ANAHEIM, Calif. – I didn't see a ballplayer who didn't care, or couldn't be bothered, or refused responsibility. I saw a man who was weary.
The game, life outside the game, had crawled inside Prince Fielder's bones and, at the worst time, settled. The events of October – Fielder hit .182 in the ALCS, the Detroit Tigers were out in six, and the two weren't unrelated – looked out from behind heavy eyes and had said, "It's not really tough. It's over."
He mentioned his boys, going home to them, being a father full time for a while. No more baseball for four months. It wasn't that he wanted the season to be done. It's that it was done.
"For me, it's over, bro," he'd said.
Of course, those would be the words that trailed him out of town, those and the postseason batting average under .200, and the rumors about what was bothering him that last summer in Detroit, and the sense the Tigers weren't exactly getting their money's worth on their $214 million slugger.
There are some things worth fighting. Fielder was traded to Texas and he went quietly. And I kept thinking about the guy in that Fenway Park clubhouse, just large enough for a husky man and his remorse, and how he'd practically been disowned for his honesty. Care more, they demanded. Bleed like us, they begged. Fielder, though, had cared all he could, and bled all he could, and it ended in a dank room a few wins short, and not for all his regret would that change, and he could not be any more exhausted from it.
"That's what it was," Fielder said Friday afternoon. "Those playoffs, I was really trying to be better and help us win. I wasn't able to. By then, I've given my all. My time. My free time. My brain. It was like, ‘I just can't do it anymore.'"
Maybe that sounds frail or vulnerable, and maybe that's what it was. He was spent physically, burned emotionally, and did he wish it weren't so? Of course. The fact is, line drives to the gaps don't always come galloping in to save the day, and the notion of one more ballgame will only carry a guy so far. So, the soft-spoken, bright, sensitive Fielder, seemingly born to tomahawk baseballs into the right-field bleachers, did go home, and gathered up his boys, and was traded to the Rangers, and shrugged, and started again.
"Good," he said. "Everything is good."
Except, well, and there's hardly getting around it, he's been pretty awful as a Ranger so far. He followed that .225-hitting, no-homer, no-RBI October in Detroit with a .206-hitting, two-homer, nine-RBI April in Arlington. For all the conversation about Fielder at Globe Life Park, and the big bats that would cover for the thin pitching, the Rangers have been at best an average offensive team that has out-homered only the Kansas City Royals. Plenty of the blame has fallen to Fielder, which is fair, because he's better than this. More was expected.
Rather than ride that Arlington right center-field wind shear to career resumption, he's pounded ground balls into defensive shifts, and has been pitched around anyway (his nine intentional walks lead the game), and has adjusted everything from the way he loads his hands to his toe tap. And still, he has very little, if anything, to show for it.
"Strugglin'," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "That's it."
A new city, a new team, settling in, finding his way around, trying to come out of an ordinary slump in a single extraordinary at-bat, that it?
"I don't know," Washington said. "I just don't see the Prince swing we're used to seeing. It's just not there right now. … It's gotta start soon. He's not no .200 hitter. He's a power hitter who can hit. It's gotta start soon."
Fielder's thoughts exactly. He shows up, he works, and he hits .037 in day games, and .179 with runners in scoring position, and .206 against righties, and nothing feels wildly different but the results. He's the same guy with the same swing who hit seven home runs and drove in 27 runs last April, who hit .337 just last September. And, yet, here he is.
"I don't know," he said. "That's just the way it is. I don't look too deep into it. If it was June or July, you probably wouldn't notice it."
It's been suggested he try to beat the shifts by volleying pitches the other way.
"As far as trying to patty-cake it, manipulate the ball, that's not me," he said. "If there's no shortstop in sight, maybe. But I still gotta go try to be me. I can't finesse a ball and be me. I'm just basically trying to feel good. When I feel good, good things happen."
So, nothing to do but wait for his swing to come, and assume it will come. Because unlike last time, there's another game to play, and another after that. And that's the thing about Fielder; no matter what, he goes to work. No matter what.
"A new month," he said with a smile. "Make it rain on 'em."
Then he went to hit.
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