When the Detroit Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a contract last January, it was major news. Sports fan in the Motor City reacted in equal parts shock and exuberance. The Tigers were going to win the pennant!
22 years earlier,when the Tigers signed Cecil Fielder to a free agent contract, the reaction was a yawn. Few fans even knew who he was, and coming off a season in which the Tigs had dropped 103 games, there was little optimism.
We may not know whether Prince will turn out to be a good deal for a few years yet, but signing Cecil Fielder in 1990 was the best bargain the Tigers ever got. The unknown with the potbelly turned out to be a superstar slugger, launching baseballs to regions rarely seen at The Corner.
In 1989, Cecil was playing for the Tigers – the Hanshin Tigers – in the Japan League. At that time, professional baseball in Japan was a wasteland of former big leaguers with no future in America. Today, Japanese-born players frequently make the transition from the East to the West, but back then, few players, even gaijins, ever came back to the U.S. to play professionally after going to Asia.
Fielder was an interesting physical specimen: 6 foot, 3 inches and 280 pounds (if you believed the back of his Japanese baseball card). He probably tipped the scales closer to three bills. But when he came to Detroit he quickly made people forget about his belt size.
Sparky’s Tigers were an aging team in ’90. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Jack Morris were still there, but gone were Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson, and veterans like Chet Lemon, Dan Petry, and Frank Tanana were in the last phases of their career. The Detroit lineup was packed with filler old-timers like Gary Ward, Lloyd Moseby, and John Shelby. Even 37-year old Dave Bergman was still around. Sparky’s club was far from vibrant.
But add to the mix “Big Daddy”, and the Tigers suddenly had the most powerful slugger in baseball. Surprise!
Cecil started slow, but on April 14 he hit his first homer in a game at Tiger Stadium against the Orioles. Four days later he hit another, against the Yankees, also at The Corner. He blasted two more the next week, three more the following week, and he was on his way. In May, in a game against the Blue Jays (the team that previously released him), Fielder muscled three homers over the fence in Toronto. To prove that wasn’t a fluke, he hit homers in each of his next two games, giving him five big flies in 13 at-bats. He had 18 homers by the end of May, and to further prove that he was a force to be reckoned with, Cec hit three against the Indians in their cavernous ballpark on the shore of Lake Erie in early June. The new Tiger first baseman was giving Ernie Harwell plenty of chances to use his signature phrase: “It’s loooooooooong gooooone!”
Unlike many sluggers who get their power fixes in bunches, Cecil was very consistent in 1990. He hit between 7 and 11 homers in every month of the season. On the morning of September 1, he had 42 homers and 111 RBI. he had been selected to the All-Star team, where he served as a backup to starter Mark McGwire. Not bad for a guy the Tigers signed to a $1.25 million contract!
Big Daddy went into the final three-game series of the season with 49 homers, just one shy of becoming the first player in the majors to reach 50 since 1977. He was blanked in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, striking out five times. It was apparent that he was pressing.
“I want him to get [the 50 homers] because he deserves it,” Sparky told reporters. “No one deserves the credit more than he does.”
In the finale, Fielder got his 50th in his third trip to the plate, belting a homer with leadoff man Tony Phillips on base in front of him. Not since George Foster (also playing under Sparky Anderson), had a player reached the 50-homer mark. As if unburdened, Fielder was more relaxed in the 8th inning when he lined a towering homer to left field for #51. That “one” proved to be exclamation point on a remarkable season. The first-year Tiger ended up with 51 homers and 132 RBI – the highest totals in baseball.
No one, not even Fielder himself, could have predicted the heights he would reach in 1990. The big fella got a big raise in the off-season, but for that one year, considering all that he did for a struggling team after arriving from Japan, Cecil Fielder was the best bargain the Detroit Tigers ever had.