Texas Rangers slugger Prince Fielder likes to compare himself and Mitch Moreland to characters in the 2000 football film Remember the Titans.
The Denzel Washington-starring film tells the true story about a high school football team in Virginia battling racial strife in 1971. In a critical scene, a black player (Julius Campbell) and white player (Gerry Bertier) begin to unite and give each other nicknames, “Left Side” and “Strong Side,” which are football terms that refer to where the tight end is on the line of scrimmage.
Of course, easing racial harmony in the Rangers’ clubhouse wasn’t necessary. So Fielder’s playful penchant for dubbing Moreland “Bertier” or “Left Side” didn’t magically bring the club closer together en route to its 2015 AL West title.
He’s a great player and I see it and I wanted him to know it. I saw it years before. He was always doing great, but I wanted him to know he was part of the bangers.
Prince Fielder on Mitch Moreland
But their friendship, which took root soon after Fielder joined the club in the trade that sent Ian Kinsler to the Tigers in November 2013, is in many ways the foundation on which the clubhouse chemistry was built.
It didn’t take long for the two left-handed first basemen to become friends. Fielder made sure of that from the start.
“I was new here and he was the first baseman and I definitely wanted him to know that I’m here with him, I’m not here against him,” said Fielder, who accepted the designated hitter role before the 2015 season when both players were finally healthy after injury-shortened stints in 2014.
It was an idea that Fielder pondered for a bit before concluding the choice was obvious.
“I work hard at first, but Mitch? He’s better. So in my head I’m thinking, why do I need to play it? It’s all right,” he said. With Fielder’s blessing, in many ways, Moreland had a career-turning season with highs in nearly every offensive category, including tying his career high with 23 home runs. Moreland was at first in 120 of the 132 games he played in 2015. Fielder was the DH in 140 of his 158 games.
We’re a little different, but that’s what makes it fun ... he’s been a great friend, a great teammate and a great teacher in a lot of ways.
Mitch Moreland on Prince Fielder
“I think the greatest teammate is the one that pushes you to be the best you can be every single day through their own play,” manager Jeff Banister said. “That internal competitive balance is crucial because if you don’t have it then what you have is a guy, who if they can’t manifest his own desire and drive to be the best, then he kind of settles in and you get what you get.”
Fielder challenged Moreland early on to start considering himself a “banger” in the box. From afar, Fielder said, he saw the raw talent Moreland had when he came up as a rookie in 2010.
27 Home runs needed by Prince Fielder to tie Don Baylor at 338 for 100th most in baseball history.
“I really wanted him to know that, because I think when I was a rookie and just starting people always let me know I was one of the guys,” Fielder said. “So it helped me with my confidence as far as being OK feeling like it. It’s hard for people, because you might feel it but, think, ‘Man, I don’t know. Am I really?’ ”
“Yes, you are,” Fielder told him.
That hesitation in confidence can be lethal for a hitter in the box. Fielder wanted Moreland to carry himself like the “banger” he saw in him.
“Obviously, the success he’s had in his career is something that would attract anybody as a position player,” said Moreland, whose locker is next to Fielder’s in Surprise. “You ask questions and try to learn from him. He’s a special player. That was the main thing that kind of brought us together.”
Fielder, who enters 2016 with 311 career home runs, needs 27 more to tie Don Baylor for 100th most in history. He hit 23 last season but has hit 50 (2007), 46 (2009) and 38 (2011) before. Fielder expects his power numbers to increase in 2016, now two seasons removed from delicate neck surgery.
More power from both Fielder and Moreland would be cheered by the Rangers, of course, but their friendship proved just as valuable when the team struggled early in 2015. The clubhouse never got tense and fingers never were pointed. That’s a credit to veterans such as Adrian Beltre, Colby Lewis and Fielder.
“I think that’s the only way good teams can be great,” Fielder said. “You don’t have to be holding hands, but it’s good to get along with your teammates, just because it creates a chemistry and a movement. Everybody is on the same page and everybody is with you.”
Baseball, especially in the batter’s box, Fielder said, often is an intensely individual endeavor. “But when you have your teammates and everybody is with you, you don’t feel alone,” he said. “When you start feeling alone, that’s when it’s a long year.”
Staying together, riding the rough patches as a family, Moreland believes, helped the Rangers turn a potentially, eternally long 2015 season into one of the club’s most magical.
“The vibe you get in this clubhouse, everybody was close from Day One,” Moreland said. “Prince and I are a little different, but that’s what makes it fun. We definitely have a little different lifestyles but we’re like-minded in a lot of ways.
“It makes it fun when you can kind of feed off of each other, especially in the game and in the clubhouse. It has been fun to learn from him.”
Fielder, the savvy veteran who is with his third club after stints with the Brewers and Tigers, is well aware that 2016 could be Moreland’s last with the Rangers. Moreland will be a free agent at season’s end.
“He’s my good friend. I know his family, I know his kids, so I want him to shine and get the max he can get because he deserves it,” he said. “We’re both family men, so anytime you have family it’s easy to connect. If he was single it’d be a little tougher.”
Moreland, an avid hunter from Mississippi, plans to take Fielder deer hunting. A trip was planned that included Beltre, but Moreland called it off because it was a “bad year” for hunting. Meanwhile, Fielder’s overseas family vacations have perked Moreland’s interest.
“He’s been a great friend, a great teammate and a great teacher in a lot of ways,” Moreland said. “You pretty much get what you see from Prince. He’s definitely a motivator, he keeps it fun. He’s always coming up with little sayings.”
None better than “left side, strong side.”
“We got along right away ... black guy and white guy coming together and making miracles happen,” Fielder said with a big laugh.