Opening Day has different feel for Prince
Slugger has done opener in Detroit, but never like this
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Spare Prince Fielder the speech about Opening Day in Detroit. He doesn't need the recruiting pitch.
Know it? He lived it for years.
"Yeah," he smiled, "I went to a lot of them."
Fielder isn't sure any of those will compare to what awaits him in a few days.
He was a kid back then, living out many a schoolchild's dream when he was able to hang out at Tiger Stadium for the first sign of spring alongside his father, the Tigers' greatest slugger of the 1990s. When the younger Fielder walks out of the home dugout at Comerica Park, it'll be his first Opening Day in Detroit in about a decade and a half.
It won't just be the ballpark that's different.
"The Opening Days I was here, the Tigers, it was rare that they were looking at a postseason push. But the fact is, the fans still were supportive," Fielder said last week before morning workouts. "That's what I always remembered. Even though they struggled, they still had good fans. ...
"Now that we actually have a decent chance, I can only imagine."
Funny Fielder should say it that way, since more than a few Tigers fans spent the offseason thinking that about him wearing a Detroit uniform again. Come Thursday, the sight many could only imagine will appear in front of their eyes, Fielder swinging for the fences as a Tiger in a game that counts.
By now, the story of his return to Detroit has been a baseball legend, from Victor Martinez's freak knee injury during winter workouts to owner Mike Ilitch's willingness to beat other teams and agree to a nine-year, $214 million deal a month later. He became arguably the greatest injury replacement in baseball history, and to some, he was the biggest addition from baseball's offseason.
To those who remember the sight of a young Fielder taking batting practice two decades ago at Tiger Stadium, it will be a homecoming.
Fielder is ready for it. He expected some nostalgia when he signed his contract and was introduced at a January press conference. Still, as he talks about it, it sounds like the memories fans have carried have even surprised him.
"My whole career, I've been hearing how I hit home runs here and everything," he said. "You figured the media remembered it, but I didn't know the fans [would]. The fans that were my age then, are my age now."
Many of them will be in the stands at Comerica Park when Fielder is introduced on the field before the game. Many will bring their kids, just as Fielder will bring his. As big as the January press conference, this will be the true welcome.
"Like I said, I didn't know, or I didn't expect everybody to really want me here that bad," Fielder said. "I didn't expect the fans to actually want me here that much. It's a good feeling. I'm just looking forward to getting it going and get the season started."
He wants to get into the schedule, the daily routine, and settle in. Those are the days he relishes, the journey itself rather than the departure. He grew up around the game, watching and living the day-to-day grind. He lives in that.
The off-field part of settling in is partly out of the way. While Fielder was taking his first swings in Spring Training, his wife was up in Michigan looking at places to live. When he heads north, his new home will be waiting for him.
Opening Day is the on-field challenge. As big as the welcome will be, the nervousness will be greater. And there's still a game to play.
"Usually, that day, everybody tries to be as calm as possible, because it's real hectic," he said. "They're never as fun as you'd think, because it's always chaos. Once the game starts, it's fun, but as far as the specific Opening Day, I was just trying to get to the game.
"That's the thing. Game 1, it's exciting, but ... once the game starts, that's when you're able to have fun."
There's a flip side, of course. Once the honeymoon feeling subsides and the schedule unfurls, the expectations are what's left. As much as it meant to bring Fielder back to Detroit, part of the appeal was what it meant to the Tigers' chances at another postseason run that could take them beyond last year, when they fell in the American League Championship Series.
That chance to win a title, to bring a championship to Detroit, is a big part of what attracted the team to Fielder, and what drew owner Mike Ilitch to offer Fielder the biggest contract in franchise history.
He handled expectations in Milwaukee. This, he admits, is different. Yet even as he acknowledges the expectations, you can sense his excitement over it.
"With this team, it's totally different," he said. "They're much bigger [expectations], and rightfully so. I mean, no offense to the Brewers when I was there, but when I was there, I don't think our team can match the level of talent we have on this team.
"We've got the Cy Young and the MVP. Just imagine that, that you have one guy with both. We didn't have that. We had a batting champion in [Ryan Braun in 2011], but as far as the total, I think we have a lot of talent [here]. So it's just going to be high expectations. Of course, there's supposed to be a lot of pressure, because Mr. I is doing his part. So it's time to do our part."