Prince inherits his kingdom
We all knew this day was coming, yet the finality of it seems too hard to bear.
Tuesday afternoon, defying all sense and logic, the Detroit Tigers have signed now-former Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract.
When the season ended, Fielder made no indications that he would return to Milwaukee. His final at-bat was greeted with a warm standing ovation that actually seemed to give the big fella some pause, even if just for a fleeting moment.
Oh, sure, the Brewers made Fielder a courtesy offer, and one that was hardly insulting, believed to be in the neighborhood of five years for $100 million. But serious negotiations hadn't taken place in a couple of years. This was no secret to anyone involved in the process, or even those on the outside. When Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, told GM Doug Melvin that he was seeking more than twice what the Brewers were offering in total compensation, Melvin knew Milwaukee just couldn't compete.
And while the news should not be a shock – after all, we had been preparing for this as a baseball reality for at least three years now – it was still tough to take. I mean, can it really be 10 seasons since the then-dismal Brewers drafted the son of former slugger Cecil Fielder with the No. 7 overall selection in the June amateur draft?
At the time, Fielder had been 18 years old less than a month. Ironically, he was selected one pick after future teammate Zack Greinke in the draft. (In another twist of irony, the 2002 draft was the one that was prominently discussed in Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball," whose film adaptation just earned an Oscar nomination this week.)
The selection of Fielder in 2002 signaled the first real step that the Brewers were going to take their pathetic franchise and make something to be proud of and to root for. The previous 20 years of first round picks produced a parade of stiffs that either flamed out early, never signed with the team, got injured or just barely made it to the Major Leagues.
Some of the embarrassments passed off as future Brewers included J.M. Gold, Kyle Peterson, David Krynzel, Antone Williamson, Tyrone Hill, Kenny Henderson, Ken Felder, Gordon Powell, Chad Green and Mike Jones.
Good grief. No wonder the Brewers were the laughing stock of baseball.
Without question, drafting and signing Fielder was the only truly great thing the abbreviated Dean Taylor administration did, but after Fielder, future stars Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Brett Lawrie (now with Toronto) were drafted. The Brewers began building a core of players that actually had Major League potential.
After that core reached the bigs, the Brewers actually started gaining respectability. Free agents, such as Randy Wolf and Trevor Hoffman decided to extend their careers on the shoulders of those big bats in the lineup. Players no longer balked at being traded to Milwaukee, with Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and Greinke welcoming the chance to pitch the Brewers into the postseason.
Oh, the postseason? That was a long distance memory when Fielder was drafted. And while he didn't do it all by himself, he helped the Brewers regain the credibility as an organization that was lost somewhere in the early 1990's.
But now he's gone. In some ways this was no surprise at all. Like I said, we all knew this day would come. But as the offseason dragged on and on, and Fielder's name was still out there day after day, week after week, and even month after month, many wondered if Boras had oversold his own hand. Was it possible that he would have no takers for one of the most prolific and durable hitters in baseball over the past five years? Was it possible that the market had dried up for a slugger that is just 27 years old? Was there any chance he might come back to Milwaukee for one last hurrah?
Nope. As they say, it takes only one. The Prince Parade that had stops in Arlington, Washington, Seattle and Boston among other ports of (potential) call made one final, clandestine, and utterly stunning stop.
The Tigers were apparently the "mystery team" involved in the process, and is the same club for which Fielder's estranged father, Cecil, played seven of his 13 Major League seasons. It is also the place where young Prince almost literally grew up running around now-demolished Tiger Stadium when he was a kid.
There had been a report last fall that considering the strained relationship he and his father have had over most of Prince's professional career, that cities his dad played in were off-limits. Perhaps because of the lack of other suitors elsewhere, that edict was taken out of play.
Still, the baseball world was stunned when Detroit became Fielder's destination. After all, general manager Dave Dombrowski just last Thursday pooh-poohed the very idea of Prince landing in the Motor City.
"Of course we'd consider Prince Fielder," Dombrowksi said during the team's Winter Caravan. "But realistically, it's probably not a good fit. We anticipate Victor Martinez coming back in 2013 and playing at the level he was at last season."
Later that day, when pressed again about Fielder, Dombrowski again reiterated, "I would just say that the fit is really not there at this point."
So what changed?
Just as was the case in 2001 with another Boras client, Alex Rodriguez, it only takes one crazy owner to be sweet-talked into breaking into their piggy bank to make an impulse buy.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 82 years old and literally grew up with the team he purchased in 1998. For much of Ilitch's life the Tigers had been one of the most respected franchises in baseball, having won four World Series championships and 10 American League pennants.
But as an owner, Ilitch has only won the big prize in the NHL. For resurrecting the Red Wings, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. But his baseball team, until 2006, had largely been a massive disappointment under his stewardship.
Last season, however, the Tigers were on the brink. Justin Verlander showed himself to be baseball's best pitcher and Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez had monster years at the plate. The Tigers made it to the postseason, but burned out early.
Detroit on paper looked pretty good for 2012 until it was revealed that Victor Martinez would have to miss the 2012 season with an ACL tear after an off-season workout.
So, with a hole, in steps Ilitch and his more than $1 billion in net worth and he goes for broke.
So while we knew it was coming, it is still a sad day in Milwaukee. And while he may go on to do great things in Detroit, Fielder will always have a place in Brewers lore. For the last couple of years there have been no names added to the Miller Park Walk of Fame, and for good reason. There just have not been enough players deserving of such an honor in team history.
And while he will have to wait until his playing days are over, Prince Fielder will someday have his name in concrete at the home of the Brewers.
Good luck Prince! Thanks for not going to the Cubs or Cards:) And thank you for all the years of awesomeness!!!
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