratulations and hope everything goes well," Cecil said.

Prince hadn't replied as of Thursday evening, his life undoubtedly a whirlwind. "You can imagine what's going on with him right now," Cecil said of his son.

When asked at his televised press conference if he had any qualms about playing for his father's old team, Prince, who was accompanied by his own two sons, emphasized his excitement about playing for the Tigers without mentioning his father.

According to a reporter in Detroit, Prince was asked about his relationship with his father more directly off-camera and again declined to talk about his dad.

"Well, you know, man, today is a good day," Prince reportedly said. "I've got my family here, my wife, my two boys. I'm just ecstatic about being with the Tigers. I'm just here to enjoy the day, bro."

Earlier in the week, however, Stacey Fielder-August, Cecil's ex-wife and Prince's mother, told The Detroit News, "Prince is a very wise boy who loves his father dearly. I think this whole situation in Detroit is going to work out great."

That Prince will now call Detroit home only brings more attention to them and their relationship. "It is a crucial situation for he and I to get back together," Cecil said. "We probably aren't ever going to be the way that we were, but at the end of the day, at least we'll be able to get together when we're supposed to be together."

Cecil watched Prince's press conference on TV and said "it was a good thing" that his son didn't address their relationship specifically.

"He's got to do what he's got to do," Cecil said in a follow-up telephone conversation Thursday evening. "We're happy for him and whatever happens and whatever transpires, it is what it is. That's the way you've got to look at it. You can't force the issue."

Cecil's voice remains full of a father's pride. He sometimes refers to Prince as "my man." That pride is evident in how quick he is to analyze the implications of the deal. "It puts him in a different situation now," Cecil said. "They showed him all the respect that you can be shown. He's one of the top three, four money-getters in all of baseball."

Cecil believes the AL, with its use of the designated hitter, is a good long-term fit for Prince. It's not so essential now -- Prince is only 27 and has averaged 160 games over the past six seasons -- but could be five or more years down the road.

Cecil seems to like reminiscing. He said he has a photo at home from his early days with the Blue Jays in which a one-year-old Prince is swinging a Wiffle Ball bat in his Toronto apartment. When he got a little older, Prince became his father's regular companion in the clubhouse and outside playing ball and warming up before a game. The two even starred in a McDonald's commercial together.

The pair made an impression on team owner Mike Ilitch, who at Thursday's press conference spoke about spending time with the father and son and how he wanted to select Prince in the first round of the 2002 draft, but the Brewers nabbed him one spot earlier. "I thought it was a typical father bragging about his kids," Ilitch said of the way Cecil spoke of his young son. Until, that is, a 12-year-old Prince hit a ball into the upper deck of the old Tiger Stadium.

"When Cecil was playing, he was the greatest father in the world," said Oks, who met Cecil when the latter was a Yankee. "Afterwards, I don't know what happened."

Few know exactly what happened, but publicly the contrast is jarring from the well-documented early days to the more recent separation. Oks saw Cecil as a doting father to a teenage Prince, who'd often play for Oks' softball team.

Many happy days came during Cecil's time with the Tigers. The father wanted his son to see what he did for a living, in case he should choose the path.

The idea of seeing his son play in the same city he did with the same Old English D on his uniform initially startled Cecil, though he quickly warmed to the idea, noting that the Tigers are now prohibitive favorites in the AL Central.

As happy as he is for his son's new opportunity, however, Cecil was non-committal when asked if he'd return to Detroit to watch his son play in person.

"We'll see what happens," Cecil said. "You've got to give that space."

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