Weight lifted: Happier Fielder raring to go
Was this really a good idea?
“It’s cool. He knows what he’s doing,” Prince Fielder said after getting a haircut and beard touch-up from the redoubtable Martin Maldonado.
Maldonado already had established his grooming expertise in camp last spring, so he is trusted not to go all Sweeney Todd on players in the Milwaukee Brewers’ clubhouse. Otherwise, Fielder certainly can afford a stop at a local barber shop.
Eighteen million dollars can buy a lot of haircuts. Not to mention peace of mind and a blissful countenance. After a couple of springs of financial jousting with the ball club, Fielder got his big payday by qualifying for salary arbitration for the first time.
Now, after securing his family’s future for years to come, Fielder can do what he really wanted to do all along: just play baseball.
“The game’s supposed to be fun,” said Fielder. “Now, I can relax and go out and have fun.”
It was a different story last spring. After becoming the youngest player ever (23 years, 139 days) to hit 50 home runs in a season in 2007, Fielder thought he deserved a bigger raise than the Brewers offered.
Until players get three years in and qualify for arbitration, the Brewers use a statistical formula to determine their salaries. The club renewed his salary at $670,000, and afterward he angrily lashed out.
“I wasn’t really irritated (afterward),” insisted Fielder. “But now it’s been handled. Whatever I felt then, it was all taken care of in the deal. I hope we’re seeing eye-to-eye.”
The average fan, especially in these difficult economic times, may have a difficult time understanding why it took a two-year, $18-million deal to ease Fielder’s mind. He couldn’t get by on nearly $700,000?
You have to know Fielder’s background to understand his angst over getting his first big contract. A good portion of the $2.4 million signing bonus he received as a first-round draft pick in 2002 reportedly vanished along with his father, former big leaguer Cecil Fielder, swamped at the time by all sorts of money problems.
It got so sticky that the IRS filed a lien against the Brewers’ first baseman for back taxes of more than $400,000. Then, there’s the matter of supporting a family of four, including children ages 2 and 4.
“It’s not so much happiness as relief,” said coach Dale Sveum, trying to explain the impact of a young player’s first big payday.
“When you’re that young and have a family that young, and it’s all we know, it’s a lot more pressure than people will ever know. It’s not like you can fall back on a business degree or anything like that (after baseball).
”This is all he knows. Now he knows his family is taken care of for the rest of his life. His ability should really come out now.“
Which, considering what Fielder already has accomplished at 24, could lead to amazing things. In 513 games, he has batted .278 with 114 home runs, 312 runs batted in and a .533 slugging percentage.
Impressive numbers, without question, not that Fielder is satisfied with his body of work.
”I’m my worst critic,“ he said. ”I’m very happy with what I’ve done, but I’ve got to keep working. There’s lots of things I need to get better at, defensively, everything.
“You never stop working. There’s always something you’ve got to get better at. I want to get all parts of my game as good as I can.”
Beyond his contract situation a year ago, Fielder stumbled to an awful start, going 14 games without a home run. Having pronounced during spring training that he had become a vegetarian, Fielder started hearing that his decision not to eat meat had robbed him of his power.
Frantic fans practically begged for him to eat a burger, and it’s a wonder Fielder didn’t find packages of pork chops on his doorstep. But Fielder said it was the self-imposed pressure to repeat his 50-homer season that led to the poor start, not his diet.
“That’s kind of why I started off slow,” said Fielder. “I’m trying to hit 50 in the first month.
”I was trying to do too much instead of just playing the game and trying to have fun.“
Fielder eventually found his stride and started putting up the expected production numbers, finishing with 34 homers and 102 RBI. But it was in September, during the thick of the playoff race when the Brewers needed him most, that Fielder really shined.
With most of the lineup in a swoon that spiraled into a losing streak that cost manager Ned Yost his job, Fielder stepped up to carry the load. He batted .316 over the final month with six homers and 21 RBI, helping the Brewers rally to claim the NL wild-card berth.
Fielder said he was inspired by watching the incredible pitching performance of midseason pickup CC Sabathia, who volunteered to pitch on short rest down the stretch to help end the team’s 26-year playoff drought.
”That was inspirational,“ said Fielder, who collected only one hit —a homer—in 14 playoff at-bats against Philadelphia. ”I think it motivated everybody.
“For him to sacrifice that on a free-agent year, that’s one of my top teammates of all-time. He put himself on the line and really put the team first.”
Fielder found a different kind of inspiration over the winter, much of it stemming from his new contract. Having visibly put on weight during the 2008 season, he rededicated himself to conditioning and reported to camp looking much trimmer.
Lighter body. Lighter mood. The joke in camp is that the only thing heavier about Fielder is his wallet.
“I just ate better,” said Fielder, who is listed at 268 pounds by the club. “I don’t know (the exact weight). I’m fine right now.
”As long as I can pick up a bat and swing it. I’m just happy. The Brewers took care of me. It just feels good. I can’t even explain it.“