Tim Wakefield will take a special interest in Prince Fielder when the Milwaukee Brewers come here this weekend for a three-game interleague series, and not just because Fielder at 23 became the youngest player in major league history to hit 50 home runs in a season last year.
They're nearly a generation apart, but Wakefield and Fielder graduated from the same high school in Melbourne, Fla. - Eau Gallie.
"I remember watching him when he was 12 or 13," Wakefield said. "He went to Florida Air Academy for three years, then transferred to my alma mater."
Did Fielder break all of Wakefield's slugging records at Eau Gallie? "I don't know that I had any," said Wakefield, who before throwing a knuckleball for a living was a mashing first baseman in high school, just like Fielder. "I'm not sure that Prince has any idea of who I am. We probably should get a picture and send it to the school. How many big leaguers came out of Eau Gallie? The two of us, that's it."
By the time Wakefield first saw Fielder, the youngster already had hit a ball over the fence in Tiger Stadium. He was 12 when he did it, while visiting his father, Cecil, who hit 51 home runs for the Tigers when he was 26, in 1990. You can find newspaper articles recounting how the young Prince, at age 8, hit five home runs in his first nine games in Little League, including one over a 180-foot fence, a challenging distance for his older teammates.
Even before he transferred to Eau Gallie, Fielder's every game was watched by a gaggle of scouts. His senior year, at age 17, he stopped by the Tigers' spring training facility in nearby Lakeland and hit eight balls over the wall in a round of batting practice, including two that cleared the 410-foot sign in center.
"That's as impressive a session I've seen a high schooler have in a long time, maybe ever," Randy Smith, then the Tigers general manager, said after witnessing Fielder's show of power.
Fielder, who hits from the left side, the opposite of his father, had the kind of size you'd expect from a kid whose father was known as "Big Daddy." Prince was big even when he was little. By his senior year, estimates of his weight started at 250 pounds and went up.
The Brewers drafted him in the first round (seventh overall) that year, 2002, and have not been disappointed. In his first professional game, for the Single A Ogden (Utah) Raptors, Fielder hit a tying grand slam in the ninth inning. Within three years, he was in the big leagues, led National League rookies in home runs with 28 in 2006, and last season was an All-Star, finishing third in MVP voting after batting .288 with 50 home runs and 119 RBIs.
But Fielder's saga has not been an entirely happy one. He is estranged from his father, who went through a bitter divorce from Prince's mother and is blamed by the son for losing most of the family's fortune, through gambling and bad investments. He also accused his father of taking $200,000 of his signing bonus. Prince Fielder said last season he wanted to hit 52 home runs, one more than his father. "Then he can't say anything," he said.
Cecil Fielder, who is in his first season managing the Atlantic City Surf in the independent Can-Am League, said his worst day at a ballpark came two years ago, when he went to see the Brewers play in Atlanta. He said two security men told him his son wanted him to wait outside the ballpark, and when he asked if he could take a picture of his grandchildren, Prince's wife said that was up to her husband.
The home runs have been slow in coming this season. Fielder comes into this weekend with just five home runs and 23 RBIs; a year ago at this time, the numbers were 12 and 33. He is not alone in his struggles. The Brewers, who lost to the Dodgers yesterday to fall a game under .500, began the day 12th in the league in runs, 14th in slugging percentage, and 14th in batting average. They've lost two starting pitchers for the season with injuries, Yovani Gallardo (knee) and Chris Capuano (elbow). And their bullpen, with former Red Sox pitcher Eric Gagné blowing five saves and losing the closer's role, has been a disaster.
Last season, Milwaukee's home-grown talent was the talk of baseball. Fielder hit his 50 homers. Third baseman Ryan Braun, a first-round pick in 2005, was the NL's Rookie of the Year, batting .324 with 34 home runs and 97 RBIs in just 113 games. Second baseman Rickie Weeks, a first-round pick in 2003, tied the club record for home runs by a second baseman with 16. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, a second-round pick in 2001, hit 26 home runs and was picked for the All-Star team.
All, save Braun, have been scuffling this season. Weeks is hitting .187. Hardy has just one home run. Braun, who hit his 10th home run yesterday and has a club-best 30 RBIs, was rewarded before the game with an eight-year, $45 million deal that makes him the highest-paid player in team history and recipient of the largest contract ever given a player with less than a year of major league service time.
The big payday is still ahead for Fielder, who did not come to terms with the team on a one-year deal this spring and had his contract renewed. When his payday comes, Fielder is not likely to celebrate with a big steak; he turned vegetarian in the offseason.
Tomorrow afternoon, Wakefield is scheduled to serve him some knucklers. Let Eau Gallie's photographer consider himself warned.
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.