After seeing what he could do when he played every day, Fielder gained confidence in his abilities. Stateside, notice was paid as well. When Detroit couldn't lure Kent Hrbek or Pete O'Brien, both free agents, it went after Fielder. And with Hanshin ready to up the ante, Detroit had to offer Fielder $3 million for two seasons. The rest, as they say, is home runs.
The last two of his 51 homers in 1990 came on the final day of the season in New York. Fielder, who began the year in anonymity, found himself in the middle of a media countdown at its end. (The last player to hit 50 was the Cincinnati Reds' George Foster, who had 52 in 1977.) There were times when players could not negotiate the clubhouse because of the crush of reporters. Fielder didn't help, tailing off at the end and extending the drama. He finally got No. 49 with six games remaining, but he just couldn't cash in. "At the end," he says, "I didn't care if I hit 50 or not. I just wanted it to be over with."
Those who knew hitting could see him sweating. He was holding the bat tighter, swinging harder. Otherwise, though, no one could see him strain. His batting coach, Vada Pinson, doesn't remember Fielder barking at anybody. "The last day, a Japanese reporter came up to him, and he excused himself and said, 'I really have to get myself together,' " says Pinson. "That was all the stress I saw."
Now that he's the league's reigning phenomenon, he's just as stable. "Having done what he's done," says Incaviglia, "he could come in here and big-league it. But he's just one of the guys, and he's determined to stay that way."
Above all, his teammates regard him as a good guy. They give the obligatory quotes—"I've seen him hit a home run off his front foot," says Mickey Tettleton, maintaining the legend. "I've seen him hit a line drive over centerfield, 440 feet"—but they always end with "good guy."
In fact, Fielder seems to play the role of victim more willingly than that of hero. The Tiger clubhouse is loose to begin with, but Fielder's corner is particularly hot. Leftfielder Lloyd Moseby, who occupies the locker next to him, and who was a teammate of his in Toronto, is by some accounts his best friend. Yet he told Fielder the other day that Fielder could never play in the National League; he would miss 50 games for sure. Fielder, his eyes as big as pie plates, tried to argue, but Moseby just shot him down. "The skip would see you limp in there, and you'd be out in a minute," said Moseby. "Maybe miss 60 games a year."
Fielder appeared sorrowful, as if he believed the news. "We do get on him," says Tettleton.
The one taboo appears to be his weight. The next fat joke in the Detroit clubhouse will be the first. "Why would that be funny?" asks Tettleton, as if he has never considered the topic before. Attention: David Letterman.
Well, some fun has been had on that topic, sort of. Fielder got the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune, which covered his high school exploits at Nogales High just outside Los Angeles, to track down a picture of him dunking. In fact, Fielder was a sensational football and basketball player at Nogales High, where he was voted Most Athletic and Most Popular. Baseball bored him; he didn't go out for the varsity until his junior year.
But basketball, now there was a sport. A 6'3" point guard as a senior—"He was sweet," says his mother, "marvelous passes'—he led Nogales to the sectional semifinals, but his team missed out on a chance for a perfect season when his 30-footer hit the front of the rim at the buzzer. The picture did show Cecil dunking. The players passed it around and remarked on the wonders of trick photography. He was said to have looked sorrowful then, too.