THE OBSESSION WITH 50 RAINS ON CECIL’S PARADE

Cecil Fielder, his hair still wet from the shower, was buttoning his shirt with a towel around his waist, as if he couldn’t get out of Detroit fast enough. A TV reporter approached for an interview. Fielder waved him off. Sorry. Not talking.

“See you next spring, Cecil,” said a locker room guy.

“All right,” Cecil said, not looking up. He pulled a gray sport coat off the hook and slipped it over his shoulders.

This was the last home game of the season, and Cecil Fielder was acting as if he had let us down. Let us down? There should have been a parade for the guy. A marching band. Confetti. All he has done in this non-competitive baseball town is pound the ball, night after night, over the fences, over the roof, home run, home run, home run, on pitches that half the time he hooks with no bait on his line.

But because he failed to hit the magic No. 50 before the home crowd, because he must now try to do it in the last three games of the season at Yankee Stadium, he felt . . . deflated. He felt pressure. The bat keeps getting smaller. The media crowd keeps getting bigger. Today, Cecil? Today?

Hold it. This is all wrong. Cecil Fielder gave Detroit a reason to come to the ballpark this year, maybe the only reason. Of the 19,487 who showed up to say good-bye to the Tigers Sunday, you figure a third were there only to see Fielder go for No. 50. God knows they didn’t come for the great prizes on Fan Appreciation Day — which included boxes of Twinkies and a case of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Frosted Flakes? Was this major league baseball or the soup kitchen?

You would think, maybe, for the last home game, the Tigers could come up with a promotion that would honor Fielder and all his home runs. But appreciation seems to have taken on a funny meaning at the ballpark.

I can tell you this: It doesn’t mean breakfast cereal.

And it doesn’t mean racing to the bleachers to try to catch a souvenir.
“Hey, Cecil,” I said to him as he buckled his belt. “There’s nothing wrong with 49 home runs. That’s a hell of a feat.”

He sighed. He looked at me like a kid being punished for getting good grades. “Ain’t it something?” he asked. “I mean, ain’t it something?’ “

What he meant was this: How did such a fun thing get to be such a drag? Who took the line between success and failure and stuck it between 49 and 50? It’s crazy. Suddenly, Fielder — who all season has been saying “if it comes, it comes; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t” — suddenly even Fielder doesn’t want to accept that. He has shut himself off from the media. He is disgusted yet obsessed with this 50 thing. He came to the plate swinging so hard, the bat threatened to fly out of his hands. One time it did. It flew into the seats as Fielder watched in horror.

“Perfect,” he must have been thinking. “Now I put somebody in the hospital.” It was typical of how coming to the plate had turned into something horrible for Fielder, like fighting a dragon. He is doing the very thing they tell you not to do in Little League, swinging for the fences. He wants that home run. More than that, he wants this all to be over.

“This winter?” Fielder told me, before he left. “You ain’t gonna hear from old Cec. Nuh-uh. Nobody’s gonna hear from old Cec.”

This is sad. But I have seen it happen so many times in American sports, I could write the story with my eyes closed. A guy gets hot. People jump on his bandwagon. Before you know it, that bandwagon is so stuffed, the wheels begin to skid. The joyride is over. You’re lucky if you can roll to the finish line. By the time you do, everybody has a headache.

And so Cecil left with a few nods and no interviews and a plane ride ahead. He’ll tell himself, “Don’t think about it, don’t think about it.” But he’ll think about it. And the question is: Why should he? What is it about even numbers? What difference does it make between 49 and 50? At 49, Fielder has equaled guys named Lou Gehrig and Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson. And at 50 he would equal Jimmie Foxx. And at 51 he would equal Ralph Kiner, Willie Mays and Johnny Mize. So? What’s the big difference? He still wouldn’t break the all-time record. He’s a long way from that. And with or without the 50th, Cecil is going to capture the home run and RBI titles.

The fact is, 50 isn’t anything more than a round number that looks good in a headline.

And that’s not enough of a reason to turn baseball into a headache. Let’s remember one thing, whether Fielder hits five more home runs or strikes out every time. He is the real thing. He deserves that parade. In a lousy division, on a mediocre team, Fielder is still better than anybody in baseball at two things: home runs and RBIs. Only the two biggest categories in the game. Big names such as Jose Canseco and Bobby Bonilla and Mark McGwire
— guys who are going to the playoffs this week? Cecil leads them all.

And this is a guy who was in Japan last year.

“Hey, at the beginning of the season, I was forgotten, you know?” he told me last week. “I mean, nobody even wanted me on their team. . . . When I came to Detroit, I just didn’t want them to think they’d made a mistake.”

How we got from that to this — Cecil whiffing and losing his bat and dropping an easy foul pop, quite possibly because his mind was somewhere else
— I don’t know.

But I do know it’s not right. Maybe New York will be easier. Maybe there, in Yankee Stadium, with the ghosts of Ruth and Maris flying around, Cecil will do what he’s done until now: relax enough to whack one out. And you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits the next two out as well.

But if he doesn’t, let’s remember something: We have witnessed one hell of a run, something no Tiger has done in more than 50 years. That deserves a lot more than breakfast cereal and a ballpark that is two-thirds empty. That deserves a parade and some champagne and, most of all, a smile. I’d just like to see Cecil smile again this season. That shouldn’t be asking too much.

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