From those dirty summers in downtown Los Angeles, when he unloaded watermelons from a supermarket truck, now to this: Gray pinstripe suit. Wife in a fur coat. A contract worth $36 million to play a game many would play for free. And you know the thing that made the biggest impression on Cecil Fielder as he sat before the lights and microphones in the Detroit Tigers’ conference room? This is what made the biggest impression:
They want me. They really want me.
“This is definitely the best day in my baseball career,” a beaming Fielder, 29, said Thursday afternoon after emerging from a board room with a five-year contract that makes him the second-highest-paid player in baseball, behind only San Francisco’s Barry Bonds. “My family and I have been through a lot. It’s been a long time over waters, playing in Japan, playing in Venezuela, playing in Colombia. . . . This couldn’t have worked out better.”
He smiled. The Tigers brass smiled. The fans? Yes, they can smile, too. True, in today’s economy, the signing of an athlete to a chokingly huge salary has become, at best, a bittersweet experience. You’re happy the guy will play for your team; you wonder whether anyone is worth that kind of cash. So this is not a typical sports story: No banners are raised, no champagne corks are popped, except maybe in Fielder’s hotel room.
But putting that aside, on a pure human scale, it was hard not to feel happy for this rather hefty fellow, even if his salary now swallows several Third World nations. This, after all, is a man who has yet to deliver a bad season in baseball when allowed to play full-time. A man who for three years straight has led the majors in RBIs — maybe the most important statistic in the game — tying Babe Ruth’s record. A man who, not that long ago, was told by the Toronto Blue Jays that he didn’t have a place in the big leagues, maybe he should go to Japan, try swinging over there.
Even when the Tigers rescued him from the Land of Wah, and even when he hit 51 home runs his first season here and 44 the next and 35 the next, he never had longer than a two-year contract. Last season was a one-year deal. Rich as he was — and let’s face it, all major-league baseball players are rich — he never slept to that lullaby that other superstars heard at night:
“Don’t worry, you’re secure, they want you here for a long time.”
Perhaps, then, it was fitting that at the end of Thursday’s three-hour session in the boardroom above the Fox Theatre, which featured a lunch of chicken and pasta and a lot of negotiating and even a few laughs, Mike Ilitch, the new Tigers owner, shook Fielder’s hand, took him into a side office, showed him a few plans for Tiger Stadium improvements, and then, suddenly, in appreciation, gave Fielder a hug.
A hug? The owner?
They want me.
‘I wanted to stay’
“I always felt I was supposed to be a Tiger,” Fielder said after signing the largest contract in franchise history. “This is where I got my opportunity. This is where I wanted to stay. When I woke up this morning, I just had this rush; I felt this was the day to get it done.”
He felt it more when he arrived at the airport in Texas to see Ilitch’s private jet waiting, door open. Fielder, his wife, Stacey, and Gary Vito of Ilitch’s staff flew quickly to Detroit — “No baggage, no ticket counter, it was sweet, man,” Fielder admitted — so you knew, right way, Ilitch meant business.
The Tigers have never been big on bank-breaking contracts. The biggest one before Fielder’s was a $10-million deal with Tony Phillips. But Ilitch had promised to sign Fielder the day he took over the team. The negotiations had dragged since October. The owner had not gone face-to-face with the slugger or his agent. Not until Thursday.
Three hours and a few bites of chicken, the deal is done. This is why they call Ilitch a closer.
“Guarantees?” Ilitch said, after promising to pay Fielder more than four times what he paid for the entire Red Wings hockey franchise a decade ago.
“No, I don’t have any guarantees. But it comes back to a business decision. Nobody has the numbers Cecil has. He’s going to continue to make history with this franchise. His abilities are staggering. And I feel he has not gotten the recognition he has deserved. Two MVP years, he came out on the short end of the stick.” (Fielder lost in close voting both times.) “And there’s the All-Star Game” last year, when he was left off the roster.
“With all that, I think he’s composed himself very professionally, and he kept putting the numbers on the board. I have a lot of respect for that.”
You wonder whether maybe Ilitch should have negotiated for Fielder instead of his agent. Might have gone quicker.
‘I felt rich already’
But, then, you can feel that way about Fielder. No, he’s not Alan Trammell, who signs contracts with a handshake and openly admits that getting rich is not a priority. Fielder likes to be paid. But in the rude and obnoxious arena that has become pro baseball, Fielder, a genuine superstar, stands out as a gentle giant, a composed man who delivers what he is paid to deliver. The night he cracked his 50th homer in the season finale in Yankee Stadium is maybe the only real goose bump the Tigers have raised in four years.
Fielder looks lighter now than he has looked in the past. “Chicken, baked potatoes and racquetball,” he crowed. “I’m really into racquetball now. I play every day, a couple of hours.”
As he stood around, waiting for a TV interviewer, he took a few mock swings, buttoned and unbuttoned his suit jacket, bounced from foot to foot. You could see the excitement working its way through his body.
“Oh, man,” he would say now and then, to nobody special, then break into this huge smile. “It’s for real.”
It’s for real. This is a long way from the loading dock in LA, where he worked as a teen. It’s a long way from his first baseball contract, $650 a month to play in Butte, Mont.
Someone asked whether he planned to buy something big now.
“Naw. If I wanted to buy something, I could have done that last year.”
Someone asked whether he felt rich now.
“I felt rich already.”
So what was the fuss about? What made him dance? The stamp of approval. The contractual recognition that he was, indeed, Big Time. The Toronto snub always had stung him. The MVP snubs left small scars. In the deeper corners of Fielder’s heart, he still was waiting for that true kiss the great ones know is coming, the kind that says: “You’re the one.” Ilitch called him “the franchise” Thursday, and Fielder did not object.
And finally, having achieved his dream, he went back to being himself.
“How much money do you have in your pockets right now?” he was asked.
He fished around. He pulled out a coin.
“That’s it,” said the second-highest-paid player in baseball. “A nickel. That’s all I got.” He felt inside his sports coat. “Of course, I do have my credit cards . . .”
Baseball in the ’90s. They want him now. They want him all the way to the bank.
DETROIT’S TOP TEN The highest-paid athletes Athlete Annual salary Team (In millions) Cecil Fielder $7.2 Tigers Tony Phillips $3.5 Tigers Mike Moore $3.3 Tigers Lou Whitaker $3.2 Tigers Mickey Tettleton $2.8 Tigers Joe Dumars $2.7 Pistons Dennis Rodman $2.5 Pistons Mike Henneman* $2.4 Tigers Isiah Thomas $2.4 Pistons Bill Gullickson $2.3 Tigers Salaries are averages for life of contract *1992 salary Highest-paid athletes on other teams: Barry Sanders $1.8 Lions Steve Yzerman $1.5 Red Wings