As Pete Incaviglia passes through the Detroit Tigers" clubhouse one afternoon in late August, he grabs the kid, heaving him up and flipping him over his shoulder before setting him down again. The kid is seven years old, but he has enough heft to pass for 12. Anything a player does with him during pregame is considered weight training. Then Tony Phillips takes over, chasing him around the room, swatting him mightily when the kid is cornered. The kid finally collapses in a giggling heap, a big pile of surrender, so Phillips simply rolls him the length of the clubhouse.
"Big Daddy," says Phillips, an all-purpose player, "you better get your kid out of here before I kill him."
At first glance, this scene might interest child-protection agencies in the cities Big Daddy takes his kid to during his travels with the Tigers. It's not exactly child abuse, not when the kid can sneak around Phillips and sock him in the protective cup—while other players look on approvingly. Then again, it's probably not what child-care specialists mean when they talk about alternative day care, big leaguers working out the kinks with a second-grader.
Look out! Incaviglia's stuffing the kid upside down in the laundry basket!
The negligent Big Daddy in question is chatting up his hitting instructor, talking about some new bats that just came in. Is he oblivious to his son's torment? No, he encourages it. "Toughens him up," says Big Daddy, Cecil Fielder to the rest of us. "They should knock him around a little bit."
As taped interviews from the clubhouse are played back later, there is the horrifying soundtrack of Prince Fielder scuffling to escape his attackers and drowning out the normal clatter with his squeals and giggles. "This is what it's all about," says Big Daddy, who looks on approvingly and who actually found in the ballplayers" repertoire of clichés the perfect words: "A boy and his dad...."
For Big Daddy, this seems to be exactly what it's all about. A boy and his dad, however unusual the circumstances. But what has been usual for Fielder and his family—his wife, Stacey, is expecting their second child—so far? A part-time player with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1985 to '88, he had to travel to Japan in '89 to find a full-time job and major league pay. Stacey and Prince went with him.
In January 1990 he signed with Detroit, which was not necessarily considered a return to the majors. The Tigers, then the worst team in baseball, had lost 103 games the previous season. They were so desperate that manager Sparky Anderson says he asked only two things of applicants: "They should be warm and they should pass the health test."
Fielder was warm and apparently healthy, although team doctors must have overlooked his weight. In the Tiger media guide it is listed at 230 pounds. In fact, he weighs about 260, and the pounds are distributed such that it is just a matter of time before Late Night's David Letterman anoints Fielder as his new "fat tub of goo." On the other hand, in what was essentially his first full season in the majors, Fielder did hit 51 home runs. Suddenly he reminds you more of Babe Ruth than of Terry Forster, which restricts the comedy potential considerably.
Big Daddy continues to live large this season, too. As of Sunday, Fielder, who plays first base, led the American League in homers with 43 and in RBIs with 128. Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics (page 60) was second in both categories with 42 and 113. However, more than Big Daddy's extended impersonation of the Bambino, there is the matter of what he has done for the Tigers. The team with the AL's worst batting average and second worst ERA could still go down in history as the alltime whiff club, yet it has remained in the pennant race most of the season. With Fielder slugging away, Detroit is first in the majors in home runs and second in runs. "Correct me if I'm wrong," says Anderson, "but isn't the point of the game to score more runs than the other guys?" Point well taken, Sparky.