Prince Fielder hasn't missed a game since September of 2010. (Getty Images)
When he was 12 years old, Prince Fielder was playing in a youth-league game and fouled a ball off his shin. He limped off the field and didn't return. His father, onetime home run champion Cecil Fielder, asked what happened. Prince said he was a little hurt. Cecil said, "Huh." He walked away. His face seared itself into Prince's psyche.
"I didn't like the way he looked at me," Fielder said. "So from then on, I felt like unless it's broke, it's my job to be in there."
Of all the unlikely baseball wonders, Prince Fielder: Iron Man may well beat out Yuniesky Betancourt: Employed. At a listed 5-foot-11, 275 pounds, Fielder is far from the picture of fitness. His swing is a giant fast-twitch corkscrew, every muscle, ligament, tendon and bone exposed to the massive torque he generates at the plate. Do not let his first name fool you; he does not come off as the heir to Cal Ripken Jr.
And yet nobody in baseball is as good as Fielder at a vital and underrated quality: playing games. On Sunday afternoon, he started his 440th consecutive game, the longest current streak in baseball. The only thing separating him from 767 straight games played is one day off, Sept. 13, 2010, which he spent hooked up to IV fluids trying to rid himself of flu-like symptoms.
Since Fielder's first full season in 2006, he has played in a major league-best 1,218 of 1,231 possible games with the Milwaukee Brewers and now the Detroit Tigers. Only three others – Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera – have more than 1,200.
Cabrera's eyes twinkle when trying to explain how Fielder's name finds its way into the lineup daily. For one, he's good. Like, on-a-Hall-of-Fame-path good. Playing first base, a position without enormous demands, helps. Even more than that is luck – not just the body refusing to give in to his swing but opponents not getting reckless on the basepaths or pitchers not losing a fastball just a little too much inside and breaking a finger or an arm or anything, really. And most of all, Cabrera believes, is an exorbitant pain threshold to tolerate the little nagging injuries that make playing 162 games such a rarity. Only 10 players did it more than twice over the last 10 years.
"When you've got small injuries and you're playing through pain, at some point in the season your body is going to react," Cabrera said. "Sometimes the pain level is high, sometimes it's low, but when it's high you have to learn how to handle it. You don't know when your body is going to stop and keep you from playing every day, so you've got to appreciate now because you can go out and perform.
"You don't know [Fielder] is hurt. We don't know until two weeks after. He's out there every day. And it's funny. Two weeks later, we'll be like, 'Oh my God. He actually played through that?' He plays every day, so you don't think he has something."
"Once the game starts," he said, "the adrenaline picks up and you're in the action, and you don't feel it as much."
On Sunday afternoon, Tigers manager Jim Leyland offered Fielder his version of a respite: a day as designated hitter. Fielder bounded around the clubhouse, giving Justin Verlander grief for his salmon-colored suit, cutting up with Cabrera and outfielder Torii Hunter and wondering whether coffee's ability to wake up ballplayers is more placebo effect than anything. He poured himself a cup of hazelnut – the carafe of regular was empty – and sipped it on the way to the batting cage, where he spent more than a half hour honing the swing that has whacked 276 career home runs.
While Fielder worked, a number of Tigers relaxed on the couches in their clubhouse with closed eyes. It's July. These are the dog days. Day games after night games aren't fun for anyone. One player shouted at no one in particular, "Why did baseball have to ban greenies?" – the little amphetamine pills that helped get players through the drudgery of a long road trip or a longer night out.
That may be the great miracle of Fielder following a 326-game streak with one that's 440 and counting: it harkens back to Lou Gehrig playing 2,130 straight games without pharmacological assistance. Granted, uppers are everywhere around clubhouses. Last year alone baseball offered therapeutic-use exemptions to 116 players, leaving them free to take Adderall without repercussions. Nearly 10 percent of the players on 40-man rosters were medicated. Ten more, on the other hand, tested positive for amphetamines last year, including Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, suspended 25 games for two positives.
Even on those days when his body needs a break, Fielder convinces it otherwise. His full-season game counts have gone accordingly: 157, 158, 159, 162, 161, 162, 162 and, this season, 97 of 97.
"You've got to want to do it," Fielder said. "I just want to play. I just don't like missing games. It feels weird."
Leyland won't write him out of the lineup anytime soon. The question, then, is just how long can Prince Fielder: Iron Man last? Perhaps it's more rhetorical than anything, because in order for his streak truly to permeate the public consciousness, it would need to approach Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games. And if he's anywhere close, the masses will wonder: Can Fielder actually do it? Because from today, that would mean 2,193 more games in a row – 13 full seasons, plus another 87 games. So for Prince Fielder, the game's current iron man, to break the streak of Cal Ripken Jr., the all-time iron man, he will need to play every single game from now until late April 2027 – and that's assuming no labor wars, no transportation snafus and Fielder aging better than every power-hitting first baseman in history..
Because in April 2027, he will be 42.
Let's just hope between now and then he doesn't foul another ball off his shin.
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