Prince Fielder needed three weeks from the day he was first told to stop playing baseball to bring himself to tell the world that he had been told to stop playing baseball.
And, furthermore, to tell the world that he was done playing baseball.
The words didn’t come easily Wednesday, broken by tears Fielder unable to hold back each time he mentioned his two sons, his wife, his 25 Texas Rangers teammates and his coaches.
But his quality of life would be put at significant risk were he to be injured again, and Fielder has a lot of quality living to do.
Just like that, the career of one of this generation’s preeminent sluggers has ended.
“The doctors told me, since two spinal fusions, I can’t play major league baseball anymore,” Fielder said, struggling to hold back tears. “I just want to thank my teammates, all the coaching staff. I’m really going to miss being around those guys. It’s a lot fun.”
In the same flash, the notion that Fielder didn’t care about baseball should also end.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“He cared more than anybody,” said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, Fielder’s teammate in Milwaukee in 2010 and 2011.
Talking heads and fans in Detroit labeled Fielder as selfish, heartless, uncaring, lazy and whatever else made them feel good after a subpar postseason performance in 2013 with the Tigers.
They didn’t like his non-answers when asked about the Tigers’ exit from the postseason. They didn’t know that something was wrong with his neck, something he wasn’t ready to admit, and they were thrilled when he was traded to the Rangers.
They felt relief upon, and some delighted in, his first neck injury in 2014, rather than connecting the dots.
Or admitting that they were wrong.
“As a fan, even as a reporter, you show up and you just see what they do or don’t do during a course of a game,” third base coach Tony Beasley said. “I know he wanted nothing more than to help the team win.”
So, Fielder played, just he had done nearly every game with Milwaukee and every game with Detroit until the 2014 cervical fusion surgery ended his iron-man streak at 547 games.
The Rangers aren’t sure when Fielder started having issues again, and neither is he. His agent, Scott Boras, said that Fielder mentioned some neck pain again last summer, which could explain the sharp decline after the All-Star break.
The injury, a herniation of the C4-C5 disk, limited Fielder to only one hot zone, and big league pitchers are too good too miss there too often. They did occasionally, but by the time July 18 rolled around, Fielder couldn’t even drive those pitches and knew he needed medical attention.
Two days later he was told he needed to quit. Nine days later he underwent a second fusion surgery. Twelve days later came his announcement.
“It was sad to see the press conference with Prince and him breaking down the way he did,” third baseman Adrian Beltre said. “We all know, being here, that he loved the game. He was tough. He played every day. He enjoyed playing the game.
“It’s tough to see him that way, but he’s not dead. He’s going to go home and enjoy his family and hopefully enjoy the next chapter.”
But there’s more to Fielder’s love of the game and selflessness than just his tears and the platitudes from his teammates on the toughest day of his life. Every Rangers player and coach, not to mention other club personnel, attended the news conference, an honor they wouldn’t have given someone they didn’t respect as a player and teammate.
They heard and appreciated the selfless things he said between the sobs.
Not once did he mention his 319 career home runs or six All-Star appearances or three Silver Slugger awards. Instead, he talked about those who helped him this season, namely Beasley and assistant hitting coach Justin Mashore, and all the times he celebrated division titles and playoff series wins.
He wept when he talked about his sons, Jadyn and Haven, not being able to hang around the ballpark anymore. They wept alongside their dad.
“It kind of sucks, just because I feel like it was taken away from them a little too early,” said Fielder, who spent much of his youth with his father, Cecil, in big-league clubhouses. “I can deal with it. It’s hard to deal with the things that hurt them.”
Fielder, 32, said that he plans to be around as the Rangers try to win a second straight division title. He must be placed on the Rangers’ 40-man roster during the next four off-seasons and then put on the 60-day disabled list the next four seasons.
He gets all of the money left coming to him, the rest of his $24 million salary this season and $96 million more the next four years. The Rangers owe him $70 million, with Detroit paying the Rangers the other $26 million as part of the 2013 trade for Ian Kinsler.
The Rangers will recoup $35 million via the insurance policy on the contract. The remainder of his 2016 salary is not covered by insurance.
But money was an afterthought for Fielder on Wednesday. He’s being forced out of the game he loved and the game and teammates he cared about deeply.
“I’ve been in a big-league clubhouse since I was their [his son’s] age,” Fielder said. “To not be able to play is going to be tough. I’m happy I got to enjoy my career and play with these guys. They’re awesome.”
Rockies at Rangers
1:05 p.m. Thursday, FSSW