You knew by the way he walked down the hall. Cecil Fielder, wearing an olive suit with an olive tie, had that slow gait, a shrug in his step, as if he were walking back to the dugout after striking out.
“Do you know yet?” he was asked.
“Uh . . . no . . . not yet . . . ” he said, opening the door to the press conference.
He lied. He knew. He had been sitting in the office upstairs, waiting for the phone call. When it came, his heart raced, because this could be the perfect ending to his story. A guy who no one wanted, a guy who spent a year in Japan pounding the ball before someone offered him a job in the major leagues — and now he could go all the way, top of the tower, home run leader, RBI leader, now this: the MVP award. Perfect script, right? The office door opened. . . .
“They gave it to Rickey,” he was told.
And there went the fairy tale. Now, here was Fielder, all dressed up and nothing to show. He straightened his tie, leaned into the microphones, and tried to sound as if his heart was not broken.
I suppose we should know better. I suppose we say this is just an award, voted by writers, and, no matter how much we talk, it isn’t even a speck in the real world of baseball. You can’t hit with it. You can’t throw it. It’s just an award.
And yet . . . this needs to be said. Fielder should have won. Better said: he should not have lost. It would be hard to claim that Rickey Henderson, whose very name makes pitchers sweat, is somehow unworthy. But there were some thickheaded voters — and I’d like to get their names so I can stop buying their newspapers — who didn’t vote Fielder second, they didn’t even vote him third. They put players such as Roger Clemens and Bobby Thigpen
— Bobby Thigpen? — higher on the list.
For them, a little lesson in what MVP means:
What’s an MVP all about?
First of all, it means a difference. And Cecil made a bigger difference than Henderson or any one else on that list. Few of the voting writers were around here in 1989 — why would they be? — but Detroit, one of the oldest and proudest baseball cities in America, was in the mud. As low as it goes. The Tigers lost 103 games. You had as much reason to go to the ballpark as you did a Milli Vanilli concert.
And then along came Fielder. Big guy. Friendly giant. He brought back the oldest reason people used to carry their kids through the turnstiles and teenagers used to sit in the bleachers, slapping their gloves. The slugger. The home run hitter. Suddenly, even on the dullest nights, there was a reason to be there, because Cecil might crack one.
In fact, he cracked 51, more than any American Leaguer in nearly three decades. The Tigers won 79 games, 20 more than the season before — and that was with their pitching ace, Jack Morris, making more headlines with his mouth than with his arm.
Fielder was the difference. You take him away, the Tigers might fall off the map. Not so with Henderson. The Athletics, even without him, would have succeeded. You shouldn’t punish a guy for being on a great team; you shouldn’t reward him, either.
Another point: tangible contributions. Sure, Henderson is a demon on the base paths. He led his league in stolen bases. But how many did he steal, only to be stranded on second or third? In effect, those made no difference in the game. They were empty notches on his gun. But Fielder? Every home run, every RBI — and he led not just the league but the majors in both categories — every one of those was worth at least a run, and sometimes the game. Something
tangible. That’s what Fielder provided. The notches on his gun all drew blood.
Another point: pressure. Did Henderson have to play all year with an international mob asking, game after game, “Tonight? How many tonight?” That might be reason enough to give the award to Fielder.
He wouldn’t change a thing
Still, there was one more thing, one thing the dim bulbs who went with Thigpen clearly don’t understand. It has to do with memories. It surfaced beautifully in that little room at Tiger Stadium Tuesday night, when Fielder was asked the most important question of the day.
“If you could win MVP, but only if you gave back the last night of the season, would you do it?”
The big man looked down. He allowed a smile. And then Fielder, the best story in baseball, said: “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
And there is the final trump card in this MVP business. Years from now, nobody will remember Henderson’s season. Not even in Oakland. It will be just another another pile of statistics.
But, years from now, in this city, and all around the country, they will remember Cecil Fielder. They will remember the tingle when he came to the plate, and the the balls that went over the wall, over the stands, over the roof. They will remember that final night in Yankee Stadium, when, down to his last two at-bats, he found something special, he blasted one for history, and then another for the hell of it.
“I did everything I could do,” Fielder said Tuesday, and then he went home. He lost. But he won. Because long after that trophy is collecting dust in Henderson’s house, baseball will remember the magic summer when the balls went flying, one by one, as the big man rounded the bases. And remembering summers, not taking home trophies, is still what the game is about.