LAKELAND, Fla. — Saturday afternoon in Lakeland, Prince Fielder blasted balls out of Joker Marchant Stadium during batting practice, loped around the outfield with his bushy-haired son and joked with teammates. Fielder and the Detroit Tigers may still be in the feeling-out process of their long-term commitment, but in their first spring training, they could not be happier together. “Everything,” Fielder said, “worked out for the best.”
It also could have worked out differently, though, with Fielder swinging his powerful, left-handed bat for the visiting Washington Nationals. Before he signed his nine-year, $214 million contract with Detroit, he and the Nationals shared a courtship that included a meeting in Washington and several other conversations between Nationals ownership and Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras. From the start of his process, Fielder could see himself playing in Washington.
“Definitely,” Fielder said Saturday. “The guys they have in there — Bryce [Harper], [Stephen] Strasburg, [Jayson] 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.”
When Fielder looked at the Nationals’ roster, he saw a team coming off an 80-win season ready to ascend in the standings. In 2011, Fielder finished third in the National League MVP voting after smashing 38 homers with a .299 batting average, a .415 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage. With his bat added to the middle of their lineup, Fielder believed the Nationals could challenge for the postseason.
“I always thought they 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.”
What most separated the Nationals from other teams, Fielder said, was the presence of Harper. For all the Nationals had to offer, Fielder relished the idea of playing alongside Harper, who also employs Boras, 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, [Michael] Morse, all those guys. But I really like Bryce a lot. I think he’s a stud. I really do.”
Fielder grew up in baseball, the son of slugger Cecil Fielder, and felt a constant spotlight as he rose up the baseball ladder. But he did not think he could relate to Harper, whose progress has been scrutinized since he turned 16.
“He’s like LeBron James,” Fielder said. “He’s like, been the man. For him to come out and keep doing what everybody wants, thinks he’s supposed to do, it’s not easy to do that. He’s doing well.
“Just from watching him, how he plays and how he carries himself, he’s a guy who’s been the man since he was 14, 16, whatever. It’s a lot to deal with. For him to keep working at his craft and the way he’s handled his success, it’s special to see that, especially in a 19-year-old. I know when I was 19, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
This winter, Fielder traveled with Boras to Washington and spent one night at a hotel. The next morning, he drove with Boras to principal owner Mark Lerner’s apartment for a morning meeting 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. The group did not know what to expect, sitting before a hulking, tattooed slugger. As morning turned into mid-afternoon, he had blown them away with charming, intelligent conversation. At the highest level of the organization, the Nationals could envision Fielder wearing a Nationals uniform.
Meantime, several Nationals, especially Harper and 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 received multiple offers that met the criteria. The Nationals wanted to offer five years, maybe six.
When the Tigers sustained an injury to Victor Martinez and needed another bat, Detroit owner Mike Illitch wanted to make sure the Tigers, two wins away from the World Series last year, would have another lineup capable of a deep postseason march. The Tigers stepped forward with their massive offer. The Nationals never countered, content to play 2012 with Adam LaRoche at first base and Morse in the wings. On Jan. 24, Fielder signed with Detroit.
“You usually end up loving the team that loves you,” Fielder said. “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, in baseball, money can buy love.