New York — He swung the bat and he heard that smack! and the ball screamed into the dark blue sky, higher, higher, until it threatened to bring a few stars down with it. His teammates knew; they leaped off the bench. The fans knew; they roared like animals. And finally, the man who all year refused to watch his home runs, the man who said this 50 thing was “no big deal” — finally even he couldn’t help himself. He stopped halfway to first base and watched the ball bang into the facing of the upper deck in Yankee Stadium, waking up the ghosts of Maris and Ruth and Gehrig.
And then, for the first time in this miraculous season, Cecil Fielder jumped. He jumped like a man sprung from prison, he jumped like kid on the last day of school, he jumped, all 250 pounds of Detroit Bambino, his arms over his head, his huge smile a beacon of celebration and relief.
The Big Five-O.
“I’m so juiced now, I almost want to go out there and do it all again,” said an exuberant Fielder, who became only the 11th player in history to hit 50 or more home runs in a season Wednesday night, and then put a cherry on top by cracking his 51st in his final at-bat. “I didn’t mean to jump like that, but I couldn’t help it, man! I couldn’t help it! . . . Tony (Phillips) was running around the bases ahead of me, yelling, ‘Daddy, you did it!’ He calls me Daddy, you know.”
Right. The rest of us just call him awesome. The 50th and the 51st? Five RBIs? Lord. Hollywood can’t write scripts this good. Here, on the last night of the season — in the same stadium where, 29 years ago, also on the last day, Roger Maris belted his 61st to become the all-time home run king — Fielder did what everyone had been waiting for, but had pretty much given up on. Everyone except the man himself — and his family.
Last week, after he hit his 49th, Cecil’s mother, Tina, flew to Detroit without telling her son. She had never seen him hit a major league home run in person. “I’m bad luck,” she said. But like the rest of us, she wanted a peek. So she got a seat in the lower deck and hid behind a friend’s hat whenever her son came to the plate. Didn’t work. Still no home run. She went home. Cecil went to New York.
And Wednesday night, about 10 minutes after the big moment, I called the house in Rialto, Calif., where Tina and Kaory Fielder, Cecil’s sister, had been watching ESPN, waiting for updates.
“I guess you heard,” I said.
“Heard what?’ said Mrs. Fielder.
“Cecil hit his 50th.”
“You’re not lying, are you?” screamed his sister, who had picked up the other extension. “You wouldn’t lie to my mother, would you?”
“I’m not lying.”
“Say it again!” his sister said. “Say what you just said again!”
“OK. Cecil hit his 50th. Against the Yankees. Fourth inning. Left-field seats. Two-and-one count. Wasn’t even close . . . “
“Fourth inning, left-field seats, two-and-one count . . . ” Tina Fielder repeated, like a grandmother reciting the vital statistics of a newborn baby.
The Big Five-O.
AAAAAAAH! Isn’t that the perfect response? The yelp of relief? The yelp of joy? Make no mistake. What Fielder did Wednesday night was perhaps more remarkable than all the things he had done up to then — come out of Japan, a heavyweight question mark, and hit 49 home runs in his first full-time gig in the majors.
By Wednesday night, however, like many heroes, Fielder, 27, had become a prisoner of his accomplishment. With each at-bat he could feel the eyes, the sighs, the moans, the groans, the enormous weight of all those expectations. When Cecil? Now, Cecil? When Cecil?
“After I hit the 49th, I started to get caught up in it all,” he admitted after it was over. “It wasn’t me up there anymore. I was trying to please everybody else. I was swinging for the fences.”
Instead, he barely got the ball out of the infield. This last week was the most dismal: He swung wildly, his batting average drooped. He was fatigued. He had headaches. He shut himself off from reporters, but that only left him alone with the dragon. Every day was overkill. Every at-bat felt like life or death.
This is crazy, of course. America’s fascination with numbers almost sunk Fielder this season. Fifty isn’t anything more than the number after 49; it just makes for a better headline. Fortunately, Fielder was smart enough to figure this out.
“Last night, my wife said to me, ‘Hey. if you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you had a great year.’ That seemed to do something to me, the fact that my wife didn’t care if I hit it or not.”
It did something all right.
It turned him loose.
The Big Five-O.
For those historians out there, here are the essentials: The pitch came off the Yankees’ Steve Adkins, a 25-year-old lefty out of Chicago with a reputation for being wild. He had walked Fielder and got him to fly out earlier. This time, he threw a 2-1 fastball and Fielder clocked it on a hooking arc into left field. The ball was retrieved by a blond-haired 21- year-old named Keith Harkness, from Connecticut, who saw it bounce down from the upper deck. He gave it back to Fielder in exchange for a bat.
“Pretty fair trade,” the kid said, showing the proper baseball attitude.
The 51st? Oh, yes. Can’t forget that one. Eighth inning, a 3-2 fastball by reliever Alan Mills that Fielder stroked over the left-field wall so fast you barely saw it. That drove in three runs. The first homer drove in two. Nobody knows who retrieved the 51st ball, nobody really cares, which only shows you how misguided all this attention is.
But this doesn’t diminish the accomplishment. Fielder wins the 1990 home run title (51) and the RBI title (132), which means about one of every six Tigers runs this year came in off a Fielder hit.
All this from a guy who played in Japan last year, a guy who left the Toronto Blue Jays in 1988 without a whimper from management. When he signed with the Tigers in January, Fielder had only one wish: “I didn’t want them to think they’d made a mistake.”
Mistake? He made the Tigers look brilliant, and their third- place season will always be framed by this picture: Fielder, that round, powerful body, leaping in joy along the first-base line.
“It’s your fannnntasy!” sang Lloyd Moseby to Fielder in the locker room afterwards. Well. Yes and no. Cecil Fielder earned everything he got, he’s a happy slugger this morning, he’s world-famous.
But most of all, best of all, he is still a man who has his priorities intact. When he walked into interview room after the game Wednesday night, the first thing he did was find his wife, Stacey, and his son, Prince. He kissed her. He hugged him.
“You’re awesome,” he whispered to his boy.
Right back at you, Daddy. The Big Five-O. Now that’s the way you end a baseball season.