BALTIMORE -- The Detroit Tigers are hanging around the batting cage. A line drive streaks toward third base where a rookie, up for September, is not paying attention.

"Hey!" one alarmed voice screams.

The rookie lifts his foot just in time not to get hurt.

A few minutes later, another line drive. The same player is daydreaming. "Hey!" screams the same voice, saving the same guy's life. "Don't get hurt out there now," the good Samaritan yells cheerfully. The rookie waves back, shamefaced but still in one piece.

When batting practice breaks up, every Tigers player avoids the fans along the box seat railing, just as almost every major league player does. Sign one autograph, a mob will gather and you'll not only have to sign 100 times, but you'll actually have to -- yuck -- shake hands and actually talk to the fans.

Even though no fan spots him or calls his name, the same Tiger walks directly to the box seats and takes a small boy's program and pen and begins the autograph session. He keeps signing for 15 minutes until the police order him to stop and go into the clubhouse. At one point, the player realizes that two kids in the front row are getting squeezed by other fans. "Are these your seats right here?" asks the 247-pound Tiger.

The children are too awed to speak, but they nod. So, the player moves down the row to prevent their seats from becoming a war zone; also he can answer questions from a new batch of fans.

"Did all that sushi make you strong?" asks one man, not expecting an answer.

"Yup. I'm going back for more," says the Tiger as he signs his name slowly, perfectly legible -- an artistic autograph in defiance of the sport's tradition of quick, sloppy blurs.

One boy walks away, not knowing who the lone signer is. Suddenly, as if shocked, he looks at his ball and yells, "I got Cecil Fielder's autograph!"

If you really want to know what a ballplayer is like as a person, don't just listen to him talk. Watch him when he's around other players. Or when he thinks nobody's watching him at all. At least that's what Sparky Anderson says.

The Tigers' manager never dreamed that Cecil Fielder would hit 45 home runs -- nine more than anybody else in the major leagues this season -- or that he might become the 11th man in history to hit 50 homers before this year is over. But he knew he had a team leader as far back as spring training.

"He has the same temperament as Alan Trammell," says Anderson, meaning that as high praise since Trammell may end up in the Hall of Fame and always epitomizes sweet-tempered stability. "Players teach you about other players. Watch who they avoid, who they enjoy being around. That's part of the way you decide who to subtract from your club the next year.

"All the players liked Cecil from the first day. He is who he is. He doesn't try to be liked. He's just relaxed and comfortable being himself. We gave him about $3 million for two years. You lay out that kind of money and you find out right away who the jerks are."

Everybody knows Cecil Fielder's story now. But not too many know him. No player in baseball, until Fielder, had the self-confidence, or maybe audacity, to go to Japan -- at age 25 -- to prove that he was a star and not a part-time platoon player. In bits and pieces of four seasons with the Blue Jays, Fielder hit 31 homers in 506 at-bats. He didn't rebel. He didn't call names. He just left. And became a Hanshin Tiger -- one who hit 38 home runs in 106 games.

In Japan he learned to hit soft slop and accept walks. When Detroit had the fiscal courage to make him another kind of Tiger, Fielder had his chance. "You just got to find out who you are. I got a chance," he says. "I had a lot of things to prove to myself. And you can't do it unless you play every day and relax. You have to let things happen. You can't worry about when you'll play again. . . .

"In spring training, I relaxed a little more. When I didn't get off to a good start, Sparky told me, 'I know you're going to hit.' I knew I'd play.

"The people who didn't think I could play the game," said Fielder earlier this year, "they can't take this from me."

Because Fielder is so wide, so ominous at the plate and hits the ball so far -- he is the first right-handed Detroit player to hit a ball entirely out of Tiger Stadium -- it's often assumed that he must be a macho. Actually, he seems the opposite.

"He's so polite and has such a nice family," says Anderson. "We tease him that he must have met his wife when he was a high school {basketball} star at point guard because that's the only way he could've won her. She's so beautiful, he couldn't get her now. She teases him about that too."

Of course, this may only be part of Sparky's plan to get Fielder to "come to spring training at 230 pounds next year." Typically, Fielder doesn't squawk at being asked to lose weight after one of the greatest offensive seasons in the last quarter century. "He's not real joyful about the idea," said Anderson, "but I promised we'd work it out together. Some guys can carry a lot of weight. It's a fine line. I don't want to get too smart for our own good."

Babe Ruth weighed 251 when he hit 60 homers. And Fielder is having a Ruthian season. Only one man, George Foster, has hit 50 homers since 1965. Fielder's 116 RBI also lead the majors while his 304 total bases, .610 slugging average and 71 extra-base hits all lead the American League. As an extra twist, Fielder has not slowed his pace at all as the year has worn on; since the All-Star Game, he has 17 homers and 43 RBI in 56 games.

No player, including Fielder, will admit the symbolism of 50 homers. But that magic number -- achieved less often in this century than a .390 batting average -- seems to bedevil even the best of sluggers.

Since Willie Mays hit 52 in 1965, many of the greats have had a chance for 50 after Labor Day then started to falter. Mark McGwire, Andre Dawson, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew (twice) got stuck on 49. Mike Schmidt, Dave Kingman, Willie Stargell and Frank Howard made it to 48. After being ahead of 50-homer paces, Kevin Mitchell, George Bell, Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson came to a halt at 47.

"If he does hit 50," says Anderson, "you'll never know, other than he might smile once while he's rounding the bases. This guy is going to hit 30 or more homers every year, but he will be the same person 10 years from now."

As Anderson talks, a small elderly Baltimore man approaches Fielder and asks him some questions. As the fellow comes back through the Tigers dugout, he looks worried. "Cecil said he would come to our banquet this winter," he says. "Last winter, we invited a big slugger. He stiffed us and didn't show up."

Whether he gets his 50 or not, Fielder will be there. Anybody who watches him closely wouldn't have a doubt.