DETROIT – The marriage of a $214 million contract and failure looks like this: Bad swings. Feckless groundballs dribbling to infielders. Fruitless sprints down the first-base line. Faces in the dugout trying to hide disappointment. Cameras waiting. Recorders poised. Frustration broadcast to the world. Another loss. Another opportunity wasted.
The sound is much simpler. It is one syllable – boo – though the Detroit faithful at Comerica Park who turned agnostic toward Prince Fielder during the Tigers' 4-3 loss in Game 5 of this great American League Championship Series stretched it into four or five. As the decibels of disenchantment grew, all Fielder could do was pretend like it didn't bother him. And the truth is, he cares too much to play fugazi like that. It did bug him. Almost certainly more than he was willing to let on.
"It's definitely not pleasant," Fielder said. "But they're fans. That's what they do. They pay to come."
They pay, he might as well have said, for the $46 million he made this year and last, and for the $168 million he will earn over the next seven seasons, and almost always the amount of money a player receives and the level of vitriol toward him for October letdowns are correlated. It matters not that Anibal Sanchez couldn't shut down the Boston Red Sox like he had in Game 1, that four other hitters left more men on base than him, that these games are won and lost collectively. He is Prince Fielder, he signed the fifth-largest contract in baseball history and he will keep catching hell if he doesn't start hitting.
The lack of production now spans two seasons, and as independent as his issues in 2012 and 2013 are in reality, their similarity in misery superglue them to one another. In 10 playoff games this season, Fielder is hitting .243/.317/.270. He has one extra-base hit, a double. In the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, always behind the best hitter on the planet, he has not driven in a single run. His postseason RBI drought stretches back 72 at-bats, his home run famine 10 at-bats further. He has been reduced to a 275-pound slap hitter.
He doesn't get it, either. The Red Sox are pitching him well, sure, but all season long Fielder gets pitchers' finest efforts. Rarely do his slumps stretch this long and leave him in search of answers.
"I don't have a magic wand," Fielder said. "So I'm just going up there trying to hit it hard."
Eight times Fielder used some derivation of trying to hit the ball hard, something that comes naturally to him. If this is possible for a player so highly paid, Fielder might be underappreciated as a hitter. He's not some bowling ball who hits home runs. His swing is smooth and pure, his plate discipline among the game's best. He is baseball's current iron man, and even as he struggled through nagging injuries this season, he popped 25 home runs.
None of that dismisses his disappearance the last two Octobers. As much as his teammates want to stick up for him, there is no denying that Fielder's lack of offense is a big part of why the Tigers head to Boston facing a pair of elimination games at Fenway Park.
"He's having great at-bats," Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter offered, almost half-heartedly, because even he knows that's simply not true. Fielder's at-bats have been abominations. In Game 4, he swung at the first pitch in three of four plate appearances, and Game 5 wasn't much better. After feathering a single up the middle on the fifth pitch in the first inning, Fielder followed with a first-pitch groundout to a shifted shortstop that ended the third inning, a first-pitch groundout to second base than finished the fifth, and a third-pitch groundout to second that closed out the seventh.
"I'm just trying to be aggressive," Fielder said. "Probably a little too aggressive."
Between the extreme defensive shifts the Red Sox utilize, with three fielders on the right side of the second-base bag, and pitchers trying to pound Fielder inside with an array of pitches, Boston has banked on his inability to keep up with their evolving strategies. It's working, and the reaction in Detroit is better gauged aurally than in a stat line.
"I still just don't think we should be booing him," Hunter said. "This is our home. This is supposed to be a positive atmosphere. You shouldn't boo none of your players. Especially when we're out there giving our all."
Here's the problem with that: Everyone gives his all in the playoffs. Some will succeed. Some will not. The playoffs are won and lost on small samples, and players are judged for those. Even though he has fewer than 100 postseason plate appearances, Prince Fielder's career line is .202/.268/.247. This is not an Alex Rodriguez situation. His postseason slugging percentage is almost as high as Fielder's OPS. Fielder has genuinely and legitimately flopped.
Which is not to say he's some sort of October Casper, bound to disappear forever. On the contrary, Fielder is the sort of player who takes problems, captures them, dissects them and attacks them. He gets to catch his breath for a day and return for Game 6, presumably in the same No. 3 hole, unless manager Jim Leyland decides between now and then a change would do some good.
"When he steps into the box ... you keep waiting for it," Leyland said. "I still feel good something big could happen at any time. He's one of those electric guys."
Until age hits and his swing slows down, Fielder always will inspire that sort of sentiment. Almost certainly this isn't a sign of things to come, not yet. Fielder isn't even 30. This is a small slump at an inopportune time. Still, it shows the unforgiving nature of what he does. "I can't worry about the crowd, because if they can do it, they would play," he said, the lone hint of kickback against those among the 42,669 who thought it fair to boo.
He made sure to play milquetoast after that. Fielder grew up in this game. He saw his father at his apex and nadir. Sports are an unforgiving mistress, especially for the man who signs the $214 million contract. With money comes expectations, and fair or unfair, those expectations must be met. And if they're not, he sees what happens. Or, worse, hears it.
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