When Prince Fielder accepted a $214 million contract to play for the Detroit Tigers for the next nine years, it was hard to escape the obvious: Detroit is where he first came to prominence in baseball, famously hitting a home run over the fence as a teenager while his father was on the big league team. Detroit is where Cecil experienced his greatest success, of course, as his 51-homer season in 1990 was the only 50-homer season between George Foster in 1977 and Albert Belle in 1995.*
* Of course, while there were only three 50-homer campaigns in the 29 seasons from 1977 to 1995, there were 22 such campaigns in the 12 seasons from 1996 to 2007.
He appeared to have a good childhood with his father.
But their relationship soured when he got older. One day in 2002, when Prince was in A-ball, a process server came on the field to give Prince papers for his father, who was being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and who was living with Prince at the time. During the divorce proceedings, Cecil alleged that his wife had been “physically and mentally abusive” to him and had attacked him with a fork and a broomstick. Prince has said that his father took $200,000 of his $2.4 million signing bonus without asking, as reported by the Detroit News in 2004. “My father is dead to me,” Prince said in 2004.
While Prince has rarely spoken about it publicly, Cecil has given a number of interviews about his relationship with his son, sounding alternately defensive and gracious. In 2008, he told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, “My son is acting crazy.” Last June, Cecil told reporters about a conversation with his son that had gone badly, saying, “I wanted to drop a right on him instead of talking to him.”
But after it was reported that Prince was signing with Detroit, Cecil went on Sirius XM Radio and said he was “shocked,” and announced that he was hopeful that he and his son could reconcile: “[We] are doing a lot better than we were… Time heals all wounds, man.” Then, Cecil told ESPN, “I don’t understand why I’m getting all the attention. They should be trying to find him.” But then he said, “I hope I don’t have to do another interview,” and it’s harder to believe that. After all, the reason Cecil is getting all the attention is that he wants to talk about his son, and his son doesn’t want to talk about his father.
Still, just because Prince doesn’t want to talk about it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think about it. Whatever the nature of their relationship, it’s clearly very important to both of them. In 2007, Prince’s Brewer teammate Bill Hall told USA Today:
He still will have small conversations about his dad… He’ll go out and imitate his dad’s swing. He’ll hike his pants up real high like his dad, and laugh about it. Deep inside, you know that he loves his dad.
It’s not clear quite how much of Prince’s success he directly owes to his father, but it’s almost certainly greater than zero. Scouts and prospect-hunters place a great deal of stock in “bloodlines,” being directly related to a major league ballplayer, because a prospect with bloodlines has a leg up on his peers not just genetically, but also culturally. Countless prospects get derailed in the minor leagues before realizing the full potential of their talents, and Prince’s exposure to the major leagues at a young age undoubtedly helped him tap into the full extent of his abilities. And some of those abilities clearly resemble his father’s. After all, of the 26 men in major league history who have hit 50 homers, two are named Fielder. (They’re the only such father-son pair in history.)
I’m frankly a little uncomfortable devoting so much length to a personal relationship that Prince understandably and justifiably wants to keep private. As Craig Calcaterra wrote yesterday:
Even though it would be nicer if the two of them had a good relationship than a poor one, I hope that Prince doesn’t get pestered too much about it by virtue of the public’s need to seek closure or resolution of a relationship that, by all rights, shouldn’t concern us.
The fact that Prince took Detroit’s contract offer doesn’t necessarily mean anything about how he and his father are currently getting along. The number of eyes that widened here and elsewhere is enough to suggest that Prince didn’t have too many other $200-million offers to choose between. So it may be a simple coincidence that the team that offered him the most money, because its 82-year old owner urgently wants to win a world championship, is also the team that made his father the highest-paid player in baseball.
But even if Cecil is right that time heals all wounds, money has a way of salting them. And money, after all, appears to be one of the greatest strains in their relationship in the first place. So Prince’s newfound wealth may not make him immediately magnanimous toward the father whom he regards as having stolen part of his first big league contract. It may not make Cecil any more gracious rather than defensive regarding his own struggles to keep money rather than losing it. As long as he can avoid his father’s addiction, Prince has finally signed a contract that will take care of him and his children for the rest of his life. How he deals with the rest of his life is entirely up to him.