Cecil Fielder answers the door in his boxer shorts, white T- shirt and black socks. And it’s not just because we know each other. Five minutes after I get to his hotel room, there is another knock. Room service. He opens the door with the same unembarrassed welcome. Come on in. Whatcha got?
The man enters with a tray of fried fish, french fries and a chocolate milk shake. He walks past the ironing board. (Cecil does his own ironing.) He walks past the phone. (Cecil takes all his phone calls.) I have just asked about the ups and downs of being the most famous home-run hitter in baseball this year, and Cecil sighs and drops his big frame on the bed and says,
“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. And everybody has a baseball card to sign.”
Now, as if on cue, the room service guy pulls out two baseball cards hidden under his apron.
“Would you . . . ” he says, uncorking a pen.
Fielder rolls his eyes and smiles. “See what I mean?”
There are athletes who expect celebrity the way a baby expects his bottle, and athletes who, like the mythical Roy Hobbs, get into the game with the idea of being “the best there ever was.”
But every now and then, a fellow comes along just trying to do his job and support his family, and suddenly, like magic, the balls start flying out of the park. And he shrugs and trots around the bases. With 48 home runs under
his belt and nine games left to become the first American Leaguer in three decades to hit 50, Cecil Fielder, the lovable giant, still insists he is “just up there hacking.”
“Honest to goodness,” he says, like a man who can’t believe you don’t believe him, “I swing the same way on every pitch. No matter what. The same swing. Just in case I hit one.”
Just in case he hits one? Wait a minute. You don’t reach the Tiger Stadium roof by accident. You don’t hit three home runs in one game by luck. Some Tigers claim Fielder actually dents the baseball when he whacks it. Jose Canseco said the shot Fielder hit off Dave Stewart last month was “at least 600 feet.”
Well, that is all it is to Fielder, 27. Never mind the trail of reporters and cameras that shadow his every step. Never mind the hordes of fans screaming, “HIT ONE OUT, CECIL!” whenever he walks to the plate. He is like a big, happy Gulliver, marching through the Lilliputians and wondering not why he’s so big, but why everything else is so small.
And that includes the fences. Fielder, with the body of a defensive tackle, has gulped 48 home runs with such unassuming ease that it reminds his family of the time when he was eight years old and a group of Little League parents signed a petition demanding little Cecil be moved into a higher age group. “He struck out 17 of their kids in one game,” explains his mother, Tina.
And yet even then, Fielder never had an ego as big as his uniform. Here is a guy who used to kiss his sister good-bye when he went to school, and if he ever forgot, she came chasing after him yelling, “You didn’t kiss me, Cecil.” He took karate classes for three years with her, basically to keep her company
(Mrs. Fielder claims this is where he acquired his quick hands). Even today, when Cecil goes home — as he did last week on a rare day off in California — he takes his kid brother shopping, he visits his mother’s doctor, he eats dinner with his old high school coaches.
The fact is, unless you remind him that he is on the lip of history, that one day, 20 years from now, they might be talking about some young prospect and saying, “If he keeps up this pace, he could catch the great Cecil Fielder,” he seems in danger of forgetting the whole thing.
Especially during lunch.
“If it happens,” he says of 50 home runs, as he dips the fries into a puddle of ketchup, “it happens. And if it doesn’t . . . mmmmpht . . . “
He swallows and wipes his lip.
Can it really be that simple? Can this hurricane of hype blow wildly around Fielder, while he stays safe and warm in his own expectations? Yes and no. Understand that for Cecil, all this is a tad ironic. Or, as his mother puts it: “Hitting home runs is the best revenge.” After all, a few years ago, nobody wanted Fielder. In Toronto, he was a part-time player, and in four seasons hit a total of 31 homers. He left for Japan; the Jays did not protest.
In Japan, he clobbered the ball, hitting 38 dingers in 130 games. But he still feared he might be released (another Japanese team already had done this to his friend, Larry Parrish, who hit 42 homers).
And so Fielder signed with the Tigers. His teammate Paul Gibson now teases him, saying, “Canada. Japan. America. Cecil, you played in three countries, and nobody wants you.”
“Ooh, that’s cold, man,” Fielder says, laughing. But the joke touches a nerve. When Fielder joined the Tigers, he wasn’t thinking about history. He wasn’t thinking about Roger Maris or Babe Ruth or even Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew, whose 49 home runs he will equal should he blast one more this season. No. At the time, down in Lakeland, Fielder had only one thought, which he kept to himself.
“I just didn’t want them to have any second thoughts. I didn’t want to have the kind of season where they would say, ‘OK, we made a mistake. We got to get rid of this guy.’ “
Big Cecil just wanted to be wanted.
Amazing, no? Fielder, who will win the home run and RBI titles and maybe even the Most Valuable Player Award, should worry that the Tigers want to get rid of him? Good Lord. He has been their salvation this season. Without him, they’d be in last place. And worse, they might have completely alienated the Detroit fans, who were already fed up with management’s no- touch policy on free agents, and seemed ready to abandon the Tigers for the finer light of the Pistons and the young Lions.
Instead, people now come to see Cecil. He fascinates Detroit with the promise of each new at-bat. Home-run hitters will do that. And you can be sure whatever fans brave the chill at Tiger Stadium this week are not there to show support for the struggling Tiger pitchers. They are there to see Cecil pop one.
And maybe get an autograph. Everybody wants a piece of Cecil now. They want him for autographs, photographs, card shows, souvenirs. They want him for radio interviews at 7 in the morning. And because he does not turn off his phone — “My wife might call” — or register in hotels under a different name — “Not my style. I couldn’t think of a good one, anyhow” — he picks up every receiver and talks to everyone. When those talk shows ring, he politely tells them no, and says they should be embarrassed for calling so early, because what if his wife was in the room and they woke her up? “You wouldn’t want me to call you at home at 7:30 and wake up your wife and say,
‘I want you to interview me,’ would you?” he says.
They usually get the point.
Cecil Fielder owns two autographs — Dave Winfield and Chili Davis. He got them both this year, at the All-Star game. “I don’t collect too much stuff,” he admits. “All I have of this season as far as the home runs are concerned is the ball that went on the roof and a couple bats. That’s it.”
But then, this is a guy who didn’t really start playing baseball until his junior year of high school. Fielder (whose first love is basketball) is hardly a student of the national pastime. “You know who holds the all-time home run record, right?” I say.
“Oh, yeah. Roger Maris, 61.”
“Babe Ruth, 60.”
“And after that?”
He smiles. “Um, wait, I know it. Hank Burger. I mean, Greenman.”
“No, I know it . . . Greenburger! No, Greenman. Haha, no, I, come on, man
. . . Greenberg! Hank Greenberg, right? Am I right? With 58?”
Better stop there. Fielder had no idea whom he passed with his grand slam Sunday against Oakland until he read it in the newspapers. And you know what? Why should he? To him, such data are no more important than following the path of his home runs. Which, of course, we do. But he doesn’t.
“I don’t like to show the pitchers up,” he says. “If you stand there and watch, it makes them feel bad. You shouldn’t do that. They respect you more if you just run around the bases and get out of there.”
Fielder says he knows when he dings one. He can feel it, he says. It feels like . . . nothing. “You don’t feel any sting. You don’t feel any contact. It’s just a sweet stroke, and next thing you know, the bat is back behind your ear. Sometimes you get a nice noise, like a boom, but you know by the swing when it’s gone. It’s like you didn’t hit a thing.”
Of course, that’s not how the pitchers see it.
His mother says Friday. That’s when he’ll get 50.
“Why?” she is asked.
“I’ll tell you Friday,” she says.
Like Cecil’s wife, Stacey, and his son, Prince, Tina Fielder believes Cecil will do it. She has seen him do surprising things before. To begin with, he grew to be 6-foot- 3 and a good 250 pounds, even though she is 5-7 and Cecil’s father is 5-8. She still remembers years ago, when angry parents accused her son of being a college player hiding on the high school basketball team. “He was just that much better than everyone, I guess,” she says.
The fuss over Fielder this year, however, has even taken his family by surprise. Tina, a Mazda dealer business manager, was used to people getting the name wrong — “We named him Cecil (pronounced Ceh-cil) after his uncle Cecil (pronounced Cee-cil) and we changed the pronunciation so they wouldn’t get mixed up” — but all these interviews? All these articles? All these charts comparing him to the greats of the game? Gehrig? Ruth? Foxx? Maris?
“I always thought of Cecil as my little boy. But then I went to the All-Star game in July. And I watched him handle himself with the press and all those people. So many of them. And he was polite and a gentleman with everybody. And there was this sudden realization that this wasn’t a little boy anymore. He doesn’t need me to say ‘Cecil, don’t do this. Cecil, don’t do that.”‘
“It was the first time it really hit me. My son was a man.”
And to some people, more like a god. Not long ago, a Japanese exchange student was visiting a family across the street from Mrs. Fielder’s home in Rialto, Calif. When he learned who lived in the house, he requested an audience. Mrs. Fielder said sure, come on over. The kid acted as if he’d entered a shrine.
“He kept staring at all the pictures of Cecil on the wall. To be honest, I was so tired of him bowing, I was happy when he left.”
Now, normally, when an athlete is on the verge of worship, you can expect the cash registers to be ringing. So it is surprising that endorsement offers have not been flooding Fielder’s way. “Nothing, really,” he says, in between milk shake sips. “No car deals or soft drinks or anything. I think my agent was talking to some dairy products. Maybe milk. I could do that. . . . “
He makes a face and raises an arm. “Go deep! Drink milk!” he yells. He laughs. “I don’t know, something like that.”
Something like that. Mark this down, boys and girls: Fielder will not complain about money. He will not ask to renegotiate his two-year deal with the Tigers. When asked whether he would accept an extension, he shrugs and says, “If everybody was happy, then yeah. I’m human. I like security.”
It seems obvious that, through all this hoopla, Fielder has never forgotten Toronto two years ago, the feeling of having doors closed, of not being wanted. He is friendly to just about everyone, but he cherishes only those who were with him before he was Cecil The Home Run King. He is constantly referring to his family, and often tells his wife to “buy whatever she wants” as a means of repaying her for standing by him in the early years.
“To be honest, all these fans and everything, I’d still rather get to know somebody who didn’t know what I did. Someone who didn’t know about home runs and everything.”
He pauses, and for a moment, goes serious. “People are such front-runners. I mean, it’s such rah, rah. I wasn’t even thought of a few years ago, you know? . . .
“But maybe that helped me. If this was my first year and all this stuff was happening, I’d be so screwed up in the head right now, I wouldn’t know which way to go.”
Now he knows.
So, OK. He’s gone on record. If he hits his 50th, there will be no special home run trot. No special bows. Just run around the bases and get back in the dugout.
But what if it doesn’t happen? You remember that scene in the film “Bull Durham,” where, during a crucial moment in the game, the young bat boy urges Kevin Costner on?
“Get a hit, Crash,” he says.
“Shut up,” says Costner.
If ever a player were entitled to that reaction, it would be Fielder. Hit one, Cecil. Knock it out, Cecil. A man can get tired of that pressure, can’t he?
“Hey,” says Fielder, the Happy Hacker. “I’m fired up. Even if I don’t hit another one, I did way better than I expected this season. And when Oct. 3 comes, I’m going home and say, ‘Hey, it’s been great. Thanks for everything. See you later.’
“I mean, what’s 50, really? If some guy hits 49, I’d sure slap him five and say that was a hell of a year. But if I get 49, people will say, ‘Aw, he just missed it.’ “
He howls and shakes his head. “It’s a trip, man, isn’t it?”
It has been so far. And for those of us who admire more than just the flight of a baseball, the best part is this: He still answers his phone. He still gobbles fish sticks. He still irons his shirts and answers the door in his boxer shorts.
So you want him to do it. Everybody does. And you know what? I think he will. Earlier this season, the Tigers’ locker room was flooded with reporters from Japan, who squealed the same question to Fielder over and over, so many times, the same question, that the PR director finally had to usher them out.
Here was the question: “What is the secret?”
Fielder laughs. “How do I know?” he says.
That’s the secret.
* FULL NAME: Cecil Grant Fielder.
* AGE: 27 (born Sept. 21, 1963, in Los Angeles).
* SIZE: 6-feet-3, 230 pounds (according to Tigers’ guide).
* BATS/THROWS: Right.
* FAMILY: Wife, Stacey; son, Prince (6).
* HIGH SCHOOL: Nogales High, Los Angeles, where he was a three-sport star
(football, basketball and baseball).
* DRAFTED: By Kansas City Royals in fourth round, June 1982. Traded to Toronto for outfielder Leon Roberts, Feb. 4, 1983.
* MINOR LEAGUES: 1982 — Pioneer League all-star first baseman at Butte, Mont., where led league in homers (20) and total bases (176) . . . 1983 — South Atlantic League all-star at Florence, S.C., with .312 average, 15 homers, 94 RBIs . . . 1984 — hit 19 homers in 61 games at Kinston, N.C., before promotion to Knoxville, Tenn., where had nine homers and 44 RBIs in 64 games . . . 1985 — 18 homers, 81 RBIs in 96 games at Knoxville before promotion to Toronto . . . 1986 — 18 homers, 68 RBIs in 88 games at Syracuse, N.Y., after demotion from Toronto.