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Prince aiming for legacy, memories in Derby

DETROIT -- Prince Fielder doesn't need a big crowd and a bunch of television cameras to put the pressure on him. For him, batting practice is a home run derby.

Hitting in the same group as Miguel Cabrera will do that.

Jhonny Peralta should know. He hit in their group last year before changing this season.

"Frustrating," Peralta described it. "I don't want to swing in that group. If you don't hit a home run in that BP group, you better hit the ball hard. If you don't hit the ball hard, you messed up."

When the Tigers are at Comerica Park, their pregame batting practice takes place too early for fans to get a look. The gates aren't open, though a scattered fan or two might look in from beyond the outfield concourse. When the Tigers hit the road, they hit later in the afternoon, giving fans a chance to watch.

Fielder and Cabrera always hit in the same group. Some days they'll take their normal rounds without much fanfare. When they want to, usually once a series, they can put on a show. When they do, it's hard not to stop and watch.

"I'm watching," Peralta said. "It's not only me. A lot of guys would be watching."

The oohs and aahs from right and left field were heard throughout Toronto's Rogers Centre when Fielder and Cabrera took turns hitting drives off the windows a week and a half ago. Fielder hit a ball over the right-field seats and nearly into the Allegheny River back in May when the Tigers went to Pittsburgh. They've both littered the right-field plaza at Minnesota's Target Field with baseballs.

"That's a little muscle memory," Fielder said with a smile. "When they throw that pitch [in a game], you want to make sure you do what you want to do with it."

But not everyone can take that swing from the relative quiet of batting practice and carry it into a big setting such as the Chevrolet Home Run Derby, which will take place on Monday. Take away the shelter of the batting cage, put a sellout crowd in the stands, add a horde of teammates in foul territory and a national television audience, and it's a whole different experience.

Fielder, though, is unfazed. For some the batting practice home run swing is just that, or else they risk getting themselves out of their game appreciation. For Fielder it's the opposite. He wants to swing like that in the games.

"My swing stays the same," Fielder said. "I think actually it helps me, because I actually start the swing the same. I swing like I want to swing."

He's a good pure hitter as well, slashing opposite-field singles off left-handed pitchers, a big reason why he hit .310 last year.

He wants to be able to hit that way. He doesn't want to hit that way all the time.

"I feel like I'm a good hitter," he said, "but sometimes I try to become that too much and take away from my regular swing instead of trying to just hit the ball as hard as I possibly can. Obviously, sometimes you want to try to do something, but I think every now and then, I get too much into that. So I think it actually helps me get my aggressiveness back as far as not trying to be too perfect."

That approach, in turn, might make him the perfect Home Run Derby hitter. One more crown might send him down in history with that description.

He has had nowhere near the impact on the Derby as Michael Jordan did on the NBA's slam dunk contest in the 1980s, but for sheer dominance of a skills exhibition, he could join Ken Griffey Jr. as a Derby legend and three-time winner. Griffey won it in 1994, then took back-to-back titles 1998 and 1999. Fielder could match him for both of those distinctions.

Fielder was just a rookie in 2006 when he took part in his first Derby, hitting just three home runs at San Francisco's AT&T Park. He won his first crown in 2009 at St. Louis' Busch Stadium, barely beating Nelson Cruz.

After losing in the semifinals in Arizona two years ago, he barely made it out of the first round last year before putting on a show at Kauffman Stadium -- 11 home runs in the semifinals, then 12 in the final round to run away with the event.

His two sons, who had to endure hearing their father booed in the 2011 event, were able to celebrate with him in 2012. That's a huge inspiration for him this time around.

He'd love to leave a legacy, but he's hoping to pass on a memory.

"I want to have fun, but obviously, you want to win," he said. "We're all competitors. I just want to win to have my boys stand up there with me. That's the only reason I like winning, so that they can experience it. It's really fun for them, and I have fun seeing how much fun it is for them."

His kids aren't the only ones who will be having fun watching. So will his teammates, including the All-Star who hated watching him in the same hitting group.

"I think he's going to win one more time," Peralta said, "because I've seen how he's swinging in BP. He can take it. It's so easy for him."

Download the official Home Run Derby Game, featuring 24 sluggers from the 2010-12 Home Run Derby events. Connect and challenge gamers on the worldwide leaderboards. The game is available for free at the Apple App Store.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

Detroit Tigers, Prince Fielder