Prince Fielder hit his first major-league home run on June 25, 2005, the night Ryan Braun watched his first Brewers game. Fielder was a rookie, just up from Triple-A Nashville, and Braun was a top-five draft pick, freshly minted from the University of Miami. The Brewers had a losing record, but more than 44,000 filled Miller Park on that Saturday night, and the team came back from three runs down to beat the Twins. Sitting in a luxury box with general manager Doug Melvin, Braun saw into a bright future. "It felt like a turning point for the organization," he said.
From the beginning, Braun believed in what Melvin was building, and this spring he signed a five-year, $105 million contract extension. The terms of the deal were almost identical to a reported offer Fielder rejected the year before. With that, Braun became the next Robin Yount, Fielder the next CC Sabathia, a free agent biding time until the Northeast Three make their annual run on the bank.
The Brewers geared up for one final dash with Fielder and Braun, trading for starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, acquiring reliever Francisco Rodriguez at the deadline, jacking their payroll over $90 million for the first time. From the clubhouse to the front office, everybody knew Fielder was gone, but out of respect for this season, no one dared say it. The juxtaposition between Braun and Fielder, company man and mercenary, could have been toxic. But fans cheered Fielder. Braun shared the marquee with him. Nyjer Morgan (and Tony Plush) took unwanted attention from him. Melvin told Fielder in spring training to raise his market value as high as he could, then left the subject alone.
Only now, with the Brewers rolling toward their first division title in almost three decades, has Fielder opted to unburden himself and tell the obvious truth. He is leaving, an inevitable announcement, delivered at a startling time. If Fielder made this declaration six months ago, the Brewers could have been more serious about trading him. Now, they have no recourse. They'd have been better off in the dark, which is where small market clubs usually find themselves. Free agents, especially those on winning teams, rarely telegraph their plans publicly. They wait until the final out, dancing around every question, even when the answer is apparent.
In this case, the question wasn't even about Fielder. Brian Anderson, a TBS and Brewers play-by-play announcer, asked him about Braun's impact on the Brewers. After rattling off some of Braun's more impressive statistics, Fielder told Anderson, in an interview that will air Sunday on TBS's
There are a lot of reasons free agents don't get real during the season, one being their teammates. The Brewers have built an undeniable chemistry this summer. They choreograph celebrations for walk-off homers and first-inning singles. They all wore cowboy hats on a trip to St. Louis this month. They headbang to the same mash-up before games. Fielder was the one who introduced the "Beast Mode" gesture they make after every hit, inspired by the movie Monsters Inc. Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., the godfather of Fielder's children, said he noticed his friend smiling more than ever.
Fielder was supposed to be starting the best stretch of his career, and he still could be. But he disdains the kind of scrutiny he is about to receive. Like Pujols, he has thrived in a protective Midwestern city, where some of his foibles are embraced. He ranks fifth in the NL with 32 home runs this season, second with 109 RBIs, and will likely split MVP votes with Braun. Come winter, agent Scott Boras will negotiate him a stratospheric contract, even though the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies all have first basemen they are already paying at least $120 million. Perhaps the Yankees and Red Sox will want a very expensive designated hitter, but even they have limits.
Wherever Prince Fielder winds up, if winning is part of the package, he won't be in a better position than he is right now.