All in the Family Feud

You’ve seen this scenario before. Marquee gigabat on the market for dollars only slightly less than those needed to bail out the auto industry, or so you’d think with the hyperbolic gnashing around the water coolers and the Twitterpated. Team who’s just lost an impact bat for the season to a torn ACL in his left knee denies that, whatever the hole now created, Marquee Gigabat isn’t the one to fill it. That was last week, this is this week. And this is no ordinary Marquee Gigabat signing with an ordinary team.

Last week, the Detroit Tigers said Prince Fielder was practically a non-topic. Last week, the smart money still had it that either the Washington Nationals or the Texas Rangers were going to land the biggest fish to spring from the Milwaukee Brewers’ pond. This week, the free agent first baseman’s accepted a mere $214 million over nine years to wear a uniform he got to know very well during his boyhood. While the world crows over agent Scott Boras’s apparent cozying to owner Mike Illitch over the heads of supposedly more rational brass such as general manager Dave Dombrowski, Fielder becomes a kind of prodigal son. He was already, in one sad enough way, an alienated one.

A sort-of homecoming . . .

This is the same Prince Fielder who once dropped jaws with mammoth home runs in the Grosse Point, Michigan Little League while his father, Cecil, restored to the Show after a spell in Japan and wearing the Olde English D on his left breast, dropped jaws with mammoth home runs in Tiger Stadium and elsewhere. The same Prince Fielder who was such a playfully respectful clubhouse presence while the old man was raking for the Tigers that such Tigers as Tony Phillips thought nothing of stuffing the kid into a clubhouse trash can with a big laugh, with the kid, too, laughing all the way through the rim.

The same Prince Fielder who, on the day before the old man was traded to the Yankees, when the kid was a measly twelve years old, took batting practise with the old man and hit one over the right field fence. Whose father eventually negotiated his first professional baseball package. Whose relationship with his father could long enough be described, reasonably if sadly, as all but non-existent.

Which is more than you can say for his new teammates, and Fielder hasn’t even taken one spring training swing in a Tiger helmet, never mind sent one ten miles to win a ballgame. Miguel Cabrera has already crowed that he practically can’t wait to switch to third base so he can have the pleasure of seeing Fielder on first and with at least a one-in-five shot at busting up a game in the Tigers’ favour any time he steps to the plate. Never mind that Cabrera isn’t exactly able to play third as he once did, in Florida. Speaking of which, down Miami way Jose Reyes must envy Fielder Cabrera’s willing accommodation. Hanley Ramirez fumed when Reyes was signed to play shortstop for the Marlins, and the Fish may yet be trying to move their talented but troubled and occasionally troublesome incumbent as a result.

Last year, the Tigers got far enough to the American League Championship Series, but the injury bug caught up to them when they might have had a shot at the World Series. This year, they were almost prohibitive American League Central favourites even before Victor Martinez’s ACL took him down. With Fielder, they graduate from prohibitive to don’t even think about challenging them, almost, even if it’s almost strictly by power intimidation than by actual added wins. Fielder shakes out as being worth maybe three more wins for the Tigers over Martinez. That could still be the three wins that distinguish an also-ran from a World Series ringbearer.

Boras has to be feeling wonderful now, after he couldn’t land big deals at big balloons for such clients as Ryan Madson and Francisco Rodriguez earlier this off-season.

Fielder, though, has to be feeling a few mixed pangs as he tries on his first Tiger jersey as a bejillionaire bombardier, as opposed to suiting up with Pop back in the year. This is a young man—and he’s still young, at 27—who may have been reared as much by the Tigers as by his father, yet has hoped often enough to best a few of the old man’s accomplishments so there! in a feud that may only now begin softening in small droplets, if at all.

The root of the dilemna is the nasty divorce through which the sovereign’s parents went. Cecil Fielder’s image as a major league player was a that of a big, huggable lug who lived up to Roy Campanella’s old dictum that to play this man’s game a big part of you had to remain a little boy. Few players looked more joyous rumbling around the bases after hitting one through the ozone than Cecil Fielder. Few reveled more in their image as family men. (The elder Fielder’s effervescent grin and roly-poly physique earned him the nickname Big Daddy.) Except that Cecil had two big problems. He didn’t trust himself enough to manage or secure his own money. And he made enough business investments that cost him that part of his fortune (he earned $47 million as a baseball player) that gambling—which he’s said to have hidden from his family until it was too late—didn’t.

When the foreclosure folks arrived to take possession of the 50-room dream spread the elder Fielders built in southern Florida, the marriage cracked up for keeps, with both spouses accusing each other of wild free spending, and a father left to accuse his former wife of turning their two children against him, including the one who’d inherited the father’s facility for conversation-piece home runs.

The son accused the father of taking $200,000 out of his original baseball signing bonus; the father, who acted as the son’s agent in the negotiations, parried that any agent was going to take five to ten percent as a commission. The father has parried some of his son’s other remarks with public threats to “drop a right on him instead of talking to him.” On another occasion, after Fielder the younger spoke of his father in less than adoring terms, possibly one of his frequent enunciations that his motivations on the field included doing the old man one better, Fielder the elder minced no words in return: “I let him know, at the end of the day, if you ever talk to me like that again, you’re going to see me in front of 40,000 people trying to get after you.”

That came from a man whose son was once greeted, after a minor league game, by a process server seeking the old man to serve a lawsuit on him, a man who has been so seared by his son’s rejection that he long refused to attend any of his son’s games, though he watched them almost religiously on television. Whose son has become, reportedly, very much his father’s son in the clubhouse, developing into a team leader partially by his prankish sense of humour and a reported talent for spot-on impersonations; and, at home, where he’s said to be an endearing clown with his two young sons.

A father hints at a beginning to the end of a family feud . . .

Fathers often dream of their sons out-accomplishing them; sons often dream of making their fathers proud by doing just that. Whenever Prince Fielder spoke of hitting one bomb more than his father ever hit in a single season, Cecil Fielder quaked and burned. That’s how deep the Fielder family feud furrowed. And there have been enough fans on enough online message boards over the years hammering Fielder fils–himself the father of two children, himself the son who sided with his mother during his parents’ divorce as a sudden man of the house defending Mom honourably, himself described by such friends as Tony Gwynn, Jr. as desperate not to repeat his own father’s mistakes—as an ingrate. When they’re being polite about it, that is.

The jaws that dropped when the son signed with the old man’s former team didn’t drop only over the dollars or the risk the Tigers stood to take. The younger Fielder’s size may yet throttle rather than allow him to further burnish the Hall of Fame credentials many still think he’ll accumulate yet, even if he is considered anything except his surname’s definition at first base. You’d be somewhat less than human not to wonder whether playing for the team on which his old man became a superstar won’t put a few squirrelly thoughts into Prince Fielder’s dome.

No sooner had Fielder fils signed with the old man’s major league alma mater than Fielder pere spoke to the MLB Network Radio concern in terms suggesting he’s fed up with the feuding but not to the point where he’d like to drop a right on him, rather than talk to him.

“We’re having a few chats,” the father—who is remarried, has a new child with his second wife, and reconciled with both  his daughter from the first marriage and his ex-wife, who has also remarried—told the radio network. “We’re doing a lot better than we were. Time heals all wounds. Everybody has to come back together at some point. He’s going to come full circle [with the Tigers]. He was there in Detroit most of his young life. I think he’ll get comfortable in that place. I know Mr. Ilitch  is probably excited because he’s been wanting that kid since he was a little kid so he probably got his wish.”

It might begin a lot of healing for one and all if Fielder fils gets comfortable enough in what was once the old man’s town, if not the old man’s ballpark (Tiger Stadium closed in 1999 and—after years of wrestling between the city and groups desperate to preserve what ancient Tiger pitcher Elden Auker liked to call the Old Girl—was reduced at last to nothing but a baseball field ten years later), that he defies certain expectations and produces long for long years in the Olde English D and finds a way to forgive a father who once shone in the same uniform but made some grave mistakes with the money that shining once helped him earn.

That assumes Fielder fils hasn’t yet tired of hearing himself compared to the old man. Whatever else went down between them, both this son and this father at least know one thing. At least this father is still very much alive for both sides to consider a reconciliation, even if this son once said it wouldn’t likely happen, if at all, until his own career was over.

But even that would beat the living hell out of trying to drop a right on each other.

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