Editor's Note: This story appears in the Aug. 13 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Prince Fielder wants recognition.
But when he stands in the batter's box, all 260-plus pounds of him, waving his 35-inch, 32-ounce bat as if it were a fly rod, the muscles and tendons in his tattooed forearms twisting like steel cables, Fielder knows he's going to have to be patient.
First, he settles into his lefthanded stance, weight slightly on his back foot. Then, as the pitcher begins to move forward in his motion, Fielder rocks back a little bit and taps his right foot lightly down in the dirt. Now he's locked in. Still, he must wait.
Many great hitters say this is the point in their batting sequence -- front foot down, hands loaded -- when they focus on the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand, trying to detect a slight turn of his wrist, perhaps the position of his thumb, index or middle finger. Fielder, armed with wisdom gleaned from spending his entire life around the game, doesn't even try to figure out the pitch.
"I used to look for the ball at the release point, but that's too much time to think about what's coming," he says, sitting in the empty Brewers clubhouse in workout gear, a full five hours before game time. "So usually I end up seeing the ball about halfway to home plate. To a lot of guys, that might seem late."
But Fielder trusts his instincts, not to mention his hands, and in this, only his second full major league season, they've served him well. He's the 23-year-old first baseman and unquestioned leader of baseball's most surprising team, an MVP candidate who's nearly keeping pace with A-Rod on his way to 50 homers. No wonder he chooses to focus on the positive.
Even though the Brewers have an elaborate digital-video system that allows players to carefully dissect, with the click of a mouse, every at-bat, Fielder wants only to see his good swings. "Home runs, doubles, hard line drives -- that's it," he says. This reinforcement, along with some of the fiercest bat speed ever witnessed in the major leagues, has made him nearly impossible to fool. "He's never off balance," says teammate Craig Counsell. "To pitchers, that's a nightmare, because they have no idea how to set him up, how to get him leaning or looking for a certain pitch."
"I'm only looking for one thing when I'm at the plate," Fielder says. "I just want a strike. If it's a strike and I put the barrel of the bat on it, it's close to 100% that I'm going to hit it hard somewhere, maybe out of the ballpark. Whenever I start going bad, it's almost never my swing; it's my pitch selection."
So when he does hit a slump, Fielder understands exactly what he needs to do.
"I've got to wait," he says. "I know."
THE REQUEST came before Fielder was voted the starting first baseman for the NL All-Star team but after he'd already surpassed 25 homers (he hit 28 as a rookie in 2006). The request was for an interview, a cover shoot, the works. But before he chose to give up the time, Prince Fielder wanted assurance that the focus would be on him.
This is understandable because of the endless questions he has faced about his dad, former 50-home run slugger Cecil Fielder. As has been well chronicled, Cecil squandered the family fortune on gambling and odd business ventures, and father and son have not spoken in three years. Prince had always been polite about the questions, but he's grown weary, especially since new quotes from Cecil, who's managing an independent minor league team in Florida, keep popping up -- quotes that sometimes belittle Prince and portray him as an ungrateful son.
"I'm trying to make my own way in this game," Prince says, "to make a name for myself."
Yet his success is inextricably linked to his lineage. No matter how much Prince wants to avoid talking about Cecil, it's hard for him to answer baseball questions without saying the words "my dad" or making reference to "how I grew up." When talking about his explosive swing, he can't help but tell of how Cecil came home one day when Prince was 5 and told his righthanded son, matter-of-factly, "Turn around and hit lefty. You'll thank me for it later." In particular, Prince remembers hanging around a rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter in 1996, when Cecil was a part of the Yankees' first World Series title team in 18 years. "Even though I was a kid, I could see he was all about playing hard every day," Prince says. "I knew if I made it, that was the type of player I wanted to be -- a guy who could lead by playing with a lot of fire."
Prince first attracted attention as the lovable, chubby kid who hit a ball into the upper deck of Tiger Stadium at age 12 and, as he says, "ate all the candy they put out there." But it's been clear for years that he's different from his dad. When Prince blew up to 300-plus pounds in high school, rather than blame genetics, he went to work with a
personal trainer who helped him drop 40. When he heard scouts and media critics say that the Brewers made a mistake drafting a DH seventh overall in 2002, he dedicated himself to becoming an adequate first baseman. And when Prince studied hitting, he didn't copy Cecil, an all-or-nothing slugger who hit over .270 just once. Instead, Prince watched a guy who was considered a complete hitter, former Red Sox star Mo Vaughn, who routinely hit 30-plus bombs while also batting over .300. Vaughn patiently worked pitchers until he got the fastball he was looking for. He was both menacing and discerning. Sound familiar?
"I never want to be considered just a slugger," Prince says. "I want to be a guy who hits for a high average, hits a lot of doubles and walks a lot, too. I know if I do all those things, I'm helping my team more than if I'm just hitting home runs and striking out. I hate striking out."
Says Brewers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., who knows something about growing up in the shadow of a famous father: "My Pops calls Prince a home run hitter with a contact hitter's swing and discipline. When Prince and I played our first year in the minors together, Pops said to me after watching him hit, 'He's going to be different from his dad. He's going to be better.'"
Prince rocketed through the minors, making his big league debut in June 2005, a little more than a month after his 21st birthday. "When I got called up," he says, "I felt like I was home."
A BOOMING voice breaks the silence in the Brewers' clubhouse. "Get away from me! I'm serious, man, you better get away from me! Get the hell away from my locker!" It's about an hour from game time, and Prince Fielder is screaming at his neighbor, 24-year-old second baseman Rickie Weeks. Finally, Weeks starts to laugh, and Fielder joins him.
"That happens every game, usually around the same time," says reliever Matt Wise. "He likes to wake everyone up with some type of tirade. He's not serious, but no one's ever sure."
Gwynn says Fielder has been doing this for years, trying to make teammates wonder if he's a teddy bear or a grizzly: "In the minors, we'd be getting ready to go to the park, and he'd act like he was really mad at me. I'd be concerned, but he'd smile and say, 'I'm just messing with you.' "
A bit strange? Perhaps. But Fielder's methods can be subtle at times, too. After rookie third baseman Ryan Braun made an awkward lunge at a popup at the Metrodome earlier this season, he tried to explain away the attempt in the dugout. Fielder listened closely, then asked Braun with a smile, "Is that really your story? Because if it is, you need a better one." Braun quickly changed his tune, removing any hint of an excuse, to which Fielder replied, "That's better."
Fielder does have a temper. He has been known to rip into himself after bad at-bats, sometimes taking his anger out on water coolers and other dugout equipment. "One thing I do when I get mad is question myself out loud," Prince says. "Like, 'What the hell are you doing, man?' So, sometimes before games, I'll be yelling, but trying, you know, to make guys wonder if I'm yelling at them. I guess I'm pretty good at fooling them, because they're always asking, 'Are you talking to me?' That's really the only way I'm vocal. I try to lead by playing hard every day and never making excuses if I play badly."
Brewers manager Ned Yost, who often hears the banter from his office, says Fielder has an innate sense of how to blend fun with intensity, how to chill until it's time to go to work. "Prince never campaigned for the role he's established on this team, and we never held a vote," Yost says. "Guys see his passion, his desire to excel, and the fun he has playing, and they want some of what he's having. Halfway through last season, I told our coaches we might need to mentor him on how to be the leader of a major league team. Turns out, he didn't need any mentoring. He's got what it takes."
Wise tells a story illustrating Fielder's influence. The pitcher was melting down in a game when Fielder called time, walked onto the mound, glove over mouth, as if he had something important to say. "And he goes, 'Matty, I need the rosin bag. I'm sweatin', man. Where is the rosin bag? I need the rosin bag!' I know it sounds like nothing, but it changed the whole mood. It totally relaxed me."
As Fielder chats with Weeks on the other side of the clubhouse, Wise glances over and says, "If I had to choose one player in the game to be the leader of a team, it would be Prince, because of what he brings on the field and in the clubhouse with his personality. He was put on this earth to be the cornerstone of a franchise."
IT'S ABOUT 30 minutes after another win at Miller Park (the Brewers were an MLB-best 19 games over .500 at home through July 26), and Fielder is enjoying some down time with his wife, Chanel, and sons, Jadyn, 2, and Haven, 1. He sits in a golf cart with one child on each leg, asking both for kisses. When they give Daddy what he wants, he kisses them all over their little faces. They laugh. "Whether we win or lose, or if I get any hits, I try to go home in a good mood and leave home in a good mood," Fielder says.
He grew up in the game. This may be just his second season, but it's like he's got over 20 years of experience. He's come in here and produced, no doubt. But he's done more than that. He's made this his team.
-- Brewers teammate Geoff Jenkins
So far it's been a summer of love, with the Brewers threatening to play into October and half the fans at Miller Park sporting jerseys and T-shirts bearing Fielder's No. 28. (For weeks, stadium employees wore "Vote Prince" shirts as part of a successful campaign to slip Fielder past Albert Pujols as an All-Star starter.) On top of all that, he's leading the NL in home runs and ranks among the top five in slugging percentage and RBIs. "But what's really been cool," Fielder says, "is that so many of the guys I came up with, Rickie and Tony and Corey Hart, we're all up here now and we're winning. And the guys and the wives, we have a really good chemistry going. We're trying to ride it."
Fielder is keenly aware that the Brewers haven't won a thing since 1982, and that Milwaukee fans still idolize Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Rollie Fingers and the rest of that World Series team (which lost to the Cardinals). He's also aware that the rival Cubs are poised to make a run at the NL Central title. But just as he clicks on only his good swings on the computer, Fielder keeps it positive. "We have to take care of what's in front of us," he says.
Those are simple words, but the Brewers, to a man, seem to hang on them. "Prince has baseball wisdom," says Counsell, an 11-year vet. "He just turned 23, but guys are turning to him for advice."
They trust in Fielder's way of dealing with the ebb and flow of the long season, and marvel at the way, even during tough stretches -- such as when the team dropped 14 of 19 in May -- he shows up with a smile and takes fun, lively BP as if he were still a boy following his dad around Tiger Stadium. If Prince isn't worrying, why should we?
"He grew up in the game," says 10-year Brewer Geoff Jenkins. "This may be just his second season, but it's like he's got over 20 years of experience. He's come in here and produced, no doubt. But he's done more than that. He's made this his team."
Now that's recognition.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.