New Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder poses during photo day Tuesday in Surprise, Ariz. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Surprise, Ariz. — Prince Fielder hasn’t always had the best relationship with his dad, former big-leaguer Cecil Fielder, but a conversation between them from his Little League days still resonates.
Prince fouled a ball off his shin and his dad asked, “Are you all right?”
“I was like, ‘Yeah, it just hurts,’” Fielder said.
His dad then told him that he’s good enough to play.
“I was like, ‘What? No, look. It’s swollen. It’s cramping,’” Fielder said.
His dad strongly suggested he thought he could play and ended the conversation. The next day, Fielder played in a doubleheader. He has kept that approach ever since.
“I didn’t know what my dad meant, but I was finally like, ‘I guess that means I should play,’” Fielder said. “If you’re hurt, it’s one thing. But if you’re just sore, you’re all right.
“Unless I have to miss a game, I don’t want to. If you’re not hurt, play.”
Fielder has been the most durable player in the big leagues the past eight years, playing at least 157 games in each of them. He has played in all 162 games each of the last three years — including the last two with the Tigers — and enters this season as the active leader in consecutive games played with 505.
Third baseman Adrian Beltre said Fielder might be the best athlete among the team’s infielders. That might surprise some, considering Fielder is listed at 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds, but not those who know him.
“Our area scout, Tom McNamara, watched him do private workouts in high school and was blown away by the intensity level at which he did them,” said Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was the scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers when they drafted Fielder seventh overall in 2002.
“I’ve seen all kinds of physical specimens who spend more time on the disabled list than they do on the active list,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. “Prince knows what he needs to do to take care of himself, and I think being told that he couldn’t be an everyday player really drives him.”
Fielder knows he had his fair share of skeptics who thought he was too big or too immobile to play every day. He’s not trying to prove them wrong, though.
Instead, Fielder said, it’s about doing what he knows he can.
“It’s just knowing who I am,” Fielder said. “Just because I’m big doesn’t mean I can’t play every day.”
Melvin knows the importance of having durable, everyday guys such as Fielder. He had the same luxury when he was with the Rangers with Pudge Rodriguez at catcher.
Melvin and the Brewers decided early in Fielder’s career that he would become a staple for the team. Fielder reached the big leagues late in 2005, and Melvin had a decision to make on first basemen.
Should he go with the young and promising Fielder, or should he stick with proven veteran Lyle Overbay, fresh off a 19-homer, 72-RBI season?
Melvin opted to go with Fielder, trading Overbay to the Toronto Blue Jays that offseason. It’s a decision he doesn’t regret as Fielder helped the Brewers snap their 25-year playoff drought in 2008 and played a role in getting them to the NLCS in 2011.
“When we had Prince, we never even talked about who was going to be our backup first baseman,” Melvin said. “It’s kind of like when I had Pudge at catcher in Texas. It’s nice for a manager to have that.”
Unfortunately for Melvin and the Brewers, they knew they wouldn’t have the financial resources to keep Fielder long-term when he hit free agency after the 2011 season. The Rangers had interest in Fielder, but his agent, Scott Boras, ultimately got him a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers.
Fielder had a successful first season in Detroit, belting 30 home runs, driving in 108 runs and going to the World Series. He went 1-for-14 in the World Series, though, and then struggled last season.
Fielder had a .267 average in the first half and batted .228 in July. He played better the final two months but then had no home runs or RBIs in the postseason. During his introductory news conference, Fielder admitted he “sucked” last year while the Rangers and some scouts speculated that personal issues might have caused his play to slip.
Fielder filed for divorce from his wife Chanel last year, but the two have since reconciled.
Asked if he thought personal issues could be behind his struggles, Fielder said, “No. I mean, I’ve been playing 10 years. Life happens every year. I thank them for giving me an excuse, but nah.”
How last season ended and Fielder’s history of postseason struggles didn’t factor into the Rangers pursuing him once again this offseason. They felt a new environment and new surroundings might be all that’s needed to get Fielder back on track, not to mention their need for a left-handed power bat and that first base was among the least productive positions for them last year.
With a surplus of middle infielders, the Rangers also had the right piece, Ian Kinsler, to send back to the Tigers. The deal came together quickly, and the Rangers knew what they were getting in Fielder after pursuing him two years ago in free agency.
“The initial meeting was as impressive of a meeting as I’ve ever been able to attend with the Rangers,” assistant general manager Thad Levine said. “The substance of who Prince Fielder was was exceptional. There’s so much more to him as a player. He’s not necessarily the most outgoing person, but he’s a person who is very easy to connect to, and he took great care of every person we brought to that meeting.”
The Rangers were blown away listening to Fielder talk about his offseason workout regimen and how he got himself ready to play a full season. They also liked hearing him discuss how he tries to be a role model and show younger players what it takes to succeed in the game.
Fielder received the same advice when he broke into the big leagues from established veterans such as Mike Cameron, Jason Kendall and Carlos Lee.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Fielder said. “If someone wants help, I’ll try to help them.”
Levine believes that’s part of what makes Fielder a superstar player compared to a star player. But the Rangers’ bid to land him fell short.
Levine said the Rangers’ were negotiating more along the lines of what they have since acquired for Fielder — a seven-year, $138 million obligation. Fielder’s original deal has $168 million left, but the Tigers are paying $30 million of it.
Fielder doesn’t know if he needed a fresh start but was all smiles during his news conference in Texas last November with Chanel and two sons on hand. His family was with him for a few days this spring as well.
“Any time you can have your family around, it’s always a good thing,” Fielder said.
Fielder then said what Rangers fans can expect from him this season: “I play hard every day. They can expect that no matter what. I can control that, so I demand that out of myself.”