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After knockout, Brewers forced to face life without Prince Fielder

MILWAUKEE — When he stepped into the batter's box in the eighth inning for his last at-bat, Prince Fielder(notes) looked down at the dirt and swiped it with both cleats as players do. An ovation rose from the crowd at Miller Park, but Fielder never looked up, never waved his hand, never tipped his batting helmet to acknowledge them. It was almost like he didn't want to come out and say good-bye.

Only after Albert Pujols(notes) called timeout — a classy gesture, possibly done to stretch the moment for a few more awkward seconds — did Fielder give him a nod. And then he took a big cut on the first pitch, fouling it off. He followed with another foul ball and then a take in the dirt, before finishing with a grounder to second. That was it.

Watch Prince's last-bat

An inning later, the St. Louis Cardinals closed out the Milwaukee Brewers and the NLCS in six games, winning 12-6 on Sunday night to advance to their franchise's 18th World Series. In his team's clubhouse, Fielder joined something of a hug line among the players and coaches and embraced as many of his teammates as he could find.

"I had to clear the throat once, but it was all right," Fielder said. "I love these guys. I've been playing with most of them since I was 18. So, this organization has been great to me. Yeah, man. It's just been good. It's been real."

"It's been real." Fielder later clarified that he meant he was feeling emotional about this season being over — not necessarily his career with the Brewers.

"I'm not thinking about that quite yet," he said. "I'm just trying to say good-bye to teammates. It's the offseason; you're not going to see them every day at 3 o'clock. I'm trying to say good-bye to them, trying to keep the throat clear."

But his status for the future was definitely the elephant in the room.

After knockout, Brewers forced to face life without Prince FielderHe will file for free agency and see what windfalls it might bring. Fielder's agent is Scott Boras, so to expect Fielder to take a "hometown discount" in order to stay in Wisconsin would be expecting the unlikely. Fielder, who turns 28 in May, will seek somewhere between the eight-year, $180 million deal that Mark Teixeira(notes) got and, well, however much else someone is willing to pay. And then there's Pujols, who's also a free agent ...

As the blog Bernie's Crew has pointed out, Fielder thinks he has been underpaid and has been waiting for this day to come. Well, maybe not this day; he envisioned the season ending with the Brewers winning the World Series. But Fielder has been waiting to get his paper. And that time is upon us.

The Brewers, who drew just over 3 million fans, seventh in Major League Baseball, still have the smallest TV market in the league, and TV is where the big money is. That's where the "afford to keep Prince money" would be, if the Brewers had it. Owner Mark Attanasio said he and GM Doug Melvin won't give up on keeping Fielder before the bidding even starts.

"We're planning on participating in the sweepstakes," Attanasio said when asked if the team planned on making Fielder another offer.

Attanasio doesn't think the Brewers reaching the NLCS is a one-shot deal, with or without Fielder here.

"My goal has always been to build a long-term winning tradition here," said Attanasio, who bought the team before the 2006 season. "I'm not looking back to 1982. I'm looking right now. This team's been in the playoffs for two of the last four years. That's what we're trying to build in Milwaukee. And importantly: the whole country, including other athletes, see what we're able to do here. This is a great place to play. I think this is going to help us recruit ballplayers here. We're not looking at this as our last shot."

After knockout, Brewers forced to face life without Prince Fielder

It would be nice if Attanasio also flashed a sport coat lined with large bills, because going off the deep end financially to keep one player might not be the best way ensure a long-term winning tradition. Especially if it means you can't afford to fill out the lineup or pitching staff with lesser but important players. Right now, the Brewers' options at first base include perennial prospect Mat Gamel(notes) and outfielder Corey Hart(notes). And there are always the Lyle Overbays of the world.

Ryan Braun(notes), the other half of what has been the league's best power duo, is signed from here to 2021. He said Milwaukee has had a good thing going with him and Fielder, and isn't quite ready to say good-bye, either.

"I don't even really want to contemplate that yet," Braun said when asked for at least the second time Sunday night. "It remains to be seen. I'm obviously proud of everything we've accomplished together and as a team. I'm still hoping we can be teammates next year and for years to come."

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is aware he might not have to worry about Fielder 18-25 times a year anymore. La Russa said he made it a point to use first base coach Dave McKay get Fielder's attention in the ninth inning as he played defense.

"Something I rarely do," La Russa said. "But I wanted to congratulate him on a great year. He looked in, I tipped my cap and clapped for him. I've watched him grow up, and he's grown up to where he's not only just a dangerous producer, but I've watched how he is as a part of the leadership of that club.

"Who knows? I mean, I don't know what his future is. He may come back."

After knockout, Brewers forced to face life without Prince Fielder

Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy(notes) recalled the standing ovation Fielder got during the last home game of 2010, when it appeared the Brewers would soon trade him.

"The fans, they've done it two years in a row. He's definitely loved here," Lucroy said. "When [the team] signed him back for 2011, I was surprised. I thought that might be it last year. It was a pleasant surprise that we got him back. Him and Brauny carried us all year."

So, as Attanasio and Braun said, the Brewers should be proud of what they've accomplished with Fielder. Two playoff appearances since 2008, after going without any since '82. They had the most regular-season victories in franchise history in 2011. And they won a playoff series  — in a year when, maybe, they shouldn't have had Fielder at all, as Lucroy said.

If you look at 2011 as a bonus season for the Brewers and Fielder being together, maybe peeking at a separate future isn't as grim. The 2011 season has been gravy. Take the draft picks and re-load, because Prince wants to be paid like a king, and there's just not enough gold to go around.

Follow Dave on Twitter — @AnswerDave — and engage the Stew on Facebook throughout the playoffs

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