NEW YORK — Here was Cecil Fielder, standing in the batting cage before a World Series game. He took five swings, three of which sent balls into the outfield seats. Fans cheered each blast. The air was breezy and the night was cool.
Fielder jogged out of the cage and was grabbed by Reggie Jackson, now a Yankees adviser, who whispered a few ideas into Cecil’s ear. Cecil smiled. He was talking to Reggie.
Then Jackson took Fielder to meet a veteran sports writer named Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize winner. Murray is as big as they come in this business. He held out his hand. He had never met Fielder — but then a lot of people were meeting Fielder for the first time this month.
Here was Murray’s first question:
“How did Toronto ever let you go?”
Sports are possessive. My team. My favorite players. And when your favorite player leaves your team, there is often the feeling he has left your heart. And as such, he no longer deserves your best wishes.
That shouldn’t be the case for Cecil Fielder, who gave 6 1/ 2 years’ service to Detroit, before being traded to New York just hours before the deadline some 10 weeks ago. In one night, Fielder went from purgatory to paradise. Last place to first. He played in his first playoff game a few weeks ago, helped his team win that series and the league championship that followed.
And now, here he was, in the Fall Classic, the same Cecil Fielder who just a few months ago was hitting balls into empty seats.
How can you be angry?
Couldn’t bear to watch “You know, I even stopped watching the World Series the last few years,” Cecil said now, rolling a fist in his glove. “I was so frustrated over not making it year after year that I didn’t even watch. Maybe if my son were watching I’d stand in his bedroom, see an inning or so, but then I’d leave. It was too hard.”
How much better was this? Coming to a sold-out stadium? Being deluged by national news media? Hearing your name and running onto the field, as the scoreboard read “The 1996 World Series”?
“Hey, Cecil!” an acquaintance from Detroit yelled. “Does it feel like it’s supposed to feel?”
“I don’t know,” Cecil yelled back. “I’ve never been in one of these before.”
Remember, Fielder is no kid. He is 33 years old, with a lot of mileage on his career. He was let go by Toronto, had to go to Japan for a year to earn his keep, and found only the Tigers interested in his return. He hit 51 home runs in his first year with Detroit, and became the franchise power from that point on. Back then, there was talk of building a great team, full of veterans and youngsters.
Six years later, he was still waiting for his first playoff game.
“My first few years in Detroit, I thought we were heading towards something,” Fielder said. “But then we just came apart. Most of my friends were gone. All that was left was Tram (Alan Trammell) and Travis (Fryman).
“It was tough.”
I remember running into Fielder at a West Bloomfield restaurant back in May. It was late. He was by himself, nursing a drink and enduring the blather of some fan. I tapped him on the shoulder, and upon seeing me, he smiled, then sighed, then looked as if he were about to burst.
“Maaaaan,” he groaned. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. We’re awful.”
Now, here he is a Yankee, no longer part of awful. He has an apartment in Manhattan where his wife and children are living, and he gets mobbed when he goes outside and mobbed when he enters the grocery store and everyone is talking about the Yankees, the Yankees.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks.
“They start honking their horns in the city at 5:30 in the morning, and that never happened in Detroit.” He laughed. “Next year, I gotta find some place to live with a lawn, some swings for the kids, and no cars.”
Listen to Sparky Fielder and the Yankees have not had much success in this Series against the juggernaut they call the Atlanta Braves. And it’s a team game, so Fielder is not happy. Still, on Monday night, in the seventh inning, Fielder laced a Greg Maddux pitch down the first-base line into right field for a long single. And as he stood on first base, his game face on, somewhere deep inside, a voice was whispering, “That was my first hit in the World Series.”
There are a lot of firsts for Cecil Fielder these days. They’ve been a long time coming. It would be easy to say, “The heck with him, he just wanted out of Detroit, who cares, good riddance.” But we need to think beyond that. Fielder did his time in Detroit. If he waited until the Tigers got to a World Series, he might be going to collect his social security.
“You know, I talked to Sparky the other day,” Fielder said. “Yep. Got a little dose of the old Spark. He said, ‘The playoffs are a bitch. But the World Series is a time to enjoy yourself.’ “
“Are you going to do that?” he was asked.
“Sparky said to,” he said, smiling, “so I have to.”
He looked into the filling stadium, and the night lights and the cool autumn breeze. It is not yet the How of his dreams — the Yankees, after all, are losing the Series — but it is the What, the Where, and most important, the When.
Why deny a man a dream like that?