As Pete Incaviglia passes through the Detroit Tigers" clubhouse one afternoon in late August, he grabs the kid, heaving him up and flipping him over his shoulder before setting him down again. The kid is seven years old, but he has enough heft to pass for 12. Anything a player does with him during pregame is considered weight training. Then Tony Phillips takes over, chasing him around the room, swatting him mightily when the kid is cornered. The kid finally collapses in a giggling heap, a big pile of surrender, so Phillips simply rolls him the length of the clubhouse.
"Big Daddy," says Phillips, an all-purpose player, "you better get your kid out of here before I kill him."
At first glance, this scene might interest child-protection agencies in the cities Big Daddy takes his kid to during his travels with the Tigers. It's not exactly child abuse, not when the kid can sneak around Phillips and sock him in the protective cup—while other players look on approvingly. Then again, it's probably not what child-care specialists mean when they talk about alternative day care, big leaguers working out the kinks with a second-grader.
Look out! Incaviglia's stuffing the kid upside down in the laundry basket!
The negligent Big Daddy in question is chatting up his hitting instructor, talking about some new bats that just came in. Is he oblivious to his son's torment? No, he encourages it. "Toughens him up," says Big Daddy, Cecil Fielder to the rest of us. "They should knock him around a little bit."
As taped interviews from the clubhouse are played back later, there is the horrifying soundtrack of Prince Fielder scuffling to escape his attackers and drowning out the normal clatter with his squeals and giggles. "This is what it's all about," says Big Daddy, who looks on approvingly and who actually found in the ballplayers" repertoire of clichès the perfect words: "A boy and his dad...."
For Big Daddy, this seems to be exactly what it's all about. A boy and his dad, however unusual the circumstances. But what has been usual for Fielder and his family—his wife, Stacey, is expecting their second child—so far? A part-time player with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1985 to '88, he had to travel to Japan in '89 to find a full-time job and major league pay. Stacey and Prince went with him.
In January 1990 he signed with Detroit, which was not necessarily considered a return to the majors. The Tigers, then the worst team in baseball, had lost 103 games the previous season. They were so desperate that manager Sparky Anderson says he asked only two things of applicants: "They should be warm and they should pass the health test."
Fielder was warm and apparently healthy, although team doctors must have overlooked his weight. In the Tiger media guide it is listed at 230 pounds. In fact, he weighs about 260, and the pounds are distributed such that it is just a matter of time before Late Night's David Letterman anoints Fielder as his new "fat tub of goo." On the other hand, in what was essentially his first full season in the majors, Fielder did hit 51 home runs. Suddenly he reminds you more of Babe Ruth than of Terry Forster, which restricts the comedy potential considerably.
Big Daddy continues to live large this season, too. As of Sunday, Fielder, who plays first base, led the American League in homers with 43 and in RBIs with 128. Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics (page 60) was second in both categories with 42 and 113. However, more than Big Daddy's extended impersonation of the Bambino, there is the matter of what he has done for the Tigers. The team with the AL's worst batting average and second worst ERA could still go down in history as the alltime whiff club, yet it has remained in the pennant race most of the season. With Fielder slugging away, Detroit is first in the majors in home runs and second in runs. "Correct me if I'm wrong," says Anderson, "but isn't the point of the game to score more runs than the other guys?" Point well taken, Sparky.
All this improvement apparently earned the Tigers the luxury of having a seven-year-old mascot, a traveling companion to the man his teammates call Big Daddy. Prince has gone back to school near the Fielders' home base in Arlington. Texas, but for most of the summer he was as much a part of the clubhouse as chewing tobacco and sporting-goods salesmen. "You don't see this often," says Incaviglia, a Detroit outfielder and occasional designated hitter, and Fielder's neighbor and golfing buddy back in Texas. "But it's kind of nice, don't you think?"
Phillips wonders. "I don't know," he says. "I've got bruises all over my body since he began making trips with us."
But whatever's good for Fielder is thought to be good for the Tigers. And Fielder has decided that if his family can't quite be first in his life—in baseball, how could it be?—it won't be far behind. So it was Fielder and Fielder this summer, with Phillips and others thrown into the mix. "School starts soon," Phillips reminded Prince one day, delivering a hook to the kid's midsection. "Real soon."
No matter. School seemed a long way off as father and son traveled together. On the road, Big Daddy and Prince arose about 10:30 or 11:00 a.m., ate breakfast and watched cartoons. "Starting about 12, he'd ask when we're leaving for the ballpark," says Fielder. Once there, about 3 p.m., Dad threw him some batting practice. And the kid can hit.
Then there would be some catch or the aforementioned wrestling. Prince would stay in the clubhouse to watch the game on television, after which he and his dad would return to the hotel and get ready for another day. And there's your father-and-son baseball season. "Sometimes you come home from a road trip," says Fielder, "and the kid's done grown. Just think of that lost time."
Fielder has lost enough time in his 28-year-old life that he should not have to suffer more. Now that he has had two sensational seasons in a row—"I already consider this a season," says Anderson, adding, "Anything after 30 home runs and 100 RBIs is a bonus"—it's no longer fair to ask if he's genuine. Fielder is not on pace to hit 50 home runs again (back-to-back 50-homer seasons were last accomplished by Babe Ruth in 1927 and '28), but in other ways he has improved. He's a much better two-strike hitter and has cut down on his strikeouts. He isn't what you call a contact hitter, but he's not an all-or-nothing swinger like teammate Rob Deer, either. The only area in which Fielder has failed to improve is his baserunning. Stolen bases? Stuck on zero.
The question in Fielder's career is not where he's going but where he has been. His has been greatness deferred, all right, but why? It's not easy to assign blame. Surely the Jays wish he were hitting home runs for them now, but not even Fielder can find fault with their decision to keep him on the bench. Going up and down in the Toronto organization, he hadn't done anything to assure himself of immortality, or even of a starting job. "It was between me and Freddie McGriff," he says. "And they chose Freddie. That was fair."
Fielder's size may have weighed in the decision. Jimy Williams, the Blue Jay manager at the time, saw him as something of a project, and he used to make him run with the pitchers. This is an old routine with Fielder, some well-meaning coach trying to turn him into the body beautiful. His coach at UNLV had the same notion; it took him two weeks to get Fielder to finish two miles in 13:30.
Anyway, the evidence suggests that Fielder is genetically predisposed to a certain mass. "You should see his four uncles," says his mother, Tina. They each weigh in well over 200 pounds. "I'm afraid we're a big family."
So Toronto sold Fielder to the Hanshin Tigers. Japan is usually kind of a graveyard for U.S. ballplayers, somewhere to make a buck before the career is finally over. And Fielder did make a buck. With incentives, he pulled down $1.05 million in his season there, a nice improvement over the $125,000 he had made the year before with the Blue Jays. In every way but pound-for-pound, he was worth the money. In only 384 at bats for Hanshin, Fielder hit 38 homers.
After seeing what he could do when he played every day, Fielder gained confidence in his abilities. Stateside, notice was paid as well. When Detroit couldn't lure Kent Hrbek or Pete O'Brien, both free agents, it went after Fielder. And with Hanshin ready to up the ante, Detroit had to offer Fielder $3 million for two seasons. The rest, as they say, is home runs.
The last two of his 51 homers in 1990 came on the final day of the season in New York. Fielder, who began the year in anonymity, found himself in the middle of a media countdown at its end. (The last player to hit 50 was the Cincinnati Reds' George Foster, who had 52 in 1977.) There were times when players could not negotiate the clubhouse because of the crush of reporters. Fielder didn't help, tailing off at the end and extending the drama. He finally got No. 49 with six games remaining, but he just couldn't cash in. "At the end," he says, "I didn't care if I hit 50 or not. I just wanted it to be over with."
Those who knew hitting could see him sweating. He was holding the bat tighter, swinging harder. Otherwise, though, no one could see him strain. His batting coach, Vada Pinson, doesn't remember Fielder barking at anybody. "The last day, a Japanese reporter came up to him, and he excused himself and said, 'I really have to get myself together,' " says Pinson. "That was all the stress I saw."
Now that he's the league's reigning phenomenon, he's just as stable. "Having done what he's done," says Incaviglia, "he could come in here and big-league it. But he's just one of the guys, and he's determined to stay that way."
Above all, his teammates regard him as a good guy. They give the obligatory quotes—"I've seen him hit a home run off his front foot," says Mickey Tettleton, maintaining the legend. "I've seen him hit a line drive over centerfield, 440 feet"—but they always end with "good guy."
In fact, Fielder seems to play the role of victim more willingly than that of hero. The Tiger clubhouse is loose to begin with, but Fielder's corner is particularly hot. Leftfielder Lloyd Moseby, who occupies the locker next to him, and who was a teammate of his in Toronto, is by some accounts his best friend. Yet he told Fielder the other day that Fielder could never play in the National League; he would miss 50 games for sure. Fielder, his eyes as big as pie plates, tried to argue, but Moseby just shot him down. "The skip would see you limp in there, and you'd be out in a minute," said Moseby. "Maybe miss 60 games a year."
Fielder appeared sorrowful, as if he believed the news. "We do get on him," says Tettleton.
The one taboo appears to be his weight. The next fat joke in the Detroit clubhouse will be the first. "Why would that be funny?" asks Tettleton, as if he has never considered the topic before. Attention: David Letterman.
Well, some fun has been had on that topic, sort of. Fielder got the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune, which covered his high school exploits at Nogales High just outside Los Angeles, to track down a picture of him dunking. In fact, Fielder was a sensational football and basketball player at Nogales High, where he was voted Most Athletic and Most Popular. Baseball bored him; he didn't go out for the varsity until his junior year.
But basketball, now there was a sport. A 6'3" point guard as a senior—"He was sweet," says his mother, "marvelous passes'—he led Nogales to the sectional semifinals, but his team missed out on a chance for a perfect season when his 30-footer hit the front of the rim at the buzzer. The picture did show Cecil dunking. The players passed it around and remarked on the wonders of trick photography. He was said to have looked sorrowful then, too.
But mostly he's happy to have these people around him, happy to belong and to have someone to take care of—a team or a son, or his brother and sister. They all amount to family. His mother remembers that Cecil would do a lot of the cooking for the family. She would prepare the meals on weekends, and then from her office at La Brea Dodge in downtown Los Angeles, she would call in the final instructions. Cecil would move about the stove, the phone cradled on his shoulder. Cooking by long distance, and he was glad to do it. "He was a loving son," she says.
These days he is pulling people even closer together, and his own marvelous son was a local call this happy summer. All that's long distance are those home runs, one after another.