Cecil Fielder kicked off the ’90s for the Detroit Tigers in the only way he would learn how – doing it big. We’re taking a look back at his career in honor of Black History Month.
The Detroit Tigers were a successful franchise in the 1980s. Tigers teams won 839 games and finished above .500 in each of the decade’s first nine seasons. That tenth season, though? Oof! That was a brutal 59-win season (the third worst in franchise history at that point).
That 1989 team, which included six players that helped the Tigers win a World Championship just five years earlier, was so broken down that even manager Sparky Anderson couldn’t handle it. He took a 17-day leave of absence to recover from the stress-induced mental and physical exhaustion.
The franchise had hit rock bottom to end the 1980s. As the 1990s began, it seemed like Detroit baseball was ready for a big change. On January 15, it got that big change. Enter “Big Daddy”.
It wasn’t immediately apparent how big the signing of Cecil Fielder would turn out to be, though. He actually shared headline space in the Detroit Free Press with journeyman infielder Ed Romero, who signed the same day. Versatile Tony Phillips had signed a bigger contract with the Tigers a month prior.
Fielder had been overlooked before. He was drafted by the Royals in June 1982. The following February, he was traded to the Blue Jays. Blocked at first base in Toronto by Fred McGriff, Fielder moved on to the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League.
Playing full-time for the first time with the overseas Tigers team, Fielder blossomed in Japan in 1989, hitting 38 HR with 81 RBI. His slash line was .302/.403/.628 (454 plate appearances). Only a broken little finger on his right hand, suffered when a bat that he’d slammed to the ground caught him on the ricochet, kept the numbers from being higher.
He would soon be trading one Tigers jersey for another. The Detroit Tigers signed the 26-year old Cecil Fielder a two-year deal ($500,000 in 1990, $1 million in 1991) with a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Reflecting later in the season on the how the process of signing Fielder came together (including how a potentially messy situation regarding an escape clause in Fielder’s Hanshin contract was handled), Tigers General Manager Bill Lajoie told the Detroit News,
“I had followed Fielder because I got this Japanese baseball newsletter, in English. I had a special interest in him. Because of his age. Here’s a guy nobody knows about.”
In Spring Training, Sparky didn’t make up his mind that Fielder would be his cleanup hitter until late March. He gave Cecil the news one morning before the Tigers left Lakeland for a road game in St. Petersburg. Fielder celebrated by hitting three home runs in that afternoon’s game.
Alan Trammell seemed excited about the power potential that Fielder brought to a Tigers lineup that needed it. Trammell said,
“Cecil Fielder is a legitimate cleanup hitter. He’s a power threat whether he’s swinging good or bad. Even when he’s swinging bad, when he gets up in a key situation, the other team knows he’s capable of hitting the ball out of the ballpark.”
Opening Day arrived on April 9. The Fielder Era began on a Monday afternoon at Fenway Park in Boston. It began dubiously, as Fielder dropped a pop foul in the first inning that resulted in a couple unearned runs for the Red Sox.
Fielder led off the second, stepping into the batter’s box for the first time as a Tiger against Roger Clemens. Four pitches later, Fielder had struck out. He drew even with Clemens by drawing a walk in the fourth.
The Red Sox led 4-0 in the sixth. Tony Phillips’ leadoff single, Alan Trammell’s double, and Lou Whitaker’s sac fly got the Tigers on the board. With a man on second and one out, Fielder had his first chance to do some damage as a Tiger. Instead, he grounded back to Clemens on the second pitch he saw. The Tigers went on to lose 5-2.
It took a few days for the power to manifest itself. Fans at Tiger Stadium finally got their first taste of that on April 14, in the Tigers’ sixth game of the season (and third at home). The Tigers trailed the Orioles 6-0 in the sixth when Fielder came up with Trammell on third and one out.
Fielder had already flown out twice against Baltimore starter Dave Johnson. The third time was the charm, and the result was a two-run home run into the upper deck in right field. Despite the thrill of seeing Fielder’s first long ball as a Tiger, Tigers fans also saw a 7-4 loss.
As April ended, Fielder’s seven home runs tied him for the major league lead with Toronto’s Kelly Gruber and Pittsburgh’s Bobby Bonilla. After a brief slump that caused Sparky to temporarily drop him to sixth in the lineup, “Big Daddy” was just getting warmed up.
On May 4, the Tigers rolled into Toronto for a weekend series. Fielder began punishing his former team by doubling twice and driving in a run in the Tigers’ series-opening 3-1 win. The next afternoon, Sparky decided to rest his slugger for the first time that season. For the Blue Jays, the reprieve was temporary.
The worst of Fielder’s wrath awaited the Jays in the Sunday afternoon finale. Fielder rocked Jimmy Key with a two-run homer in the third and followed up with a solo shot in the fifth. After future Tiger teammate David Wells took over for Key in the seventh, Fielder launched a two-run blast for his tenth home run of the season.
How did big Cecil feel about all of that? He told reporters,
“It was one of those games where I could get a good swing every time up. The ball was really carrying well today. Any time you play against your ex-teammates, you want to do well.”
Despite Fielder’s three-bomb onslaught that day, the Blue Jays survived. Because baseball is weird sometimes, and because Tigers pitching was lousy that season, Toronto ended up with an 11-7 win. (Fielder added two more homers against Key and one more off Wells later in the season.)
“Big Daddy” hit home runs in each of the next two games after the Tigers moved on to Milwaukee. He hit 11 HRs in May, bringing his season total to 18.
He wasted no time in taking a pitcher deep in June, and his home run in Seattle on June 1 was a big one. Fielder’s first inning sac fly was part of a 3-run rally that gave the Tigers a quick lead. However, Jack Morris, struggling through his last season with Detroit, gave up five runs in the first. Four came on a grand slam.
That Mariners’ grand slam may have been on Fielder’s mind as he found himself up with the bases loaded and two out in the second. (Mike Heath walked, Tony Phillips doubled, and Alan Trammell walked.) Matt Young, called in from the bullpen to face Fielder, got ahead 1-2 in the count. He would not get the inning-ending strikeout that he wanted.
Fielder crushed Moore’s pitch and sent it soaring into the Kingdome’s seats in right-center. He had a grand slam of his own (his first as a Tiger), and the Tigers had a 7-5 lead. They went on to win 9-7.
There were more road heroics in store for the Tigers in Cleveland on June 6. Facing Greg Swindell, Fielder led off the second with his 20th home run of the season. It had barely made it over the right field fence. The Indians led 2-1 in the fourth when he stepped up again. Fielder uncorked another homer, this time to deep center. That tied the game 2-2.
The Indians reclaimed the lead with two runs against Morris in the bottom of the inning. The Tigers struck back quickly when Tracy Jones led off the fifth with a home run. Ed Romero doubled, and Trammell singled to put two on for Fielder.
Surprisingly, Swindell was still in. Instead of getting pulled, he got a visit from his pitching coach. After Swindell had Fielder in a 1-2 count, Fielder rocketed a fastball over the plate to deep left-center. The 3-run bomb, measured at 470 feet, was one of the longest ever hit at Cleveland Stadium.
“Where did it land, Lake Erie? Did the waves bring it back in?”
No Tiger had ever hit four home runs in a game, and in the eighth, Indians reliever Cecilio Guante made sure it stayed that way. He walked Fielder on four pitches. Fielder had won the Cleveland crowd over after his last homer, and Guante was booed. Powered by the three homers, the Tigers won 6-4.
The legend of “Big Daddy” was growing.
Fielder went into the All-Star break with 28 HRs. Oakland’s Mark McGwire, who only had 22, was voted in as the American League’s starting first baseman by less than 56,000 votes. In the game, at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, McGwire struck out twice. Fielder pinch hit for him in the sixth. With the bases loaded in a 0-0 tie, he flew out to center to end the inning.
The day before, both Fielder and McGwire took part in the 1990 Home Run Derby, teaming with fellow AL stars Ken Griffey, Jr. (Mariners) and Jose Canseco (A’s). Representing the National League was Ryne Sandberg (Cubs), Matt Williams (Giants), Bobby Bonilla (Pirates), and Daryl Strawberry (Mets).
The derby was a dud. Hitting in his own ballpark, Sandberg won with three homers. Fielder, who got heckled by special guest public address announcer Bill Murray, didn’t hit any.
Fielder wasn’t done hitting home runs in the regular season, though. Number 30 was a solo shot against the White Sox on July 18 in a game the Tigers lost 7-5. “Big Daddy” went into August with 33 HRs. He would put on quite a show as the Tigers hosted the A’s on August 25 in a Saturday matinee.
The infamous “Bash Brothers”, Canseco and McGwire, hit back to back HRs off Frank Tanana in the first inning, and the A’s took a quick 3-0 lead. After that rude behavior, Fielder reminded his guests whose house they were in. With Tony Phillips on second, Fielder hammered his 40th home run of the season into the upper deck bleachers in left center off Dave Stewart.
He wasn’t done. With the A’s up 5-4 in the fourth, Fielder faced Stewart again. Trammell was on first. The first pitch was a ball inside; the second sailed low and outside. Up 2-0 in the count, Fielder fouled the next pitch straight back. Pro-Am Sports System’s Jim Northrup, the former Tiger, offered what could be construed as foreshadowing in his color commentary.
“Cecil had a tremendous swing at that one. Probably overswung just a little bit. Had he hit that one, he might have hit it right out of the ballpark. He really had a rip.”
Fielder checked his swing on the next pitch, bringing the count to 3-1. Stewart came back with a low fastball that Fielder demolished. It sounded loud when he connected, and everyone, including PASS’ play-by-play man Larry Osterman, knew it was gone instantly. How gone was it?
The TV cameras didn’t track the flight of the ball that well, but it landed on top of Tiger Stadium’s left field roof, bounced twice and then rolled over onto an additional lower roof that extended beyond that top roof. It was retrieved by a PASS sportscaster and given to Fielder, who said it’d be the first one he’d put in his trophy case. Otherwise, he was low-key about what he’d done, saying,
“It’s a home run whether they go over the roof or not. Basically, I’m just trying to hit the ball hard. Number 40 is what I care most about. That put me in an elite group of guys who’ve played here. That’s not something that happens every year.”
Fielder became only the fifth Tiger to hit at least 40 home runs in a season. (Miguel Cabrera would eventually become the sixth.)
With his mammoth blast, Fielder joined Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard as the only guys (at that point) who had put one over the left field roof. It also gave the Tigers a 5-4 lead. That triggered an eruption, as the Tigers’ offense added nine more runs over the next three innings. The final score was a decisive 14-4.
Sparky liked what he saw from the big man, and he was thrilled to talk about it. He was as over-the-top with his praise as Fielder’s home run was.
“I said when the season started, he’d hit one over the roof. He’ll average one a year. It may be two one year, none the next, but if he plays 10 years, he’ll hit 10 over the roof.
“They’re not going to stop that. He’ll also hit one in the upper-deck bleachers to straightaway center field. They won’t stop that, either.”
From that point, the chase for 50 was on for Cecil Fielder. Everyone started paying attention to a guy who had been an under-the-radar signing. The closer he got to the milestone; the closer people’s attention got. It took its toll on what had been a low-key demeanor. Fielder said,
“I know everyone is excited about this, but it gets distracting and annoying sometimes when you spend your whole day answering questions and everybody is screaming for you to get a home run. It makes the pressure even greater.”
After hitting his 49th home run against Boston’s Dennis Lamp at home on September 27, he was stuck there for a few days. The Twins held Fielder to two singles in the three-game series that closed out the home portion of the Tigers’ schedule. Sparky shared an astute observation as the Tigers prepared to leave Detroit. He said,
“I knew this was going to happen. I knew that if didn’t get 49 and 50 bang-bang, that last one might be tough.
“This is playing on his mind at breakfast, on his way to the park, and during batting practice. It’s all he’s thinking about. You know how I can tell? Because he’s actually trying to lift balls in the air now. He wasn’t doing that before.”
It was on to the Big Apple for “Big Daddy”. What would Fielder do in The House That Ruth Built?
In the first two games at Yankee Stadium, Fielder went 0 for 8 with five strikeouts and no walks. A few games prior, Sparky had bumped Fielder up from the cleanup spot to third, in the hopes of generating an extra plate appearance. For that second game, Fielder was slotted into the two-hole.
Fielder’s last chance at a 50 HR season came down to the season finale on October 3. Yankees lefty Steve Adkins was making his fifth career start. The Tigers hadn’t seen him yet. In 20 innings in the big leagues, Adkins had only given up two home runs.
Tony Phillips singled to lead off the game. Fielder, batting second again, drew a walk from Adkins, who then walked Alan Trammell. Gary Ward, hitting in Fielder’s usual cleanup spot, cleared the bases with a grand slam. The Tigers led 4-0. In his second at-bat, Fielder lined out to left in the second.
The score remained 4-0 when Fielder faced the rookie again in the fourth after Phillips walked. Ahead in the count 2-1, Fielder sent the next pitch flying down the left field line. Adkins said his fastball low and away was a good pitch that he challenged Fielder with because he didn’t want to walk him.
Fielder felt like he’d gotten all of it as soon the bat made impact with the ball. He started jumping up and down with his arms victoriously in the air. As he began moving toward first base, the ball stayed fair and hit the facing of Yankee Stadium’s third deck.
Cecil Fielder had hit his 50th home run of the season.
Yankees fans knew an important home run when they saw one, and they showered Fielder with appreciative applause and a standing ovation as he rounded the bases. Phillips, Alan Trammell (who had been in the on-deck circle) and the Tigers’ batboy were waiting at the plate to greet the triumphant hero.
George Foster had been the last slugger to reach 50 HR, when he did it for Sparky Anderson’s Reds in 1977. The only other Tiger to achieve the feat was Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, who hammered 58 HR in 1938.
As an encore, “Big Daddy” treated the crowd to one last home run, a three-run shot in the eighth. The Tigers triumphed 10-3. A much more relieved Cecil Fielder didn’t seem to mind answering questions afterward. He verified Sparky’s recent critique by acknowledging how the chase for 50 had affected his performance. He said,
“After number 49, I got really caught up in this. I wasn’t being myself anymore at the plate. I was trying to please everyone.
“I became a different hitter. I was trying to pull the ball. That’s not something I tried to do all year. I tried to hit to all fields.”
It was a happy ending to Detroit baseball’s best story of the year. Bolstered in part by the Fielder acquisition, the 1990 Tigers won 20 more games than the dreadful 1989 incarnation, finishing 79-83.
In addition to home runs, Fielder led the Tigers in runs (104), RBI (132), SLG (.592), OPS (.969), OPS+ (167), and total bases (339). He tied Trammell for the lead in OBP (.377). All those totals, except runs, were career highs for “Big Daddy”.
He finished second on the team in plate appearances (673), hits (159), doubles (25), walks (90), AVG (.277), bWAR (6.5), and fWAR (6.5). His numbers in those last three categories were career highs.
A deeper look into advanced metrics like ISO (.314), wOBA (.419), wRC+ (165), and WPA (2.51) shows even more career highs for Fielder.
Fielder’s work didn’t go unnoticed at the national level. He finished second to Oakland’s Rickey Henderson in MVP balloting (getting 10 first place votes), but he was named the Associated Press’ Player of the Year. Fielder also won a Silver Slugger award. His HR, RBI, SLG, total bases, and strikeout numbers led the American League.
While he wouldn’t quite soar to the heights that he did in 1990, Fielder remained a productive and beloved player during his stay in Detroit, which ended with a trade to the Yankees in 1996. He would also go on to play for the Angels and Indians, but Big Daddy never really looked right in uniforms that didn’t have an Olde English D on the front.