Fielder, Cecil 1963–
Cecil Fielder 1963–
Professional baseball player
In the 1990s baseball fans in Detroit gained a new hero in Cecil Fielder, a power hitter whose distance-breaking home runs have become legendary. After a long apprenticeship in baseball that saw him languish in Toronto and even move to Japan, Fielder returned to the United States to prove that he could play—and win—every day in the major leagues. Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom noted that before Fielder arrived with his longball magic, “Detroit, one of the oldest and proudest baseball cities in America, was in the mud. As low as it goes. The Tigers lost 103 games [in 1989]. You had as much reason to go to the ballpark as you did a Milli Vanilli concert. And then along came Fielder. Big guy. Friendly giant. He brought back the oldest reason people used to carry their kids through the turnstiles and teenagers used to sit in the bleachers, slapping their gloves. The slugger. The home run hitter. Suddenly, even on the dullest nights, there was a reason to be there, because Cecil might crack one.”
Fielder hit 51 home runs for 132 runs-batted-in in 1990. That single season accomplishment put him the company of baseball giants such as Willie Mays and Babe Ruth—and he surpassed Hall-of-Famers like Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron. Albom noted of that career-making year: “Every home run, every RBI—and [Fielder] led not just the league but the majors in both categories—every one of those was worth at least a run, and sometimes the game. Something tangible. That’s what Fielder provided. The notches on his gun all drew blood.” The columnist concluded that on the strength of that season alone, “years from now, in [Detroit], and all around the country, they will remember Cecil Fielder. They will remember the tingle when he came to the plate, the balls that went over the wall, over the stands, over the roof.”
The sudden onslaught of attention caught Fielder by surprise. He is apparently not a man who likes to reflect on his glory or his ability—to him baseball is just a job. Still, he feels that his recent success will mean little if he cannot sustain it over at least several more years. “I wanted to come out and prove that what I did in 1990 was no fluke,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1991. “Not hit 50 home runs again, but do well, show people this is for real, this is who I am.” If his 1991 season is any indication, Fielder need have no worries. He came
Born Cecil Grant Fielder (given name pronounced “Sess-il”), September 21, 1963, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Tina (a business manager) Fielder; married, wife’s name, Stacey; children: Prince. Education: Graduated from Nogales High School, Los Angeles, CA; attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Baseball player, 1982—. Drafted by Kansas City Royals in fourth round, June, 1982. Traded to Toronto Blue Jays, February 4,1983; promoted to parentclub in 1985 from minor league team in Knoxville, TN; demoted to team at Syracuse, NY, 1986. Designated hitter and first baseman for Toronto Blue Jays, 1987-88. Joined Hanshin Tigers baseball club in Kobe, Japan, 1988. Joined Detroit Tigers, Detroit, MI, 1990, with three-year contract. Finished 1990 season with 51 home runs and 132 runs-batted-in, both best in the majors.
Addresses: Team —Detroit Tigers, 2121 Trumbull Ave., Detroit, Ml 48216.
so close to hitting fifty homers again that Tigers former batting coach Vada Pinson reportedly called him “an angel in disguise.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1963, Fielder grew up in a warm, close-knit family. He was always large for his age and extremely talented as an athlete. Albom noted that when the youngster was only eight “a group of Little League parents signed a petition demanding little Cecil be moved into a higher age group.” In high school Fielder made All State in three sports—baseball, football, and basketball. Of the three, baseball was his least favorite. He did not begin playing it on varsity until his junior year. Mark Salas, a professional athlete who was Fielder’s friend at Nogales High School, remembered his comrade in the Detroit Free Press as a six-foot-three, 230-pound dynamo who could double as a quarterback or a free safety in football and who absolutely dominated on the basketball court. “I thought he was just going to stick with basketball,” Salas said. “He was great. When he was there, they won just about everything.”
“That was my game,” Fielder told the Detroit Free Press when reminded of his basketball days. “That was it.… But it didn’t work out. Basketball didn’t give me the offers, and I got a baseball scholarship.” That scholarship was provided by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he began to prove himself as a home run hitter. He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1982 and sent to the minor leagues for training. The following year he was traded into the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization, where he became a South Atlantic League All-Star with a .312 average, 15 home runs, and 94 RBIs.
Fielder played in a number of bush league towns on his way to the majors. He was in the Pioneer League at Butte, Montana, the South Atlantic League at Florence, South Carolina, the Carolina League (of Bull Durham fame) at Kinston, North Carolina, and even a AA team in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was promoted to the parent club in 1985, but the beginning of 1986 found him back in the minors, this time at Syracuse, New York, where he hit 18 homers and drove in 68 runs. The Blue Jays took him onto their permanent roster in 1987 as a first baseman and designated hitter.
Toronto had numerous talented players at the time, so Fielder saw much less work there than he would have liked. He was pigeonholed as a hitter who did best against left-handed pitching, so he was inserted into the lineup only when left-handers took the mound. This on-again, off-again schedule did not allow him to maintain any consistency in his playing, and both he and the Blue Jays management were unsatisfied with his progress. He hit just 31 homers in his parts of four seasons for the Jays, and he thought he could do better.
“I wanted to play more, but on the Blue Jay ballclub we had a lot of talent,” Fielder related in the Detroit Free Press. “They knew the frustration I was feeling not playing, and they gave me the opportunity. The Blue Jays came to me and said I had an opportunity to go play in Japan. They asked me to talk to the Japanese people. I didn’t even hesitate. I said yes right away.”
The offer—including a salary in the neighborhood of a million dollars—came from the Hanshin Tigers, based in Kobe, Japan. Once a final home for players who could no longer compete in the American major leagues, the Japanese leagues had begun to recruit young American talent. Each Japanese team is allowed to enlist two American players, and Fielder was chosen because he showed promise as a hitter.
Fielder had played one season of winter baseball in Venezuela, but Japan was another matter. Married and with a young son, he wondered how he would manage in a country whose language he could not speak. He could not even read the street signs or restaurant menus. But as a player of the Japanese nation’s favorite spectator sport, Fielder found himself treated like royalty from his arrival. An interpreter and chauffeur were assigned to him, and he was given a luxurious three-bedroom apartment with a view of the ocean. When the team traveled, he and American teammate Matt Keough were placed in American-style hotels, while the Japanese players stayed in more traditional accommodations.
Japanese training is more demanding than its American counterpart, but Fielder appreciated the chance to improve his conditioning. At the plate during games, he found himself swinging for the fences, and he hit 38 home runs, led the Japanese league in slugging percentage (.628), and was third in RBI production. He became a hero overnight, and for the first time in his career was mobbed for autographs and interviews. Fielder told the Philadelphia Inquirer that going to Japan was the best move he ever made. “Going there gave me a chance to play,” he said. “And that played a big part in [returning to America]. If you can’t get a chance to play, you can’t prove what you can do. That was the biggest thing it did for me. I got a chance. And I got some confidence out of it.”
Despite his success in Japan, Fielder wanted to keep his options open in America. He was pleased when the Detroit Tigers—coming off a year when they finished in last place in their league—offered him a three-year, $3 million contract. He arrived at spring training in 1990 determined to show his new employers that they had not made a mistake by investing so much in him.
But he did more than that. “The Tigers were in the cemetery when Cecil came over here from Japan,” Pinson told the Philadelphia Daily News. “He revived us. Cecil Fielder is the hottest attraction these fans have had in a long time.” Detroit won more games with Fielder on the squad than they had the year before. But as the season advanced, the attention of the nation fell not on the Tigers in general but on Fielder himself. He was poised to hit 50 home runs in one season, a feat not accomplished since 1977.
Fielder had 49 home runs to his credit going into his last game at Tiger Stadium in the fall of 1990. The pressure from fans and the media had mounted to mammoth proportions, however, and he was having trouble concentrating. As a Detroit Free Press correspondent put it, “The man who hadn’t tried to hit homers, but had succeeded by concentrating on the fundamentals of hitting, suddenly was trying to pull everything into the seats. Worse, he was now withdrawn in the clubhouse and with the press. Being somebody suddenly wasn’t fun; it had forced him to become somebody he wasn’t.”
As the team moved to Yankee Stadium for its final regular season games, Fielder found solace in his wife, Stacey, who reminded him to relax and be proud of what he had already done. As if reborn, he walked into the ball park on the last day of the season, October 3, and hit not only home run number 50 but another as well. Even the New York fans gave him a lengthy standing ovation. Afterwards, an elated Fielder told the Detroit Free Press: “I just didn’t want [the Tigers] to have any second thoughts. I didn’t want to have the kind of season where they would say, ‘OK, we made a mistake. We got to get rid of this guy.’”
It is unlikely that the Tigers will want to part with Cecil Fielder any time soon, although his contract will be up for negotiation in the early 1990s. Fielder had an almost equally impressive year in 1991, on a much improved Tiger ball club. The slugger has offered few hints as to the secret behind his talent except to say that he practices fundamentals. Pitchers find him puzzling, because he can take any type of pitch into the stands. His power is becoming legendary, too. A number of times he has hit balls completely out of the park or into the uppermost tiers some five hundred feet from the plate.
Fielder is no “hot dog,” though. He apparently considers hitting and driving in runs a job—nothing more, nothing less. When he smacks a home run, he does not follow the ball’s progress into the stands or strut around the bases. “I don’t like to show the pitchers up,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “If you stand there and watch, it makes them feel bad. You shouldn’t do that. They respect you more if you just run around the bases and get out of there.” Anyway, Fielder added, he knows by the feel of it when he has hit a longball. “It feels like … nothing,” he said. “You don’t feel any sting. You don’t feel any contact. It’s just a sweet stroke, and next thing you know, the bat is back behind your ear. Sometimes you get a nice noise, like a boom, but you know by the swing when it’s gone. It’s like you didn’t hit a thing.”
Philadelphia Inquirer contributor Jayson Stark noted that Fielder “has given Detroit a whole new appreciation for the Japanese import.” Fielder refuses to look beyond the remainder of his Detroit contract, except to say he hopes to stay with the Tigers if a proper deal can be cut. “I know I’m not the best-looking human being in the world, but I’m getting my job done,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “And I’m enjoying it.… Because other people on this club are doing good, too, the focus is spread around.… Everybody on the squad is contributing.” He added: “We don’t have the best talent in the league, but I think you get a better feeling on a team where everybody—not just the basic nine—goes out and puts forth an effort.”
Detroit Free Press, April 1, 1990; May 12, 1990; September 25, 1990; October 1, 1990; October 4, 1990; October 5, 1990; November 21, 1990; July 24, 1991.
Philadelphia Daily News, September 18, 1991.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 31, 1990.
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