In order to tell you about Prince Fielder, I must tell you a story. Pull up a chair, dear friends, and grab a Cold One as we rewind the clock to when Fielder was still king.
In 2008 I had been teased with a taste of contention. After 26 long, bad years, a span that covered the totality of my time as a Milwaukee Brewers fan and then some, I had finally been granted a whiff of the sweet perfume of the postseason in 2008. Its scent just barely lingered on my lapel three years later when Milwaukee seemed poised to make another run into October. I was paralyzed by every curve, every bounce, every crack of the bat.
You may recognize this behavior today in your online interactions with the Cubs fanbase – take that daily angst and intensify it by a number of degrees commensurate with a window of contention that is closing, rather than just beginning to open. Fielder was about to make an enormous amount of money on the free agent market, and despite the cries of protest from Milwaukee’s more optimistic fans it would be some other team that was going to give it to him.
To call any game that occurs before the All-Star break must win is silly, but there are certain contests that progress in such a manner as to make them feel much more important than the single W or L they will eventually become. The May 20, 2011 game between the Brewers and Rockies at Miller Park was just such a game. As I shifted my roommate’s portable television from room to room in my Bay View apartment that evening completing the sorts of chores your mom has to pay you to do until you move out and realize that the success of your romantic endeavors is in some part inversely related to the size of the piles of unclean dishes in your sink and clothes on your bedroom floor, a back-and-forth cinematic masterpiece unfolded that led me to praise and explicitly curse the baseball gods in turn.
The teams failed to agree on a winner after the allotted nine innings. After three scoreless extra frames, the Brewers and Rockies traded runs in the 13th to extend an already fascinating game. The Rockies again tallied in the top of the 14th, and surely this time it would be enough after having already coughed up the lead three times.
In the bottom of the 14th inning, Fielder stepped in the box with one out and Ryan Braun on first base. He was 1-for-6 coming into the at bat and mired in a month-long slump, hitting just .205 in May. On the very first pitch he saw from Colorado's Felipe Paulino, Fielder hit a baseball harder than I have ever seen a human being do so.
RIP, dude. Paulino was annihilated by Fielder's shot so completely that the Rockies designated him for assignment the very next day. The win would kick off a 16-5 run that would see the Brewers, who had entered play 21-23, claim the NL Central lead in a division they would go on to win handily. We here at Beyond the Box Score tend to attribute streaks of either good or poor play to cluster luck rather than some ethereal sense of momentum, but I find it far more difficult to separate Milwaukee's change of fortunes from Fielder's massive dong that night.
Of course, Fielder was never able to deliver a world championship to Milwaukee, nor did he earn a ring with Detroit or Texas, but he did find himself in the postseason in four of his final five seasons including a 2012 trip to the World Series with the Tigers. He twice formed one of the most feared one-two punches in the game, first with Braun in Milwaukee and then with Miguel Cabrera in Detroit. He drew 164 intentional free passes during his 12-year career, fourth most in the league during that span.
What makes this exit so jarring is that prior to arriving in Texas, Fielder was an absolute workhorse. From 2009 to 2013, Fielder missed just a single game, eight fewer than any other player during that span. The 2014 neck surgery that ended Fielder's season and started all this trouble was the first trip to the disabled list of his career.
Watching Fielder’s retirement announcement on Wednesday, one saw the raw emotion of a man who has spent his entire life in a baseball stadium being forced to leave the only thing he’s ever known by forces beyond his control. This, perhaps even more than the physical pain that necessitated his retirement, is an agony will never truly subside for Fielder. After two years of subpar play almost certainly caused by his injuries sandwiched around one last classic Fielder season in 2015, and after multiple surgeries undergone to delay this week’s inevitability, Fielder was finally among the last to be convinced of the reality that the body that had taken him to such magnificent athletics heights had failed him, permanently.
Fielder finishes his career with a .283/.382/.506 batting line, 319 home runs (two of which never left the park), five All-Star appearances and three Silver Slugger awards. However, some careers are defined not by the final totals in the record books, but by the classic moments they provided.
While Fielder does not walk away from the game empty-handed, he leaves on the table any number of great moments that he surely counted on and takes with him into retirement an injury that may very well have a significant impact on his quality of life. It is the least we as fans can give him, then, after the many moments he supplied us with, to remember him not as the player who broke down in Texas, but instead as he was on that May night in Milwaukee – absurdly powerful, supremely talented, and immeasurably fun to watch.