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Hot stove throwback: Cecil Fielder, the prodigal son slugger who became a Tigers legend

When the Tigers signed a big first baseman named Cecil Fielder away from Japan in 1990, Tigers fans yawned. By October, they might have elected Fielder as Detroit's mayor.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Third in a series, looking back at high-profile free agent signings by the Tigers.

Before Cecil Fielder was known as "Big Daddy," he was "The Wild Bear."

The latter moniker was Fielder's when he played in Japan in 1989.

Prior to signing with the Hanshin Tigers after the 1988 season, Fielder, a hulking first baseman, was a benchwarmer for the Toronto Blue Jays. Dressed in the powder blue road uniform of the Jays, the 6'3", 250-pound Fielder looked like a giant pillow.

Frustrated with his lack of playing time as a backup to Fred McGriff, the 25-year-old Fielder took his services across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, where the Hanshin team paid him over a million U.S. dollars and provided him with a chauffeur and an interpreter.

Maybe it was the sashimi. Regardless, Fielder flourished in Japan, slugging 38 home runs while batting cleanup for the Central League team.

The other Tigers teamthe one that played MLB in Detroitneeded a first baseman in the worst way following a 1989 campaign that saw the team lose 103 games.

In the first week of January, 1990, the Tigers signed Tony Phillips from Oakland to play third base, and Lloyd Moseby from Toronto to play center field.

The following week, Tigers GM Bill LaJoie finally solved his first base problem by inking Fielder, who had only signed for one year in Japan.

The Fielder signing didn't make much news in Detroit.

In fact, the fans were still buzzing over adding Phillips and Moseby to pay much attention to this guy Cecil Fielder who was returning to North America.

Some fans probably didn't even know Fielder had left for Japan to begin with.

Only hardcore baseball fans knew who Cecil Fielder was. But even those types likely didn't foresee what was to come.

Before signing Fielder, GM LaJoie had been rumored to be looking at MLB options such as Texas' Pete O'Brien to play first base. O'Brien, a lefty hitter, was thought to be well-suited for Tiger Stadium's short right field porch.

But instead, LaJoie went outside the box and brought the right-handed swinging Fielder back to the big leagues. The price was $1.25 million for the upcoming year.

LaJoie may have been patting himself on the back, but when the Tigers reported to spring training in 1990, Cecil Fielder was hardly moving the fans' meter.

The underwhelming feelings were understandable. To the few fans who knew of him, Fielder was nothing more than a big, lumbering backup first baseman.

Then reports came from Lakeland, FL of a Fielder explosion in a spring training game.

Fielder had hit three home runs in one game, and while it was nothing more than an exhibition contest, the outburst raised some eyebrows in Detroit.

After that game, fans started educating themselves about this prodigal son named Cecil Fielder.

Not only were the 1989 Detroit Tigers a losing team, they were boring. The 1984 heroes were either gone or aging. The team lacked a true superstar.

Enter Fielder.

After a slow start, Fielder hit his first home run as a Tiger on April 14, 1990 in Detroit. Three weeks later in Toronto of all places, Fielder again smacked three homers in one gamebut this one counted in the standings.

A month after the big game in Toronto, Fielder again swatted three homers in a game, this time in Cleveland.

By June 17, Fielder, the Japanese import, had 25 home runs. The Tigers had only played 65 games. The media went scurrying for the record books.

Detroit's Hank Greenberg, in 1938, hit 58 home runs, falling just short of Babe Ruth's then-record 60 four-baggers in one season. No Tigers player had hit 50 homers since. No player in the big leagues, period, had accomplished the feat since George Foster hit 52 home runs for the Cincinnati Reds in 1977.

No American League player had reached the 50 home run plateau since 1961, when Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54) did it for the Yankees.

Throughout the summer of 1990, with the Tigers improved but still not playoff contenders, the focus in Detroit was on Fielder and his quest for 50 home runs.

Fielder added to his quickly growing, real-life folktale by launching a pitch from Oakland's Dave Stewart over the left field roof at Tiger Stadium on August 25. Clearing the right field roof wasn't really a big deal in Detroit, but the left field roof was something else. And Fielder became the first Tigers player to clear it.

The march to 50 homers moved right along.

Fielder began the month of September with 42 home runs. He was eight dingers away from making some serious baseball history. Twenty-nine years had passed after Maris and Mantle.

Fielder slowed a little, but he had 49 home runs when the Tigers played their season finale in Yankee Stadium, which was very fitting.

Manager Sparky Anderson batted Fielder second, to ensure that his slugger would get as many plate appearances as possible in his bid for 50.

Finally, in the fourth inning, it happened.

Fielder crushed a pitch from New York lefty Steve Adkins into the upper deck in left field, which was nothing new. Fielder was a dead pull hitter.


Just in case there was a math error, Fielder smacked another homer later in the game, for a grand total for the season of 51.

No Tigers player has hit 50 homers since.

Fielder led the American League in RBI for three straight seasons (1990-92), and while his home run numbers decreased every year but one when he played in Detroit, his legend was secure by the time he was traded to the Yankees during a brutal 1996 season in which the Tigers would lose 109 games.

While in pinstripes in 1996, Fielder earned his only World Series ring as the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves in six games. For the series, Fielder batted .391 (9-for-23).

As a Tiger, the always-smiling Fielder was bigger than life. He was Big Daddy and he was once photographed walking on the left field roof at Tiger Stadium, a huge cigar in his mouth and carrying a bat.

Fans also smiled at sightings of his son, Prince, the pudgy kid who would occasionally show up at Tiger Stadium in uniform. But unlike his dad, Prince Fielder was a lefty swinger.

A Cecil Fielder at-bat was must-see stuff. He was imposing in the batter's box. Prior to his swing, Fielder would lift his left leg and cock the bat menacingly. He struck out a lot but he walked a lot, too. His OBA in Detroit was generally in the mid-.300s.

While Tony Phillips and Lloyd Moseby got the most attention in Detroit when they were signed as free agents, Cecil Fielder by far made the most impact. He left the United States as a nondescript, backup player and one year after he returned, he was the premier slugger in the American League.

Big Daddy!