DETROIT -- His arms are like legs, his legs like torsos. His torso is otherworldly. Cecil Fielder would make a great linebacker, only it wouldn't be as much fun chasing Montana and Elway as it was chasing Ruth and Maris.

Cecil (rhymes with "wrestle") Fielder (rhymes with "hitter"), the Detroit Tigers' strapping first baseman, has fallen behind the paces of Ruth's 60-homer year of 1927 and Maris's 61 in '61. But with 39 and counting, he still has a chance to become the first American League player since Maris to hit 50 in a year.

Not bad for a guy nobody wanted a year and a half ago.

After being discarded by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1988 and playing 1989 in exile in Japan, Fielder resurfaced with the Tigers and began hitting homers in droves. He was on magazine covers. He made the all-star team. He was being mentioned with Maris and Ruth.

And then he slowed down, battling through a 28-for-131 (.214) slump in June and July, sending his batting average spiraling down from a season-high .329 to a low of .279 four games ago.

But last week, like he did once before, Fielder resurrected himself. Including his 39th on Saturday, Fielder has homered in three straight games, going nine for 11, with six RBI. And his average is back up to .293.

"I think I've proven that I could play once I was given the chance," said Fielder, who is listed at 6 feet 3, which is probably true, and 235 pounds, which probably isn't.

After four disappointing years with the Blue Jays, Fielder was so unwanted late in 1988 that he crossed the ocean to play in Japan, the graveyard of so many American players.

He hit 38 homers in only 384 at-bats for the Hanshin Tigers in 1989. Big deal. Discarded American players have been going to Japan for years, and none had been able to come back and make it big in the majors again.

However, most of those players were either washed up old-timers or career minor-leaguers, such as Randy Bass, who was invited to spring training with the Orioles only to retire soon after arriving because of an injury.

But the Tigers thought the 26-year-old Fielder was worth the chance and outbid several teams, most notably the Boston Red Sox, and signed him as a free agent on Jan. 15 for nearly $3 million over two years.

"It was neck and neck between Boston and Detroit, but I felt I would have a better chance of playing every day in Detroit," he said.

Looking back, he calls Japan "the best thing that could've happened to me at the time. It gave me a new lease on life." Oh Those Skeptics

For all of Fielder's success in Japan, many major league executives believed the pitching there was suspect and thought his home run total was inflated. "But baseball is baseball no matter where you are," he counters.

Now, everyone wants to write The Cecil Fielder Story. It gets old, he admits. "I'm just a quiet person. I try to keep things to myself. That's what Cecil Fielder is all about, not publicity and show."

But that's not the worst of his problems. Because of his success, he no longer is seeing a fat first pitch. No one wants to be beaten by the home run king, so they pitch around him. His 69 walks are seventh in the league. And his impatience has cost him with 139 strikeouts.

Fielder's latest home run binge comes at a time when the slugger was starting to get frustrated.

"It's a lot more difficult to perform these days," he said. "The pitchers are really bearing down on me. I might get one good pitch to hit each at-bat, but when I get that one pitch I have to jump on it."

His Tigers teammates haven't fared so well, as Detroit has practically dropped out of the AL East race, now 9 1/2 games behind Toronto and Boston.

But it's not as if Fielder hasn't tried. Besides his homers, he also leads the league in RBI (99), slugging percentage (.614) and extra-base hits (60).

"I'd like to see us do well to help him {with MVP votes}, because he's done his share for us," said veteran outfielder Chet Lemon. "He's having a great year. Hell, he would have had a great year if he'd quit at the break."

Fielder's batting practice sessions are something to behold. They also are a dream come true for ball hounds -- he has been known to deposit a couple of dozen balls in the stands on any given day. And he sprays them to all fields.

That last fact is not lost on hitting gurus such as Orioles batting coach Tom McCraw. "He doesn't have to try to pull the ball. He is so strong, he just has to get the bat on it and it flies," McCraw said. "Once you reach that point, hitting becomes a science."

McCraw crossed paths with a young and restless Fielder in 1986, when Fielder played for Syracuse, Toronto's Class AAA squad, and McCraw was the New York Mets' minor league hitting coach.

"I was not impressed," said McCraw. "He showed no signs of what was going to happen."

Everyone has a theory about Fielder's rags-to-riches story, and McCraw is no different: "I think he went over there and rearranged his priorities -- maybe that was all he needed in the first place. But you have to take your hat off and salute him. He's done a lot for that team and a lot for baseball."

Asked recently how many homers Fielder would get this year, McCraw said, "I know he'll get 50." 'These Small Beds'

Raised in Los Angeles, unloved in Toronto and resurrected in Japan, it took Fielder three countries to find himself.

With the Hanshin Tigers, he was playing every day for the first time since Class AA ball in 1985. But he didn't have any trouble on the field; it was off the field that gave him fits. Thankfully, there was another American -- pitcher Matt Keough -- on the team. But on days when Keough wasn't pitching, the team didn't require him to be at the game.

"So there was no one there who spoke English except my translator," said Fielder. "It was tough to keep my mental game going when there was no one to even talk to."

But the whole Japanese experience was beneficial for him and his family -- wife Stacey and son Prince -- he said. "It was beautiful there. But sometimes something as simple as finding something that my family and I wanted to eat could be a problem. And they had these small beds, no TV, no cable. You just have to bring your own music and sweat it out. But we all had a good time."

And now he has conquered the Motor City.

"I'm still learning. It's my first year facing major league right-handers," said Fielder, who was a platoon player in Toronto, "so it's still a learning process for me."

And what about the Blue Jays letting the big one get away? Toronto General Manager Pat Gillick isn't impressed -- he has been quoted as saying Fielder is a "nonathlete that can hit."

Fielder, who also has been called "an angel in disguise" by Tigers batting coach Vada Pinson, smiles like an angel when asked about the Blue Jays.

"Toronto has said some negative things," he said. "But I don't think they want to admit they made a mistake."