The former Appleton Fox and the former Prince of Milwaukee

Two baseball news items sadly chronicle my advancing age.

First: Today is the final day of the baseball career of Alex Rodriguez.

I saw Rodriguez before he was “A-Rod.” Rodriguez’s baseball career began in Appleton in 1994, after he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. We saw him at Goodland Park in Appleton, playing for the Foxes, one year before the Foxes became the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and moved to Fox Cities Stadium, and 15 years before the Timber Rattlers became an affiliate of the Brewers.

Rodriguez had quite a 1994 season. He started with the Foxes, then right after we saw him was promoted to Class AA, then to the parent Mariners. Just before the season-ending strike Rodriguez then was demoted to Class AAA so he could keep playing. One year later, he was on the big club for good.

Rodriguez undoubtedly will go down as one of the most famous Foxes/Timber Rattlers (the franchise dates back to 1942). Whether he becomes one of the three ex-Foxes named to the Baseball Hall of Fame depends on how Hall of Fame voters view the players of the steroid/PED era of baseball, such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

Rodriguez is also a symbol of the wacky finances of pro sports, including Major League Baseball. After coming up with the Mariners, Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers for $252 million over 10 years. Four years later, the Rangers traded him to the Yankees, and four years after that he signed a 10-year $275 million contract.

Speaking of the Rangers, the Dallas Morning News reports:

Three sources close to the situation confirmed Tuesday that [Prince] Fielder’s career is over after a decade in the majors due to a pair of disk herniations in his neck. An official announcement will be made Wednesday afternoon in Arlington where, presumably, Fielder, still in a neck brace from his second spinal fusion surgery in the last 27 months, will address the decision.

Fielder, 32, will be declared “medically disabled,” as doctors will not clear him to return to baseball over the perilous risk to his spine from the two cervical fusions, according to sources. The Rangers were aware of this possibility at the time he underwent the surgery in July. Teammates such as Adrian Beltre said at the time they were “shocked” over the development. In that regard, the news Tuesday, which broke about an hour before a 7-5 win over Colorado, wasn’t a complete surprise to his teammates, but was depressing nonetheless.

“I don’t know exactly what he is going to say, but his family has to come first,” Beltre said Tuesday after acknowledging that he’d known the situation was dire. “If he’s pushed out of baseball at 31 or 32, that’s tough to swallow. We know how talented he is. But he has to do what is right for him and his family.”

He is due to receive the full remaining value of his contract, roughly $104 million through 2020, unless the sides work out a retirement settlement. The Rangers will be responsible for $44 million of it, Detroit $24 million and another $36 million will come via an insurance policy the Rangers inherited when they traded Ian Kinsler for Fielder after the 2013 season. The Rangers will receive 50 percent of their annual $18 million salary commitment to him via the claim.

As big as those figures are, they still seem a little bit menial when it allows a father of two boys – one a week shy of his 12th birthday and another a rambunctious 10-year old – to actively partake in their growth. It will also allow Fielder to continue to grow his marriage to his wife Chanel, with whom he celebrated his 10-year anniversary on the day the surgery was announced. Fielder has often said that they were kids when they got married and they were kids having kids. They made mistakes together, but still grew a close-knit and also extended family. …

He simply can’t play baseball anymore. His neck won’t allow it without a significant risk of impaired mobility – or worse. It is not a weight issue; as Rangers personnel told me, his neck didn’t carry the burden of carrying his weight. It is more a function of a violent, jerky swing that created incredible force on baseballs, but also incredible torque on the neck.

It seems unthinkable that he has gone from being one of the most durable players in baseball to incapacitated in three years. He played 157 or more games from 2006 until the Rangers traded for him after 2013; only after he experienced some neck stiffness and weakness in his arms two months into the 2014 season. After a sad end to his tenure in Milwaukee and two unhappy years in Detroit, the recovery from the surgery gave him time to rediscover how much he enjoyed playing. He responded with a .305 season and 23 home runs in 2015, but struggled all this season before the latest herniation was discovered.

Fielder, of course, came up with the Brewers, and was part of the 2008 and 2011 playoff teams.

MLB.com gives the Milwaukee perspective:

Drafted seventh overall by the Brewers in 2002, Fielder hit .282 with 230 home runs 656 RBIs over parts of seven seasons in Milwaukee. He ranks third on the franchise’s home run list behind former teammate Ryan Braun and Hall of Famer Robin Yount, is sixth in club history with 439 extra-base hits and seventh in RBIs. Among players to make at least 2,500 plate appearances in a Brewers uniform, Fielder ranks first with a .929 OPS and a .390 on-base percentage.

Fielder’s 50 home runs in 2007, 141 RBIs in 2009 and 114 walks in 2010 are single-season franchise records. His 87 extra-base hits in ’07 tied Yount’s record from 1982, when Yount was American League MVP. Fielder owns the top two seasons in franchise history for home runs, the top two seasons for OPS, and the top three seasons for walks. He’s also the only player in franchise history to play all 162 games in multiple seasons.

“I remember one day I was doing the Kenny Macha show,” Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker said, referring to the former Brewers manager. “Macha tells me he was giving Prince a day off. I said, ‘You haven’t told him yet?’ He said, ‘No, but I’m going to.’

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Kenny, I can tell you right now, that ain’t gonna happen. He might kick your [rear end].'”

Sure enough, Fielder played that day. He set a Brewers record by playing in 374 consecutive games from 2008-2012 before sitting out a game in Houston with the flu. Fielder was so sick that the Astros team doctor administered intravenous fluids, and Fielder still lobbied for a spot in the lineup.

When he did return to action, Fielder started a new streak that spanned 547 games and three teams — the Brewers, the Tigers (who signed him to a free agent mega-contract in January 2012) and the Rangers (who traded for Fielder in November 2013). The 547-game streak, which ended with the onset of his neck woes, is the 25th-longest in Major League history.

“He played so hard all the time,” Uecker said. “If he hit a bouncer back to the mound, he ran his butt off. Every time. That’s the one thing that people should remember about Prince, and I think once people sit back and read this, they will say to themselves, ‘That is right.’ He always ran hard. He played hard. I just liked him, and I appreciated what he did. I played. I know what it is.

“I’m sad, I really am. I talked to him in the spring when they came over the play in Maryvale. We had a really good talk about his family and himself and how good he felt, and how things were going to be better. It didn’t happen. But he’ll always be one of my favorite guys.”

One doesn’t necessarily think of hustle when considering 275-pound (according to the Rangers’ roster, and that might be 30 or so pounds light) baseball players. But Fielder clearly was a team leader for the Brewers, and an enormously clutch player on teams that most seasons had just two power threats, Fielder and Ryan Braun.

Doug Russell adds:

“The doctors told me that with two spinal fusions, I can’t play Major League Baseball anymore,” an overcome Fielder said, flanked by sons Haven and Jayden on one side and agent Scott Boras on the other. “I just want to thank my teammates, all the coaches. I’m really going to miss being around those guys. It was a lot of fun. I’ve been in a big league clubhouse since I was their age, and not being able to play is tough.”

We’ve seen Fielder jubilant and stoic. Until Wednesday, we had never seen tears.

Someday, Fielder will certainly have a Brewers Wall of Honor plaque outside of Miller Park; he already meets several of the criteria, any of which would provide for his enshrinement. Perhaps one day he will have a Walk of Fame induction ceremony at Miller Park as well. As an elector, I plan to vote for him the year he becomes eligible.

After all, his 230 home runs rank third on the team’s all-time list, but his name is littered all over their offensive leaders’ all-time top-ten lists. Fielder is sixth in extra base hits; seventh in RBI’s, eighth in total bases, and ninth in runs scored and career batting average.

Simply put, Prince Fielder is Milwaukee Brewers royalty.

Prince was never a guy who said more than he needed to when there microphones and cameras around. Perhaps he felt betrayed by reporters who wanted to fish around his strained relationship with his father, former MLB slugger Cecil Fielder. Perhaps he was just shy around people he didn’t really know well.

But that’s okay. He was never rude. He just didn’t say much, at least not until the cameras and recorders were gone, and he became the heart and soul of the Milwaukee clubhouse. Craig Counsell called him one of the most influential players he had ever been around.

“I’m sad,” Counsell said shortly after Fielder made his announcement. “The game never lets anybody go when they completely want to, but for somebody like him, he should still be in the middle of a great career. It’s sad that it has to happen like that.”

“It’s heartbreaking for him,” former Brewers teammate Ryan Braun agreed. “I remember how hard he competed. I think he played the game as hard and competed as hard as anybody I ever had on my team. He’s a guy who never wanted to come out of any game, played through so many injuries, wanted to play every inning of every game.”

My generation of Brewers fans had Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. A previous generation had Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Mathews.

Millennial Brewers fans have Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.

Life will go on for Prince Fielder and his family; After all, he’s just 32 years old. But a part of him – the athlete part – died on Wednesday.

And even though he had been gone for a half-decade from Milwaukee, a part of Brewers history died too.

Fielder left the Brewers after their last playoff season, 2011. Before that the Brewers decided to give Braun a huge contract and not Fielder, which probably foretold Fielder’s departure. (As it is, Fielder will get $102 million to no longer play baseball.) I think a majority of Brewers fans understood the decision, though, upon looking at Fielder, who already was larger than his father, Cecil, and seemed unlikely to get smaller. Both Fielders basically had bodies meant for the designated hitter position, and indeed both ended up as DHs. (And hit exactly the same number of home runs, 379.)

That, of course, demonstrates the reality of small-market baseball. The Brewers traded for pitchers C.C. Sabathia (2008) and Zack Greinke (2011), but couldn’t keep them. The Brewers developed pitcher Yovani Gallardo, but traded him away because what rebuilding team needs a number one pitcher? (One of the three players for whom Gallardo was traded, Corey Knebel, is with the Brewers; pitcher Marcos Diplan has a 4.62 ERA in Brevard County, Fla.; and infielder Luis Sardinas is already gone, traded to Seattle (and designated for assignment Thursday) for outfielder Ramón Flores, currently batting .202 for the Brewers.) The Brewers traded for outfielder Carlos Gomez, but didn’t keep him either, in part because he’s sort of an underperformer (now batting .210 for Houston). The Brewers developed catcher Jonathan Lucroy, but he’s gone too.

When you have little margin for error, as the Brewers have due to their poor finances, you have to be superior in developing players, particularly since you seem destined to not be able to keep them. The Brewers did not successfully develop anyone to replace Fielder, as evidenced by their playing 24 first basemen since he left. The replacement was supposed to be Mat Gamel, but he (1) missed nearly two seasons due to the same injury, (2) was a butthead according to his minor league manager. and (3) ended up hitting exactly six home runs in his major league career. Then the Brewers acquired Mark Reynolds, who in a 130-game season (platooned with ancient former Brewer Lyle Overbay) had more strikeouts (122, which you’ll note is nearly one per game) than hits (74, for a batting average of .196), and had the unlikely stat combination of 22 home runs and 45 runs batted in. (At least the 2000s answer to Dave Kingman apparently isn’t a jerk like Kingman famously was.) The Brewers did acquire left-handed first baseman Adam Lind one year late, and after a decent season (.277, 20 HR, 77 RBI, .820 OPS) traded him away for three minor leaguers after last season.

The sad irony is that had the Brewers held on to Fielder, this column would be about the end of Fielder’s career with the Brewers. Their current first baseman, Chris Carter, has Reynolds-like stats (.217, 25 HR, 61 RBI, .782 OPS, and by the way 143 strikeouts in 109 games). Carter is claimed to have brought stability to first base, but as someone in his seventh big-league season, well, what you see is what you (are going to) get. The Brewers’ Class AAA first baseman, Andy Wilkins, is now with the Brewers despite hitting just .238 in Colorado Springs; at 27 and in the majors for the second time, he seems unlikely to have a very long career. The Class AA first baseman, Nick Ramirez, is also 27 but hasn’t gotten to the majors yet, and with a .197 batting average he probably never will.

The best first baseman in Brewers history is either Fielder, the aforementioned career leader in OPS who hit 230 home runs in seven seasons, or Cecil Cooper, who hit 201 home runs in 12 seasons with the Brewers, including the team’s first seven winning seasons. After them would be George Scott (for whom Cooper was traded in one of the best trades in Brewers history), who hit 115 home runs in five seasons of some bad Brewers baseball. (Scott hit 36 home runs and drove in 109 in 1975. The Brewers still finished 68–94.) After Prince, Coop and the Boomer? Take your pick.

 

 

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