LAKELAND, Fla. – Daniel Fields was born in Detroit. He grew up in Detroit. He went to high school in Detroit. He lives in Detroit.
This year, he could become a Major League Baseball player in Detroit.
"That would be very, very special," Fields said Thursday in the Tigers’ clubhouse, the 23-year-old center fielder grinning as he reflected on a boyhood dream. "Might bring a couple tears to the eyes, you know?"
For Fields and his family, the day would be deeply meaningful. For baseball in Detroit — and many urban areas across the country — it would be rare. Too rare.
Nearly a generation has passed since a Detroit native who attended high school in the city played for any major-league team: Chris Sabo and Kerwin Moore were the most recent, in 1996. Frank Tanana was the last product of a city high school to play for the Tigers. That was more than two decades ago.
Sure, Detroit’s population loss is partially to blame. But the city has remained a major source of professional talent in football and basketball: 64 Detroit natives have appeared in the NFL and 24 in the NBA since 2000, according to Sports-Reference.com. Most of them attended public and private high schools in the city. During the same period, the schools produced zero major leaguers born in the city.
Nearly one year has passed since the creation of Major League Baseball’s On-Field Diversity Task Force, with a chief objective of expanding the sport’s African-American talent base. (Only 8.5 percent of players on last year’s Opening Day rosters identified themselves as African-American or black, according to MLB figures.) Had the task force existed before Fields turned pro in 2009, he would have been part of its target demographic: He is African-American and played football and basketball while growing up, yet chose baseball in the end.
"It’s just what I loved," said Fields, whose father, Bruce, played and coached in the major leagues and now works as the Tigers’ minor-league hitting coordinator. "My dad never pressured me into playing it at all. He really said, ‘You make your own decisions on whatever sports you’re going to play.’
"One day, I was playing football and felt like, ‘You know what? I don’t love the game like I used to when I first started.’ So I stopped playing football and just focused on basketball and baseball. Eventually, when I was in high school, scouts started coming to (my baseball) games. I was doing all the showcases. I thought, ‘You know what? This is what I want to do.’ Especially going to the park with my dad when I was younger, being around the guys, I said, ‘This is where I want to be.’"
Of course, very few kids grow up shagging fly balls during major-league batting practice while their dads work with the best hitters in the world. But part of Fields’ story is universal: He was exposed to the game and fell in love with it. That can happen to anyone, anywhere, if given the space and opportunity.
Fields wants to help — particularly in his hometown. For now, at least, Detroit does not have an MLB Urban Youth Academy, the baseball, softball and educational program that is expanding across the country.
"We talk about it a little bit, in terms of building a facility, having kids come there and work out, even having a tutor so kids can get schoolwork done — have that all under one roof," Fields said. "Maybe down the road, hopefully I can have a long career and put some years in to it, and we can invest money in our own facility. Hopefully one day we can get that going."
The national pastime must win over players at a young age, because the path to baseball stardom is decidedly less glamorous than that of football or basketball. Fields passed up a baseball scholarship at the University of Michigan to sign with the Tigers for $1.6 million. But even as a professional, he’s appeared on television far less frequently than Jordan Morgan, his good friend at University of Detroit Jesuit High School who’s now a fifth-year senior on the Michigan basketball team.
"It’s a longer road," said Fields, who struggled to a .220 batting average in his second year as a pro but reestablished himself as a prospect at Double A last season. "Some kids say, ‘I can play in the NBA and get on TV.’ In baseball, you’re in the minor leagues. You’re not on TV. You’ve got to grind through it. It’s tough. But it’s fun. I love it."
Perhaps Fields’ steadfastness will be rewarded soon. He’s likely to begin the season at Triple-A Toledo but could be promoted if a Tigers outfielder is injured. An exceptional season may position Fields as the successor to center fielder Austin Jackson, who will be eligible for free agency after next year.
In the near term, Fields simply is focused on returning to Comerica Park — where he estimates he’s already watched "way more than a hundred" games. He was there with his mother and brother at the stadium’s grand opening, on a bone-chilling afternoon in April 2000. Fields was 9 years old. The Tigers’ catcher that day was Brad Ausmus. Now he’s the manager.
If Ausmus writes Fields’ name on a regular-season lineup card this year, it will be because the Tigers see value in his bat, his legs and his glove. But to the city and the sport, Daniel Fields can represent far more.