On Saturday in Lakeland, Fla., Prince Fielder blasted balls out of Joker Marchant Stadium during batting practice. He loped around in the outfield with his bushy-haired son. He joked with teammates. In his first spring training with the Detroit Tigers, after he spent most of this winter as baseball’s free agent prize, Fielder is completely at ease.
“Everything,” he said, “worked out for the best.”
But it could have worked out differently, with him instead playing for the Washington Nationals. Before he signed his nine-year, $214 million contract with Detroit, he and the Nationals shared a courtship that included dinner in Washington and several other meetings and conversations between Nationals ownership and Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras. From the start of his process, Fielder could see himself in a Nationals uniform.
“Definitely,” Fielder said Saturday. “The guys they have in there – Bryce, Strasburg, Werth. They have a lot of guys over there. They especially have a lot of young talent. Those guys, I definitely wouldn’t have minded playing for them. But I’m with the Tigers.”
What separated the Nationals from other teams, Fielder said, was the presence of Bryce Harper, who also uses Boras as agent. For all the Nationals had to offer, Fielder relished the idea of playing alongside Harper most.
“I mean, they had a phenom, a 19-year-old phenom,” Fielder said. “That’s the only difference. I personally think Bryce is going to be a superstar. Like I said, Strasburg, Werth, Morse, all those guys. But I really like Bryce a lot. I think he’s a stud. I really do.”
In December, Fielder traveled to Washington and had dinner with General Manager Mike Rizzo and several members of ownership, including principal owner Ted Lerner.
“The meeting went well, so I assumed they liked me, too, I guess,” Fielder said.
Actually, they loved him. By the end of the night, he had blown them away with charming, intelligent conversation.
Meantime, several Nationals, especially Harper and Jayson Werth, Fielder said, lobbied for him to play in Washington. “It feels good when the guys you play against, your peers, want you to on the team and respect how you play,” Fielder said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Despite the mutual interest, the Nationals never gave Fielder a hard offer to consider. Boras accepted only proposals of at least eight years, and the Nationals wanted to offer five or six at most. When catcher Victor Martinez suffered a knee injury and the Tigers needed another bat, they stepped forward with their massive offer. The Nationals never counted, and Fielder went to Detroit.
“I always thought [the Nationals] were a team with a lot of young talent and they were going to be really good,” Fielder said. “I thought they were good already. Sometimes, you got to find that one more thing, I guess. I felt like they had a chance to contend like now.
“You usually end up loving the team that loves you. There’s always teams you’d like to go with, but in the end, it’s which team you get together and come up with a deal.”
The Nationals loved Fielder, and he loved them back. In the end, though, the Tigers gave them the kind of deal the Nationals could not. Sometimes, money can buy love.