Jim Leyland will never forget the Tigers’ Winter Caravan of 2012, but not for the frigid Michigan weather.
While the Tigers were building enthusiasm for their upcoming defense of their 2011 American League Central title, Leyland worried about the roster. Detroit had just lost Victor Martinez to a season-ending left knee injury. Leyland had asked team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski if they had room to add one more middle reliever, but he was told they didn’t have the payroll space.
As Leyland sat in the lobby of the Motor City Hotel and Casino a few days later, with TigerFest and the caravan complete, his phone rang.
“It's Dave saying we just signed Prince Fielder,” Leyland recalled. “I said, ‘Man, Mr. Ilitch must have hit the lottery or something.’”
No, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch hadn’t won the lottery, but Leyland had every reason to feel like he had. So did Tigers fans.
What the Tigers did 10 years ago this week was arguably unprecedented, and it hasn’t been seen since. It’s not just that a Midwestern team went big to sign the marquee free agent of the offseason. The Tigers had been aggressive on the market for years before that, having signed Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez. A run of success and a talented young roster meant Detroit was no longer the baseball hinterland that top free agents ignored in the past.
What made the Fielder signing so fascinating was the setup. A freak offseason injury led to the biggest signing in baseball, and the biggest free agent deal in franchise history.
The roots of the deal began a couple weeks earlier in Orlando, where Martinez was training for a follow-up to his impressive first season in Detroit. He batted .330 with 103 RBIs as a 32-year-old DH/catcher and was a big reason the Tigers won a division title in 2011.
Martinez had always pushed himself in workouts, trying to strengthen his aging knees for the rigors of another season. He was shuffling side to side in agility drills when his right foot slipped. His weight came down on his left knee, which gave way. An MRI exam showed a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament; a second opinion revealed damage to his meniscus.
Martinez needed two surgeries. His season ended before he could get to Spring Training, and a Tigers roster that appeared stacked suddenly had a gaping hole.
“You feel like you got a sock in the gut," Dombrowski said at the time.
The Tigers’ Hot Stove work to that point consisted of smaller signings, headlined by well-traveled reliever Octavio Dotel. Detroit hadn’t budgeted for a big bat with its key hitters all returning.
Dombrowski asked Tigers scouts and evaluators for ideas on who they could add to fill the void -- preferably an outfielder/DH, definitely a short-term, low-salary deal. Among the free agents were former Mariners great Raul Ibanez, who was about to turn 40, and ex-Yankee Hideki Matsui. Nobody brought up Fielder because no one believed they could sign him.
But back then, if Mike Ilitch was set on a particular move, the budget was flexible. It had flexed a year earlier, when Ilitch wanted to bolster a retooled roster with veteran outfielder Johnny Damon in Spring Training.
Ilitch saw the list of options, without Fielder, and raised the idea.
“We sat down, Dave and I and some of the other key people in the organization, about how we're going to handle this," Ilitch said at the press conference. "I got a little dizzy because this person would move here and this person would move here ... and I got to thinking: 'You know, they're all going to have pressure on them to match that .320 batting average and 100 RBIs. They're going to feel pressure to fill in that slot. I don't want to run into that.'
“I was telling Dave, 'I'd feel a lot better if we could just totally solve [the void], then when [Martinez] gets back, I think we'll have a very, very explosive team.' That's really how it got going."
Ilitch didn’t have to envision Prince Fielder slugging in Detroit. He’d watched him as a kid hitting home runs in batting practice at Tiger Stadium. His father, Cecil Fielder, was the star of the Tigers' roster Ilitch inherited when he brought the team in 1992.
The Tigers just missed getting Prince Fielder in the 2002 Draft. The Brewers selected him with the seventh overall pick, one slot ahead of Detroit.
“Mr. Ilitch, God bless him, he had a relationship with Prince Fielder as a little kid at the ballpark,” Leyland said. “I just think he said, ‘Hey, I want to bring this kid back.’”
The Tigers reached out to Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, to gauge a one-year deal. Though Fielder was lingering on the market, he wasn’t doing a “pillow” contract to go back into free agency the next winter. He didn’t want to be a stopgap.
Boras and Ilitch had built a relationship over the years as the Tigers remade their roster from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series in 2006. They worked together on deals for Rodriguez, Ordonez, Kenny Rogers and Damon.
Instead of viewing Fielder as a rental, they talked about the 27-year-old on a long-term deal. At one point, Dombrowski, assistant GM Al Avila and lead negotiator John Westhoff were all working on the deal from different parts of the state in the middle of the Winter Caravan. They still kept talks quiet until it was just about finished.
Barely a week after the announcement of Martinez’s injury, the Tigers and Fielder had an agreement on a nine-year, $214 million contract. Ten years ago Wednesday, they made it official.
"I figured we had to do it," Ilitch said at the press conference.
The Tigers addressed a season-ending injury to a key hitter by signing a reigning MVP candidate.
“There’s no question Prince was a game-changer for us,” Leyland said. “We could've probably signed some guy for a couple million bucks, moved some guys around at DH. You pencil out that lineup and put in Prince Fielder [instead].
“I always said the biggest treat for a manager is to be able to go to the ballpark and you know what your lineup is going to be. And Prince played every day. You can't even imagine what kind of a treat that is for a manager. I'm looking for a platoon-type DH and all of a sudden we got Prince Fielder. I was ecstatic.”
Short-term, the move paid off. The Tigers not only repeated as AL Central champs, they reached their second World Series in seven years. The next season, with Martinez back at DH, Detroit came within two games of returning to the Fall Classic before losing to the Red Sox in the ALCS.
Ultimately, Fielder’s nine-year contract included just two seasons in Detroit. After that ALCS defeat, the Tigers traded Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler. While Fielder played three more seasons in Texas, Detroit covered a share of his remaining salary to make the trade happen.
Still, the deal is remembered in Detroit as an example of Ilitch’s desire to win and willingness to go for it.
"Mr. Ilitch was just that kind of guy," Leyland said.