NEW YORK — He swung the bat and he heard that smack! and suddenly the ball was screaming toward the upper deck in left field, and good night, this one was halfway to Jupiter. His teammates leaped off the bench. Even the Yankee fans roared. 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 about halfway to first base and watched his ball bang down in the deep blue seats of Section 32, 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 kid on the last day of school, all 250 pounds of Detroit Bambino, his arms over his head, his huge smile a beacon of celebration and relief. How much lighter was Cecil Fielder now? Oh, about .
. . 50 pounds?
The Big Five-O.
“I’m so juiced now, I almost want to go out there and do it all again,” said 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. They don’t write scripts better than this. 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 one-season home run king — here Fielder did what everyone had been waiting for, but had pretty much given up on. Everyone except the man himself, and perhaps his family, who, let’s face it, might have been the only people truly believing in him when this season began in April.
Last week, after he hit his 49th, Cecil’s mother flew to Detroit without telling her son. She had never seen him hit a major league home run in person. She got a seat in the lower deck and hid behind a friend’s hat when her son came to the plate. Didn’t work. Still no home run. She went home.
And Thursday night, about 10 minutes after the big moment, I called the house in Rialto, Calif., where Tina Fielder, mother, and Kaory Fielder, sister, had been watching ESPN, waiting for updates. Tina picked up the phone.
“I guess you heard,” I said.
“Heard what?’ she said.
“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 . . . ” his mother repeated, like a grandmother reciting the details of a newborn baby.
“AHHHHHHHH!” said his sister.
The Big Five-O.
AAAAAAAH! Isn’t that the perfect response? The yelp of relief? The yelp of joy? Numbers shouldn’t mean this much, but numbers do, in this country anyhow, where there’s nothing like a round number, especially in sports.
And make no mistake. What Fielder did Wednesday night was perhaps more remarkable than all the things he did 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 — was pretty remarkable. By Wednesday night, however, Fielder was a prisoner of his own accomplishment. With every 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. It wasn’t me up there anymore.”
Indeed, he was swinging wildly. Swinging for fences. As a result, he could barely get the ball out of the infield. This last week was perhaps his most dismal, his batting average drooped, he was fatigued, he struck out often, he shut himself off from reporters, choosing to fight this dragon alone. Every time up there was life or death.
Which is not the way baseball should be.
“Finally, 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 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. He threw a 2-1 fastball that he said “was a pretty good pitch” and Fielder clocked it. The ball was retrieved by a blond-haired 21-year-old named Keith Harkness, from Connecticut, who saw the ball bounce down from the upper deck. He gave it back to Fielder in exchange for a bat.
The 51st? Oh, yes. Can’t forget that one. Eighth inning. A 3-2 fastball by 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. Fielder wins the home run title (51) and the RBI title (132), which means about one out of every six Tigers runs this year scored on a Fielder hit.
All this from a guy who played in Japan last year, who had been set free from the Toronto Blue Jays without a whimper of protest from management. From a guy who handled a siege of media pressure with grace and class. From a guy who had began the year as “Ceee-cil” and by the end was “Ceh-Cil” (the correct pronunciation) from here to Timbuktoo.
From a guy, who, simply put, deserved everything he got. He’s a happy slugger today, he’s a world-famous name this morning. But most of all, and most importantly, he is still a man who has his priorities intact. When he walked into a packed room full of world media, the first thing he did was find his wife, Stacey, and his son, Prince. He kissed her. He hugged him.
“You’re awesome,” he said to his boy.
Right words. Wrong Fielder.
The Big Five-O. Boy. Now that’s how you end a baseball season.