Remembering the Explosive, Joyful Prince Fielder

Prince Fielder was one of the greatest sluggers in Brewers' history. (via Barbara Moore)

Prince Fielder was one of the greatest sluggers in Brewers’ history. (via Barbara Moore)

When Prince Fielder took the podium for a press conference last week wearing a bulky neck brace and announced his retirement at just 32 years old, it was hard for even the hardiest fans not to get a little choked up. Fielder’s retirement announcement was painful to watch not just because the game of baseball was losing a premier talent, one of the greatest hitters of the past decade. It was painful because of the obvious joy Fielder took from the game, joy that he was always able to spread around to his teammates and the fans, all abruptly put to an end by his recurring neck issues.

Fielder was just one of a number of young players who revitalized the Milwaukee Brewers in the mid-2000s, along with Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Yovani Gallardo and others. But from his arrival in 2005 through his final season with the Brewers in 2011, Fielder was the Brewers’ emotional rock, a leader who provided energy both through his play and through his intense approach to the game.

Many Brewers fans point to one of Fielder’s first games in Milwaukee as the turning point for the franchise, as it transformed the team from the laughingstock of the league in the early 2000s (four straight 90-loss seasons from 2001-2004) to a competitor in the National League Central. It was June 25 in an interleague rivalry game against the Minnesota Twins at Miller Park.

Weeks had already hit his first career home run off Johan Santana in the first inning. Then, with the Brewers trailing 5-4, Fielder pinch-hit in the sixth against Twins righty Jesse Crain. Fielder promptly launched a three-run opposite field shot over the bullpen in left-center field. The Miller Park crowd exploded, and the Brewers would hold on to win, 7-6, behind the strength of the two young prospects.

The 2005 Brewers were as mediocre as mediocre can get, as they finished and even 81-81 and well outside the NL playoff picture. But moments like Fielder’s eventual game-winner against the Twins planted a seed of belief in the heads of Brewers fans. After watching has-beens and never-will-bes populate Brewers lineups for years, the talent of Fielder and the prospects who came up with him whipped up an excitement around the team that had been nonexistent since Miller Park’s opening in 2001. (Indeed, it had been nonexistent since the last competent Brewers team in 1992, a 92-70 squad that finished just four games behind the eventual world champion Blue Jays.)

Fielder was the rock of those Brewers teams in more ways than one. From 2006, when Fielder earned a spot in Milwaukee’s Opening Day lineup, through 2011 with the Brewers, he missed no more than five games in a single season. Only Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki took more plate appearances than Fielder’s 4,148 over the next six seasons, and not a single player matched Fielder’s 959 games (Adrian Gonzalez played in 958). Just 22 other players averaged even 150 games over those six years; Fielder never appeared in fewer than 157.

Fielder’s physique was often a point of mockery. Throughout the years, The Onion repeatedly used him as the butt of fat jokes. He was a unique athlete, one that only baseball is likely to produce. But that doesn’t make his athleticism any less worthy of celebration.

Many great hitters have swings that could be described as fluid, smooth, or even graceful. Fielder’s was none of these. He unleashed all of his weight upon the baseball with every swing, generating the kind of torque that allowed his 5-foot-11 frame to launch upper deck home runs with regularity. His swing was explosive, violent, and, above all, big. Not only did he put everything he had into every swing, he was able to do it on a daily basis, in a sport in which the athletes take the field 162 times in just 180 days.

The Brewers collapsed down the stretch in 2007, but that season still wound up breaking their 14-year streak of finishing at .500 or below. Fielder was a big reason why, as he hit 50 home runs and posted an eye-popping .288/.395/.618 batting line at just 23 years old. In doing so, he became just the fourth player under six feet tall to reach the 50-homer mark, joining Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays (both did so twice) and Hack Wilson.

Fielder is known for his bigness, but the power he was able to get out of his (relatively) short body is utterly remarkable. Expand the list to those who have reached 40 home runs in a single season and still just 15 men under six feet tall have reached the mark — Fielder did so twice, in 2007 and 2009. To do that in the new millennium, as baseball players continue to get taller — major leaguers now average just under 6-foot-2 — makes Fielder an anachronism. Adrian Beltre is the only other sub-six-footer to reach 40 home runs since 2000; just four others have done it since 1980.

Rk Name Yrs From To Age
1 Willie Mays 6 1954 1965 23-34 Ind. Seasons
2 Mickey Mantle 4 1956 1961 24-29 Ind. Seasons
3 Carl Yastrzemski 3 1967 1970 27-30 Ind. Seasons
4 Prince Fielder 2 2007 2009 23-25 Ind. Seasons
5 Gary Sheffield 2 1996 2000 27-31 Ind. Seasons
6 Adrian Beltre 1 2004 2004 25-25 Ind. Seasons
7 Todd Hundley 1 1996 1996 27-27 Ind. Seasons
8 Kevin Mitchell 1 1989 1989 27-27 Ind. Seasons
9 Tony Armas 1 1984 1984 30-30 Ind. Seasons
10 Dick Allen 1 1966 1966 24-24 Ind. Seasons
11 Al Rosen 1 1953 1953 29-29 Ind. Seasons
12 Roy Campanella 1 1953 1953 31-31 Ind. Seasons
13 Hack Wilson 1 1930 1930 30-30 Ind. Seasons
14 Mel Ott 1 1929 1929 20-20 Ind. Seasons
15 Rogers Hornsby 1 1922 1922 26-26 Ind. Seasons
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/17/2016.

As much as the kinetic energy of his swing powered the Brewers on the field, his emotional energy powered them in the clubhouse. “Prince is the most intense person I know,” Tony Gwynn Jr., his Brewers teammate from 2006 through 2008 and the godfather of Fielder’s kids told Sports Illustrated as Milwaukee was making its run to the NL Central title in 2011.

Current Brewers manager Craig Counsell calls Fielder one of the most influential players he has ever played with, despite the fact that Counsell was already a 36-year-old veteran when he teamed with Fielder for the first time in 2007, when Fielder was just 23. “I think he played the game as hard and competed as hard as anybody I ever had on my team,” Ryan Braun told WTMJ after Fielder announced his retirement. “He’s a guy who never wanted to come out of any game, played through so many injuries, wanted to play every inning of every game.”

Never was Fielder’s influence upon a clubhouse more apparent then with that 2011 squad. Even though his free agency loomed over the entire season, with his inevitable departure at the end of the season placing so much pressure on the squad to win, Fielder was able to remain the Brewers’ rock. The club’s “Beast Mode” celebration was a creation of Fielder’s kids, and although the bombastic Nyjer Morgan drew most of the attention for that team, it was Fielder who started the party. “That’s my kids’ favorite movie,” Fielder told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the movie Monsters Inc. “The whole team does it now. It’s something that I saw my kids do, and I thought it was funny, so I thought I might as well do it, too.”

Fielder grew up around baseball. As a pre-teen he followed his father Cecil around the Detroit Tigers clubhouse. Watching the videos of a 12-year-old Prince blasting dingers into the Tiger Stadium stands, it’s no surprise he went on to have a wildly successful career. The joy he shows in those videos as a kid carried over to his play on major league diamonds a decade later. And while Brewers fans obviously loved him for his talent, they loved him for the joyful energy he radiated on the field as well.

You could see it in his hustle, as evidenced in his not one but two career inside-the-park home runs and the countless other times he busted down the line. You could see it in the respect he garnered from every single teammate he played with. You could see it in his celebrations, from “Beast Mode” antics to his dances in the Rangers dugout to the infamous earthquake home run celebration from 2009.

Opponents and opposing fans may have taken exception to Fielder’s exuberance at times, but watching him in Milwaukee, it never felt like any of these things came from a place of malice. They seemed to come from a place of total joy and love for the game and his teammates — it was that quality of Fielder’s that helped serve as the glue for those Brewers teams.

Fielder’s love for the game was palpable at his press conference earlier this month when he announced his retirement, restricted by a bulky neck brace. Baseball was more than a livelihood for Fielder, and it was hard to watch him give up a pastime that has clearly given him so much life over the years. But we don’t need to act like his career was somehow incomplete just because it ended at the age of 32. Fielder still hit 319 home runs, drove in 1,028 runners, and appeared in 1,611 games over a 12-year career. He still went to the postseason with three different squads, made six All-Star teams and won three Silver Slugger awards.

Unfortunately, his career was likely too short to land him in the Hall of Fame, but his seven-year peak, from 2006 through 2013, will go down as one of the best from a left-handed hitter this generation. Fielder mashed 35 home runs per year and hit .286/.390/.528, good for a 142 OPS+ over that span. He managed to grow from a whiff-happy slugger into a hitter capable of hitting over .300, as he did with the Tigers in 2012, when he finished with a .313 average and walked more times than he struck out.

It’s possible that durability he showed in the early part of his career contributed to his injury issues. His swing certainly looked like it took a toll on his body, and because of his short stature, he had to get every ounce of momentum he could out of every swing. But Prince Fielder wouldn’t have been Prince Fielder any other way. The explosiveness and fiery joy he brought to the ballpark made him a special hitter to watch, and it was an honor to watch him spend seven seasons representing Milwaukee and my home state of Wisconsin. There might be better players or bigger sluggers, but there will never be another as uniquely great as Fielder.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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7 years ago

Prince was easily my favorite Brewer to watch for all the reasons you give in your piece. He was so fun to watch and will be missed.

7 years ago

A bad year for guys named Prince, for sure.

OT, but: Did you guys change your typeface or something? In the last week the text has become hard to read, the characters too thin or something. Just me?

Paul Swydanmember
7 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

We haven’t deliberately changed anything that I am aware of, no.

Jim G.
7 years ago

Great write-up, Jack. Having watched Prince from the beginning in Milwaukee, your portrayal is spot on. I’m also a Tigers fan and was cheering for him there, as well. Certainly, he didn’t have quite the monster years he had with the Brewers, but he really got a bad rap, especially for his comments at the end of the ’13 playoffs. They got blown way out of proportion. Still, the Tigers were lucky to move him, let alone get a player like Kinsler. No one expected everything to fall apart physically in Texas the way it did. I believed his body type would fail him early, but not this early, and not in this manner. Hopefully, people will ultimately remember him for how hard he played the game and how much fun he had doing it.

7 years ago

great for you

7 years ago
MK Samsung Galaxy S7 Case
7 years ago

This would mean they were manufactured sometime July. The chips appear to be unfinsihed and don’t have all the same labels seen on previous AAPL chips.

7 years ago

Hope we all make some thing good in new year, we will start new era in coming years