This much we know: The home runs are long, the e in his first name is not. If you thought Jane Fonda made hitting 50 look good, take a look at this guy. If you thought Jules Verne wrote the book on going deep, well, this man has rewritten it. His name is Cecil Fielder, and he admits that he is, like the rest of us, "pretty much in awe of what's going on."
What is going on, anyway? Well, in his first year as a major league regular, after four seasons in obscurity in the Toronto Blue Jay organization and another year playing in Japan, Fielder, as of Sunday, had hit 47 home runs. That put the Detroit Tigers' first baseman on a pace to become the first American Leaguer since Roger Maris in 1961, the first big leaguer since George Foster in 1977 and only the 11th player ever to hit 50 or more homers in a season (box, page 70).
And Fielder isn't the only one wielding a big stick in the American League's home run derby. At week's end Jose Canseco had 37 homers, most of them as long as Ulysses, despite having missed 25 games with a bad back. Mark McGwire, Canseco's Oakland Athletics teammate, had also parked 37—including an Aug. 15, 10th-inning, upper-deck grand slam against Boston that made McGwire the first player ever to hit 30 or more homers in each of his first four seasons. Toronto first baseman Fred McGriff, who beat Fielder out of a job a few seasons back, had smoked 34. Fielder, Canseco, McGwire and McGriff are projected to finish with a combined 175 home runs. If they do, they will be the most prolific foursome in either league since the American League's Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Reggie Jackson and Rico Petrocelli combined for 184 homers in 1969.
What's with these guys, what's with this season, who is Cecil Fielder, will he reach 50, will anyone ever again hit 60? For answers, we invited baseball to this potluck affair. Call it a power lunch.
September 23, 1990
"Cecil's become one of those guys," says Tiger outfielder Lloyd Moseby. "Better not take a leak or you'll miss him."
Detroit's Dave Bergman did just that on Aug. 25, when Fielder took Oakland's Dave Stewart out of the yard over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium. "I was in the bathroom, but I heard the crowd," says Bergman, a reserve first baseman. The home run, Fielder's second of the game, landed in a gutter on the exterior facing of the stadium.
"I hadn't hit one that far in the big leagues, but in Japan—I hit some pretty good over there," says Fielder. As a Han-shin Tiger last season, Fielder became the first player to hit the back of the Tokyo Dome. But Hanshin Tiger home runs are not Detroit Tiger home runs; Fielder's recent roof shot in Motor City drew appreciative commentary from his major league colleagues.
"A moonball," McGwire called it. "About 600 feet," was Canseco's estimate. "You got a chance to send a package to Paris on that one," said Stewart.
In Fielder's first at bat following his mammoth shot, he was given a standing ovation for striking out. "Crowds just go 'waaaaaahhhh' when he pops up," says Moseby, wildly waving his hands.
"It's weird," says Fielder, "because in Toronto I wasn't even thought of." He pauses. "Sold to Japan."
In just 506 at bats over four seasons with the Blue Jays, Fielder hit 31 home runs. "I knew they were going to use Freddie at first every day," says Fielder. So in '89 he took his bat to Japan, where he hit 38 homers in 106 games. Larry Parrish led the Japanese Central League with 42 in 130 games and was rewarded with his release because the club decided to concentrate on pitching and defense; so Fielder, fearing a similar fate, chose not to return to Japan without a long-term contract. Which raises this specter: What if Detroit decides to concentrate on pitching and defense next season?
Fielder, who turns 27 on Friday, laughs a good long time at that one. "I don't think the fans are going to let 'em run me out of town after this year," he says. "I don't think they'll let that happen."
Fielder is so gentle and forthright that there is no reason to doubt him when he claims not to care how far his taters travel. Canseco, conversely, is eminently conscious of the tape measure. To Fielder, however, all those extraneous inches only abet what he calls the "media hype" that typically surrounds sluggers.
Media hype? Cec, have a listen. These are your colleagues speaking, not ours.
"He's a monster," St. Louis reliever Frank DiPino said of Fielder, who hit three home runs on three straight swings against the Cardinals in spring training. "When I heard the chains rattling, I knew he was on deck."
"Where'd it land, Lake Erie?" asked Indians pitcher Greg Swindell after Fielder slammed a 470-footer—and third homer of the game—off him in Cleveland in June. "The waves bring it back in?"
"If Canseco hits the ball farther," says Moseby, "then God bless the children. But I've seen Cecil put a dent in the ball. I've heard him hit the ball and make it scream." For the record, the average length of a Fielder shot this season is 401 feet. Canseco's, on the average, have traveled four feet farther. God bless the children.
Not only does Fielder disdain distance, but he also clings to the old-math notion that the difference between 49 and 50 is one. Never mind that 49's are forgotten and 50's are not. "I don't worry about that," he says. "No matter what, I've had a great season."
Of course he has, but McGwire knows better. "Anytime you get to a nine, the toughest thing is to get to that next zero," he says. "It's like buying something for $19.99. If it costs $20, you're going to think about it." Says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, "I think [Fielder] will have no problem until he reaches maybe 48. Then he'll start having problems."
As a rookie in 1987, McGwire had 49 home runs with five games left in the season. After failing to get one in his next four games, he skipped Oakland's final game to be with his wife, Kathy, who was about to give birth. "My feeling is, you only have one chance to see your first born," says McGwire. "You'll always have chances to hit your first 50."
"You only get one chance in your career to hit 50," says Jackson. Reggie's chance came in 1969, when he hit his 40th home run in Oakland's 97th game. (By comparison, Fielder's 40th came in Detroit's 127th game.) Jackson hit seven home runs the rest of the season. No one ever said he was Mr. September.
Fifty? "I think [Fielder] has the kind of stroke and kind of swing that can hit 60" says A's manager Tony La Russa.
Sixty? "A guy couldn't do it if he had even a little bit of bad luck," says McGriff.
"Sixty?" says McGwire. "It would take the media not to bother the person all season long."
In 1979, Mike Schmidt had 31 home runs for the Philadelphia Phillies at the All-Star break. "They were on that Babe Ruth count and all that in the papers," recalls Schmidt. "It becomes harder when you get 'home run' in your mind. People keep asking you about it, and pretty soon it takes a lot of discipline to take that 2-and-0 fastball." Schmidt—like Killebrew, Jackson, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig and Frank Robinson—would never hit 50. He finished '79 with 45.
"Maris and Ruth didn't have the media every day," says McGwire. "Back then it was more like I'd like to see it now—where there wasn't always a writer or a camera in your face."
In Seattle, there is a writer in Fielder's face, and Greg Shea, a Tiger p.r. man, interrupts the interview to tell Fielder that a camera is on its way. "KOMO wants you at 5:45," says Shea.
Fielder nods. He has spoken to virtually every television station in Japan. The Detroit News has run a daily dinger watch. Tiger teammates have taken to immediately pointing to Fielder's locker when reporters approach. Fielder has graciously accommodated everyone, and he concedes it has wearied him.
Five forty-five. It is time for yet another TV reporter to tell Fielder how difficult it is to hit 50. "KOMO," says Fielder with a sigh before scrunching up his face. "Who's KOMO? Perry KOMO?"
"I honestly feel that if Jose Canseco stays healthy for a full season—if he plays 155 to 160 games—he can hit 60," says Fielder, who will not say the same for himself.
Fielder or Canseco? Cecil or Jose? Even with Canseco's injuries, comparing the two has been the parlor game of this baseball summer. Who, if you're a pitcher, would you rather face? Is the chiseled Canseco, snapping open his switchblade of a bat, a more fearsome sight standing 60 feet six inches away than the massive Fielder, who appears to have had a Chrysler air bag detonated in the seat of his pants? "I'd least like to face Cecil," says Toronto relief stud Tom Henke. "He's a little bit better hitter all the way around."
"I think Canseco is probably a little bit tougher," says Baltimore Oriole starter Dave Johnson, who was leading the majors with 26 homers allowed when he went on the disabled list in August.
We will leave it to Boston's Mike Boddicker to break the tie. "I fear Mark McGwire the most," he says. "He hits the breaking pitch so well, and that's my featured pitch."
Big as the 6'3" Fielder is—he's officially listed at 230 pounds, meaning he had his big toe on the floor at the last weigh-in—he could use some protection. In the Tiger lineup he bats fourth. "We have got to get a No. 5 hitter," says Anderson. "Cecil would have up to five more homers and 15 more RBIs [he had a major league-leading 120 as of Sunday] with a solid guy there."
Then again, as McGriff points out, "You've got to have guys in front of you getting on base so nobody pitches around you. Look at [Detroit shortstop Alan] Trammell. He's hitting in front of Cecil and getting on base a lot." Moseby usually bats fifth for the Tigers, and while his best power days are behind him, things could be worse. Says Fielder, "The guy hitting behind me in Japan had one home run. I could take someone out of the yard once, but the next time up it was going to be a lit-tie more difficult."
In Tiger Stadium, leaving the yard is much easier for a lefthanded hitter. When the righthanded Fielder went up on the roof on Aug. 25, it marked only the third time in the 90-year history of the park that a home run had exited the stadium over the leftfield roof (Killebrew in 1962 and Howard in '68 hit the other two). The rightfield roof, on the other hand, has been cleared 22 times.
The expansive Oakland Coliseum has no roof, and if there were one, no souvenirs would land there. "I lose 10 to 15 home runs a year playing in this park," says Canseco. And what if he played in Wrigley Field? "In Wrigley I'd hit 50, in a slump, before the All-Star break."
For his part, McGwire has the highest percentage of home runs per at bat on the road of any player in the history of the game. That, by the way, is news to McGwire, who appears mildly distressed by the fact. "Stats," he says, "have taken over this game." Which reminds us: Through Sunday, Fielder had homered once every 11.1 at bats this season, Canseco once every 12.3, McGwire once every 13.1 and McGriff once every 14.6.
"The most important thing about Cecil is that he's nicer than he is big," says Bergman. "If my son could grow up to be Cecil Fielder, I'd be happy. He's a very humble man, a very mature man."
A man who won't ask to have his contract renegotiated at the end of this season. "It was fair," says Fielder, whose two-year contract, signed in January, pays him $1,250,000 this season and $1,750,000 in '91. "I signed it, and that's the way it's going to be."
"I'm really proud of him," says Moseby. "Not a lot of guys in the league deserve everything they've got, but he's one who does."
What Fielder has are fans and dingers in absurd abundance. "You're gonna hit 50, Cecil!" a kid screamed at him recently. "Hit one over the roof!" Although Fielder and the kid were in the Seattle King-dome, one had the feeling that Fielder just might oblige the boy.