Why Prince Fielder's dad made me a Tigers fan: The Origin Story

The Little Prince

In outer space

Can catch a shooting star

and sail away

Perhaps one day he’ll come your way

--Theme to the short-lived cartoon,

The Little Prince

I’m a child of the 80s, so for reasons unbeknownst to me, that theme song has been in my head all day. On the face, it seems absurd. Little Prince? He’s pushing 300 pounds. At this point, he’s an awfully big Prince. Heck, even as a child, he was still an awfully pudgy Prince. But like they do in the comics, we’ve got to go back to the Prince Fielder origin story to get to the heart of why many Tigers fans are so excited with the news leaked today that Prince Fielder will sign a nine-year, $214 million deal to play in Detroit.

And again, I’m a child of the 80s, which might make me uniquely susceptible to that story. A lot of people a few years older than me, or blessed with the ability to have concrete memories from when they were Age 5, could tell you about the excitement of being a kid in 1984. I can’t. Some of them might be able to talk about going to a ballgame with their dad in or the excitement of coming from behind to win the A.L. East in 1987. I can’t. My father died of cancer in the early 80s, when I was three or four years old, and no one around me really had much need for sports . So baseball? I might have had some cards, or maybe looked at game on the TV, but I didn’t really have much clue what was going on.

When Cecil Fielder signed with Detroit in 1990, it set off a series of events that turned his young son Prince into a young sensation, and my early percolating baseball fandom into a full grown obsession.

Cecil was already a slugger before he got to Detroit. He spent a year in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers, where he earned more than a million dollars and hit 38 home runs . But no one could have predicted what he’d do during his first season in Detroit. This was before the modern era of the slugger, before the 70-home-run years steroids era. This was the time when 50 home runs sounded like an impossibly large number. Fifty home runs hadn’t been hit since 1977. No Tiger had hit the milestone since Hank Greenberg in 1938. But there was Cecil Fielder, stepping to the plate and you just knew he’d hit a home run. This, too, was the era before every game was televised. Some games were on TV, of course, but most of them were on the radio.

At some point, baseball fever must have gripped me. I’m sure I can credit my friends for that. I know I played little league baseball from the time I moved up north, though baseball never seemed nearly as important as basketball, so I don’t remember a lot of real big baseball fans among my friends. I envy those of you who can recite photographic details of the important moments in your childhoods like a movie screen was playing in front of eyes. I can’t. All I can tell you is that some time during the summer of 1990, I saw my first Tigers game in person and I was hooked by the baseball bug.

That autumn, I had a pen pal named Brian – this was during the first gulf war – a soldier serving in the Navy. If I recall, his mother was from the Cadillac area and there was a story about him in the Cadillac Evening News with an address.

So I have two memories from autumn of that year: Listening to every Tigers game on the radio, and following news of the Gulf War on the television. I can remember hunkering down by the radio, convinced Cecil would hit a home run every time, and as the home runs piled up I had to send frequent letters to my pen pal to update him how the Tigers were doing, because I had no clue how much information about such things but I was pretty sure he was a baseball fan. Looking back, it’s so clear to me now. My first sports writing gig.

As Cecil got closer to 50, the meaning would have been lost on me. I couldn’t possibly have had the background to know what it meant to hit 50 home runs. All I knew was how excited everyone one the radio was about the possibility. But I know I wanted him to hit 50, and I knew when he did I would have a very excited letter to send to the Persian Gulf.

As you might know, Cecil did it. I can look up the facts today. He hit home runs No. 50 and 51 at Yankee Stadium, on the last day of the season. What an accomplishment. I can tell you I was sitting in our den in Manton, listening on the old Fischer stereo and speakers my father had owned in the 70s. I can tell you it was cold in there, as the den was built onto the side of our Blue Star home, so I was sitting wrapped in a blanket. I know all of that. It’s seared in my mind. I must have been excited when Cecil hit No. 50. I must have shouted in joy or jumped up and down or had some appropriate reaction. But for the life of me, I can’t remember the details beyond the room I listened to the game in.

Cecil Fielder obviously went on to become a fan favorite. The Tigers still had Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Chet Lemon, and soon added Mickey Tettleton and even Rob Deer. They were hitting tons of home runs, scoring tons of runs, but the team just didn’t have the pitching to put it all together. Over the next few years, things turned worse for the Tigers, and soon they slinked into the decade of futility. Cecil was traded to the Yankees. It was the first real heartbreak moment of my life as a baseball fan.

Prince Fielder was a few years younger than me, born in that magic year of 1984. His origin story began in Detroit, too, as he spent his childhood days there watching his father and playing among the big leaguers like little Victor Martinez does today. People will tell you that at age 12, Prince showed off some of his legendary power when he drilled a home run into the upper deck at old Tiger Stadium. Hey, with that short overhanging porch, anything seemed possible. Prince later said that story was untrue, but the home run during batting practice? That part was true.

Of course, when Prince Fielder entered the draft in 2002, it was a big deal. He was a big deal by then. I hoped the Tigers would draft him, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The Tigers, of course, had an early draft pick. But it wasn’t early enough. The Milwaukee Brewers selected Prince in the first round, seven overall. Detroit took Scott Moore eighth. Prince went on to become a home-run slugger like his father. Scott Moore went on to make his major league debut with the Cubs and do nothing of real interest during his career.

With Miguel Cabrera traded for and signed for an extension in 2008, the Tigers didn’t need a first baseman any more. Detroit was a good baseball team, too. So those thoughts about having Prince Fielder in Detroit kind of passed. By the time he became a free agent this season, I gave no thought to it. He wasn’t a fit for Detroit, and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said as much.

Needless to say, my reaction when the news broke this afternoon probably resembled yours. Shock and joy. You saw, I could barely blog about it. It took me hours to process it and put it all together. I still haven’t looked at the numbers. Beyond discussing my gut feelings on the podcast, I have tried not to think yet about the length of the deal, what it means for the Tigers defense, or any analysis.

We’ve got a big, smiling Fielder back in Detroit. I feel like a kid again.

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