In supporting role, Prince vital to Tigers' success
DETROIT -- Prince Fielder stood in the Tigers' clubhouse, a cigar in his mouth, a bottle of champagne in each hand. He wore an American League champions hat backward and tilted slightly to the side, drenched in a mixture of the celebratory champagne, beer and water. And like always, even with the cigar, he had that signature smile on his face.
He and his teammates are heading to the World Series.
This was the moment for which Fielder had waited eight long years. This was the moment he had been so close to experiencing just last season, when the Brewers battled the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series before falling in six games.
He wouldn't let it happen again. Neither would the Tigers, who had been on the doorstep last year as well before losing the AL Championship Series in six games to the Rangers.
Fielder shared the Tigers' pain. He signed with Detroit in the offseason to win, and win now, just as Tigers owner Mike Ilitch wanted -- which the owner made evident when he signed the slugging first baseman to an equally large nine-year, $214 million contract, even though the team already had arguably the league's best first baseman in Miguel Cabrera.
To make it work, sacrifices had to be made. Cabrera needed to moved across the diamond to third base, where he hadn't played regularly since 2008. And Fielder needed to move to Detroit to join a team that could no longer be called "his."
He wouldn't be the focal point in the Motor City. The Tigers had the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner in Justin Verlander, and the reigning AL batting champion in Cabrera. But rather than approach it hesitantly, Fielder approached it like a kid in his first day at a new school.
"When I first got here and you see the Triple Crown winner come up to you and say, 'Hi,' the first day and he's happy to see you, it makes you feel comfortable right away," said Fielder after Game 5 of the AL Division Series against Oakland. "Miguel and Justin, the two biggest guys on the team, welcomed me right away and once the cool kids in school like you, it's easy to get along."
Of course, it's easier to be accepted as one of the "cool kids" when your resume is equally impressive. Fielder arrived with six years in the big leagues having never missed more than five games in a season and only once hitting fewer than 30 home runs.
The Tigers knew they were getting a durable, powerful bat in the middle of the order to protect Cabrera, which was lost when designated hitter Victor Martinez went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the offseason. That protection earned Milwaukee's Ryan Braun NL MVP honors last year.
Miguel Cabrera has reached base safely in all 20 career postseason games with the Tigers.
But no one could've expected what happened this year, as Fielder helped etch Cabrera's name in history.
"Look it, he comes here and Miggy gets to win a Triple Crown," Tigers catcher Gerald Laird said.
Cabrera's success never once bothered Fielder, even though few first baseman have posted a quieter 30-home run, 108-RBI season -- with a career-high .313 batting average to boot.
Instead, Fielder relished in Cabrera's accomplishments, frequently calling him the best right-handed hitter. And not just in the game now, but of all time.
"Oh yeah, it's been awesome. I mean, playing with him and getting to watch him hit every day is really unbelievable," Fielder said. "You can't help but to learn and get better. So I'm just glad I'm able to play with a guy like him."
A player with Fielder's type of track record, a 28-year-old veteran still learning from a teammate, and enthusiastically admitting he's learning from a teammate. That's why he's rapidly gained the respect of his peers.
And although all the hype surrounded Cabrera and his Triple Crown and MVP candidacy, as well as Verlander's Cy Young candidacy, those around Fielder always recognized and understood the impact of his contributions.
"Prince is a big part. I mean, he's huge," Laird said. "He's a great hitter, he's one of the best left-handed hitters in the game. And he's a team guy."
"Prince has been outstanding for us. He's been a premium hitter as advertised in the middle of the lineup," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We have the best 3-4 combo -- left-handed and right-handed -- in baseball, and he's everything we could have expected."