Commentary

Fielder intends to make Brewers pay

Updated: March 6, 2008, 10:28 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Someone's going to pay for what happened here. Someone always pays when Prince Fielder thinks someone's screwing with him.

This time it's money. Actually, it's not just the money, but what the money represents. There's a difference to Fielder.

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder
AP Photo/Morry GashPrince Fielder has hit 78 home runs over the last two seasons, far more than any other under-25 player.

On Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers renewed Fielder's contract for $670,000. That's a lot of money to you and me, and to Fielder, too. But this isn't about paycheck stubs. This has more to do with pride and with Fielder's insistence, his need, even, to always have an enemy. Someone must pay.

Fielder hit 50 home runs last season, making him the youngest player (23 years and change) in big league history to do so. This wasn't just any record. For more than a half-century, it belonged to "The Say Hey Kid," Willie Mays.

So Fielder led the National League in dingers, finished third in the MVP voting and finished second in the NL All-Star Game balloting. Pick a category -- RBIs, slugging percentage, extra-base hits, runs, walks, total bases -- and Fielder's numbers were among the league's best. And by the way, Milwaukee manager Ned Yost calls him "the heart and soul" of the Brewers and says he's "feared" by other teams.

At 23.

"There's only a few hitters in the league that really intimidate teams and managers, [where] you're looking to see when this guy gets up," Yost said. "And he's one of them."

But business is business, which is why the Brewers renewed the first baseman's contract for $670K. This is like bidding $39 for a Priceline room and getting the presidential suite at the Waldorf. It's a steal -- or as Fielder sees it, an insult.

The Brewers could have signed him for more, a lot more. But until a player accumulates three years of major league service time (he's at two years, 68 days), the team generally controls the salary hammer. Next year, though, Fielder becomes arbitration eligible.

"His day is coming," Yost said. "There's no way around it."

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard's day came Feb. 21. The third-year player went from $900,000 in 2007 to a record-setting arbitration award of $10 million this season. No wonder Fielder and agent Scott Boras are counting the nanoseconds until 2009.

"It's a business," Fielder said. "[The Brewers] have their right to do what they want."

And next year, Fielder has the right to do what he wants, which is make the Brewers pay.

Youngest To 50
• Here are the youngest players to hit 50 home runs in a single season. Ages are as of June 30:
NO. NAME AGE HR YEAR
1. Prince Fielder 23 50 2007
2. Willie Mays 24 51 1955
3. Mickey Mantle 24 52 1956
4. Jimmie Foxx 24 58 1932
5. Ralph Kiner 24 51 1947

"Right on," he said. "Right on. It will all pay off in the end."

The contract development isn't the worst thing that could happen to the Brewers. Someone mentioned to Yost that Fielder plays better when he's mad.

"Believe it," Yost said.

Fielder can't seem to function without an adversary. There's always something to prove to somebody. Or to himself.

First it was his weight. When he was 12, Fielder already was leaving dents on the scale. He weighed close to 200 pounds. He was the fat kid. That's what everyone called him.

So one day, the 12-year-old fat kid took his place in the batter's box at old Tiger Stadium and pulled a pitch into the right-field lower deck. Who's fat now?

"I just thought it was normal," he said of the blast.

When he wasn't chosen until the seventh pick of the 2002 draft (there were continuing concerns about his weight), Fielder never forgot the slights. He's listed at 5-foot-11, about 270 pounds, and had 78 home runs in his past two seasons. What weight problem?

"It hasn't hurt me yet," he said. "I've had a pretty good life so far."

Gambling debts incurred by his old man, former major league star Cecil Fielder, devastated a family and a marriage and all but ended Prince's relationship with his father. They haven't spoken for nearly three years, although there are tiny signs, nothing more, that the son's anger is slowly receding.

But as recently as this past September, Prince told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he wants to hit 52 home runs in a season because his dad hit 51 in 1990. And if he wins the league MVP, Fielder said, "that shuts him up again."

Ask him if that fractured relationship with his father somehow drives him, and Fielder politely says, "I really don't want to talk anything about my dad."

But it's clear the sins of the father aren't lost on the son. Fielder is married and has two sons of his own: 3-year-old Jadyn and 2-year-old Haven, who Fielder said is a miniature version of the kid who hit the dinger at Tiger Stadium. Just recently, the two children have begun to spend more time in the big league clubhouse -- just like Prince used to do with Cecil.

"I never want to go home and have my kids think that I never gave it my all," Fielder said, sitting barefoot in front of his locker, wearing a pair of jeans and a grey Green Bay Packers T-shirt. "When they grow up, and whatever they do, I just want to make sure they do the best they can, that they never try to settle. That's what drives me -- just knowing I have two kids who watch me, let alone other kids who watch me."

Actually, everybody is watching him. Yost first saw him on a semi-regular basis during a second-half call-up in 2005. Fielder earned the starting position in 2006.

"There was a point where it hit me and it dawned on me exactly what we had," Yost said. "I thought he was for real the whole time. But in terms of being a baseball player, he far exceeded what I thought he was. I couldn't see the passion and the intensity that he plays with. I'd just see him in spring training as a young player. I didn't see that other side of him. … He could be the most intense player I've ever seen or been around."

This should surprise exactly no one. Fielder's life has been a series of extremes.

"He has the ability to go from super playful, joking around, to flipping the switch almost instantly," said Brewers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., who is one of Fielder's closest friends. "It's to the point where you're like, 'Did something happen? Is he OK?' It's almost scary sometimes. As soon he makes that walk from the locker room to the dugout, it's a completely different dude."

Gwynn is the son of a baseball Hall of Famer. Close your eyes, and you'd swear you were listening to Gwynn Sr. Their father-son relationship is as close as pine tar on a bat.

Fielder has seen them together. And not long ago, Fielder and Gwynn Jr. talked around the edges of Prince's estrangement from Cecil.

He'll just use [his contract situation] as another chip. Who knows? He might be looking at 60 or 70 [home runs] this year.

--Brewers teammate Tony Gwynn Jr., about Prince Fielder

"You can see in Prince, when he talks about it, it's something that bothers him," Gwynn said. "He doesn't want it to be the way it is. But he's a man. He's prideful just like his father is. … He wants his relationship with his father. Because he sees my father and I, and he's almost envious of it. He enjoys looking at that. I think at some point in time -- maybe not now -- I think [reconciliation] will happen. Both parties want it to happen eventually. It's just a matter of when."

There is no in between with Fielder. He is motivated by his past, by his insecurities, by his family, by his exposed emotions. His talent is undeniable, but that's not the sole reason he's within viewing distance of greatness. He is there because of that sweet swing, but also because of that inner turmoil.

Too fat. Too much like his old man. Too underpaid. There's always something. There has to be.

He recently read a book about the inhumane treatment of animals at slaughterhouses. So he gave up meat a month ago.

He committed 14 errors in 2007. Now he has a fielding jones. Third-base coach Dale Sveum can't hit him enough grounders.

He hasn't hit a home run yet during spring training. That's OK. The left-handed-hitting Fielder is wearing out what Gwynn calls the "5.5 hole": the gap between the third baseman and the shortstop. Try overplaying him to pull now. He dares you.

Tomorrow, there could be another villain for Fielder. But for now, the renewed contract will do just fine.

"He'll just use that as another chip," Gwynn said. "Who knows? He might be looking at 60 or 70 [home runs] this year."

Good for Fielder. Costly, very costly, for the Brewers.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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