This hasn’t been the best October for baseball’s $200 million men.
Alex Rodriguez ($275 million) batted .120 in the postseason, was benched or pinch-hit for six times, and, despite 647 career home runs, now represents the most odious player investment in North American professional sports.
Albert Pujols ($240 million) had three fewer hits than A-Rod in this postseason, because his Angels didn’t qualify at all. He will never admit it, but Pujols erred when he left St. Louis for more money in Anaheim. The Cardinals did fine without him, coming within a victory of returning to the World Series.
Joey Votto ($225 million) endured an injury-plagued second half before recovering to hit .389 in the National League Division Series. Still, his Reds lost three straight games — at home — and were eliminated by the World Series-bound Giants.
But Prince Fielder? He’s four victories from his first world title, in the first season of his nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers.
If the Tigers defeat the San Francisco Giants in the World Series — Game 1 is on FOX at 7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday — then Fielder will become the first player in baseball history to win a championship immediately after signing a $200 million contract.
Now, it’s true there have been only five such deals in Major League Baseball history: Rodriguez twice, Pujols, Votto and Fielder. But a Tigers triumph would be noteworthy, insofar as the casual fan may think it’s easy for teams to add a big-ticket star and win it all during his first season.
Superstars who change teams deal with added pressure from themselves, fans, or media, while adjusting to a new city, new manager and (in the case of Pujols and Fielder) a new league of pitchers. Fielder acquitted himself quite well, ranking fourth in the American League with a .940 OPS while posting the fifth 30-homer, 100-RBI season of his career. But the transition wasn’t entirely seamless, after the 28-year-old left the only professional organization he had known.
“He’s been absolutely terrific,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s done a great job. I’ve said several times, he’s a better hitter than I thought he was. He’s more athletic than I thought he was. This guy is really a good player.
“I think he’s felt more comfortable, as the year’s gone on, to express himself a little more. He was very familiar with the players in Milwaukee, so I think he was a little bit timid when he first came over. He didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. But he’s really taken over as kind of a silent leader, I think, for us.
"The guys look up to him. His production, obviously, was very good. This guy’s really a good baseball player.”
It took time for Leyland and Fielder to develop a strong rapport with each other, which wasn’t a surprise given the healthy stubbornness possessed by each. Part of that might have been the heavy expectations placed on both: Leyland, longing for a second World Series title, was (and is) in the final year of his contract; Fielder had become the highest-paid player in franchise history — ahead of fellow stars Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, who had already achieved great popularity among fans in Michigan.
After the Tigers clinched the pennant, club president and general manager Dave Dombrowski related a conversation in which Joe Torre told him the incorporation of a new star player is one of a manager’s most difficult tasks. Dombrowski credited Leyland and the coaching staff for helping Fielder blend in with his new teammates.
Of his relationship with Leyland, Fielder said, “It’s been good. I think it was good right off the bat. But we’ve definitely gotten closer over the whole season.” Fielder added that he’s even bought electronic cigarettes for his manager, in an effort to help Leyland curb his well-known smoking habit. “He crushes them,” Fielder said with a smile.
The Tigers weren’t expected to sign Fielder last winter and didn’t even begin their pursuit until after Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending knee injury in January. The result of the rapid courtship was a unique circumstance for Fielder: Winning-obsessed owner Mike Ilitch gave him what is now the fifth-largest contract in the history of the sport, but Fielder might be the third-biggest star on his own team.
That’s no slight to Fielder: Cabrera just won the first Triple Crown since 1967, and Verlander, in the midst of a dominant October to match two sterling regular seasons in a row, is probably the best pitcher in baseball.
To put it in the terms of another prominent sports trio, it’s too early to say Fielder is making LeBron James money to play the Chris Bosh role. (For the record: The total value of Fielder’s contract is roughly twice what LeBron received from the Heat.) With Verlander and Cabrera on track to enter free agency after the 2014 and 2015 seasons, respectively, Fielder figures to be the long-term face of the franchise.
For now, the respect among the three stars — and throughout the clubhouse — has helped the Tigers move within range of their first World Series title since 1984.
“That’s why I wanted to come to this team,” Fielder said before the Tigers worked out Tuesday at AT&T Park. “The team was already good before I got there. So I didn’t feel like I had to do anything that I’ve never done before, you know? I just felt if I prepared to play every day, it would take care of itself.”
It will surprise no one if Fielder, who batted .211 with one home run through the first two playoff rounds, emerges as the pre-eminent force in his first World Series. Although the Giants have three left-handed relievers to deploy against Fielder in the late innings, he could benefit from his familiarity with National League pitching and the presence of American League Championship Series MVP Delmon Young immediately behind him.
Fielder, whose Brewers fell two games shy of the World Series last year, appreciates the opportunity he has now. From the years he spent in Michigan while his father played for the Tigers, he understands what a championship would mean to the city and state. And for someone who plans to spend the rest of this decade in Detroit, there’s nothing that fosters goodwill with a fan base quite like a world title.
Last year in Milwaukee, Fielder experienced the stress of trying to win one last time — and the finality of falling short. With the Tigers, he’s embracing the first of what could be multiple opportunities to play in the World Series.
“I can enjoy it a little more,” Fielder said. “I don’t feel like it’s do-or-die, because I am here for a while. I can enjoy and really share the experience with all my teammates that I’m going to be around for a while. I felt that (urgency last year) a little bit. Now it’s a little more enjoyable, knowing this is the team I’m going to be with for a long time.”
Prince Fielder has a $214 million contract, reasonable personal expectations, and an excellent chance to win his first World Series ring. When Fielder says he’s glad he signed with the Tigers, it’s the absolute truth.