PHOENIX, Ariz. – It's cold and gray and spitting rain on the corner of 51st and Indian School Road, the kind of morning where a single drop of rain to the back of your neck can ruin the whole day.
He's at first base, defending his plot of grass and dirt against contact plays, a man leaning off third, new manager Ron Roenicke putting the ball in play with back-handed flips, catchers yelling as it skitters away.
Fielder is laughing and pointing and calling off pitcher Randy Wolf(notes), even on a ball Wolf probably should take, because it's no fun just to stand out there and do nothing and watch everybody else play.
He's got a 'fro going that leaks out from under his cap, a beard that's beginning to show promise, and a grin that seems to swallow up the place.
It's just into late March and he's already jawed with San Francisco Giants lefty Barry Zito(notes) and stomped onto the field during a scrape against the Los Angeles Dodgers, after which Dodgers pitcher Roman Colon(notes) suggested, "He has to let that ego go a little bit," at which Fielder stone-faced, "I don't know him."
Dale Sveum, the hitting coach, leans on a fungo bat, watches Fielder take another roller away from a pitcher, and says, "He's just in a really good place."
That place being Milwaukee, for the time being, though it's bigger than that.
For all the bellowing coming out of St. Louis about its first baseman, folks in Wisconsin have their own issue with their own guy, and while baseball in St. Louis survives anything, and will the loss of Albert Pujols(notes) should it come to that, Prince Fielder walking out on the Milwaukee Brewers could have the more lasting impact.
After all, Fielder is 26, coming up on 27. Pujols is 31 and will be 32 by next opening day.
Pujols is easily the better player, but for how much longer? Four years? Five? Six, when he's 37 and Fielder is still just 32?
In St. Louis, baseball sells tickets. The game draws. A good game – featuring Pujols – draws better, of course.
In Milwaukee, the Brewers were barely clearing two million fans – and some seasons less than that – when Prince arrived. By his breakout season of 2007, when he hit 50 home runs (and Ryan Braun(notes) was Rookie of the Year), the Brewers were close to three million, then topped three million the following two seasons.
Beginning in 2001, which was Pujols' rookie year, Cardinals' attendance declined for three consecutive seasons.
There could be a thousand reasons for that, none of which would reflect poorly on Pujols, who became the best player in baseball around the time Barry Bonds faded away and hasn't taken a year off since. (Since 2005, when Pujols won his first MVP, Cards attendance has held steady – and healthy – between 3.3 and 3.5 million.)
And you wonder, given the age disparity, where the smart money goes on a long-term contract. The knock on Prince is his weight, and how much longer he can be heavy and athletic and productive and dependable, which all works at 26. But how about 36?
Asked to push Fielder and Pujols out 10 years, and to project the better coming decade of the two, one veteran scout sided slightly with Pujols.
"Good question," he said. "But the great ones seem to play well into their 40's."
I guess what all this means is you look around the Brewers' clubhouse and wonder what will become of the organization without Prince. He came along at a time home runs were dying out and in the past four seasons has hit 162 of them (four more than Pujols), and in that time only Ryan Howard(notes) and Prince have hit at least 46 in a season twice.
There's more to Prince, too. He'll grab a teammate's lapel and give it a good shake, and he plays big brother to the other 24 when stuff starts going down, and he'll run the bases like a guy half his size, at least in terms of enthusiasm.
When Roenicke told the Brewers his door was open and would stay open, Prince thought he was talking specifically to him. Soon, the man's going to have a chair named after him in the manager's office. They've talked styles of baseball, and the uniqueness of a walk year, and what this season means to the Brewers, and why it should all work. And Prince is down with all of it.
"I think we're good," he says. "This is the best team overall since I've been here."
If, at the end of it, he does indeed walk – and there's no one who thinks he won't – then Prince will have to be OK with that, too. There was a time, he suggests, when the public conversations about whether he'd be traded or how the Brewers possibly could afford him or about the latest contract negotiations weren't as easy to live with as he let on.
He says he's "eliminated all that."
"At this point," he says, "I think it's a lot more centered. Before, it's unknown when you get to this point. You don't know what to feel, so you're a little nervous. Now that I'm here, it's like, 'Oh, it's just baseball.' "
Fortunately for him and the Brewers, baseball happens to be what he does.
"I want him to have a big year, both individually and – because if he has a big year – then our team has a big year," Roenicke says. "I've told him, don't get out of your game because of what might happen at the end of the year."
It's worked for now. He's had a solid spring, batting .355 with three homers. He looks strong and even slightly leaner. And he's pleased with his team, and with the new manager leading it, and with whatever's beyond that.
"I'm happy now," he says.
- Prince Fielder