In third grade, our study of the three Rs was periodically suspended so we could learn about something called "health." In later years, health class would be the province of marginal teachers giving marginal lectures on, as South Park put it, the dangers of "drugs and alcohol and sex with women," but as we were at a more innocent age, the class was mostly concerned with warning us away from even greater pleasures: crossing the street without looking both ways, say, or playing in active construction sites. Indeed, our health textbook featured as its cover a shot of a glowering traffic light framed by an angry red sun throbbing behind brown heat-haze and smog. "Cross, I dare you," the light leered. "Beyond me lies Hell."
For no reason whatsoever, amidst pages and pages on the hazards of going swimmin' at the gravel quarry was a kind of centerfold, a full-page picture of the Discobulus statue, an ancient depiction of the art of male naked frisbee. Above the picture, in insistent capital letters, was the instruction "ENJOY!"
The suggestion that we were supposed to gaze on this naked dude with something like pleasure never failed to cause my fellow seven-year-olds to burst out in embarrassed giggles. While I still have no idea what an undressed Greek heaving a pie plate was doing in that book, ENJOY! now makes sense. The athlete's perfection of the human body meant his nudity was something to be appreciated aesthetically rather than erotically. That's the idea behind ESPN Magazine's annual "body" issue, in which prominent athletes pose in discrete déshabillé. As marketing, the issue is undoubtedly intended to capitalize on prurient curiosity, but the result is not titillation. You're much more likely to say, "Wow, look at those abs."
Or, in the case of Prince Fielder's appearance in the issue, "Wow, look at that large, large man." This was always a big part of the fun—the ENJOY-ment, if you like—of watching Fielder play. He did not look like an athlete, but he played like one. That was his glory, and a testament to the inclusiveness and flexibility of baseball as a sport. If you can play, baseball will take you. Prince Fielder's career came to an abrupt end earlier this week; doctors won't clear him to play after a second neck injury in three years. But he could play.
Baseball rewards an impressive array of physical types. It always has. You don't have to be built like the discus thrower. Hack Wilson looked like a human exclamation point, with big shoulders and little tiny feet. There's a photo of him with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and the juxtaposition makes Wilson look like an escapee from a circus sideshow, as if the two sleek Yankees were asked to pose with something that crawled out from under a bridge and picked up a baseball bat—read Ruth and Gehrig's expressions in the picture and see if they don't look a little weirded out. Yet, Hack is with them in the Hall of Fame, having ridden there on the back of a 1930 season in which he drove in 191 runs despite nursing one hell of a hangover in basically every game. (Wilson was always nursing one hell of a hangover.)
Wilson was all of 5'6'' and hit over 200 home runs. Mel Ott was 5'9" and hit 511, using an exaggerated leg-kick to generate power. Fatty Fothergill was a .325 lifetime hitter, Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons won over 200 games and pitched in three World Series, and Hippo Vaughn had a 2.49 lifetime ERA for the Cubs. Rick Reuschel looked like a guy who never passed up an invitation to a buffet but pitched until he was 42; Pedro Martinez was a rail and didn't. Rich Garcés was shaped like a Gamorrean guard, but he was pretty effective out of the pen. Then there's C.C. Sabathia: 6'6," sometimes over 300 pounds, and a unique specimen in baseball history. Bartolo Colon is Bartolo Colon. Jumbo Diaz of the Cincinnati Reds literally goes by "Jumbo."
I probably could just skipped all that and said "José Altuve"—or Prince Fielder.
Fielder is part of the lineage above, a player who proves that in baseball "athlete" can mean a lot of different things. Officially 5'11" and 275 pounds, Fielder is built like a shed with graffiti on its walls but at his best he was a terrifically effective hitter, a lefty slugger who kept the strikeouts to a reasonable level for his amount of power and thereby hit for a good batting average. He was willing to accept ball four as an expression of the pitcher's respect for him, a talent bolstered by a ton of intentional walks. His health problems pulled him down sharply at the end, but through his 28th birthday Fielder had, despite a bit of an on-year, off-year pattern, hit with anyone ever.
That sounds like an exaggeration, but .287/.393/.538 doesn't brook a lot of argument. Using the very blunt method of comparing Fielder's career OPS through 2012 to the league average, he ranks just south of the inner-circle greats like Gehrig and Cobb; shrink the pool to the past 50 years and he's in the top ten, below the likes of Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols, and Junior Griffey, but in a virtual tie with Alex Rodriguez, Reggie Jackson, and Will Clark on the next tier down.
When Fielder was a kid, he would accompany his dad, Cecil, to the ballpark and take batting practice. Even as a young teen he could whack the ball over the walls; even as a young teen he was shaped like the Thing. It was always clear he was going to be a hitter. The question was always whether he would have the mobility to play if he continued to be as wide as he was high. Scouts always talk about how young players will look once they've grown into their adult bodies. Fielder looked like he was on track to grow into a Home Depot, complete with plumbing aisles. This is not a joke; Fielder was over 300 pounds in high school, and Baseball America, no doubt bending over backwards to be kind, called him a draft risk because he was "doughy."
After the Milwaukee Brewers made him the seventh overall pick in the 2002 draft and brought him to the majors three years later, what had been obvious years before was now confirmed: he was a DH trapped in the National League, but he could hit enough that his teams could deal with it. When Bill James went to assess Fielder's dad in his Historical Baseball Abstract, he dismissed him as "a big fat guy who hit home runs for a few years." This was harsh, and though it overlooks the degree to which the Blue Jays missed what they had in Cecil—add up the four cups of coffee that Fielder the Elder got before being exiled to Japan and you get .243/.308/.472 with 31 home runs in 506 at-bats—it was basically fair. It would not be fair to say the same of Prince. He will go into the record books with 319 career home runs, the exact same number his old man hit, but he was an improvement on his progenitor in most other ways.
None of that is to say that Fielder had a Hall of Fame career; he gets judged by what he did after 2012, as well. It does, however, suggest the fallacious nature of Hall of Fame arguments that would bar Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz because they were "only" designated hitters. The DH made them more valuable, not less, because it allowed them to avoid things they weren't good at, be it staying healthy or showing range afield. They were such good hitters that, without the DH, their teams would have just sucked it up and handed them a glove. There have been a few players in baseball history who were excellent hitters completely derailed by their inability to catch the ball, but for the most part the pattern is to treat these players like the Twins did Harmon Killebrew and do the best you can to find a place where their bat can help more than their fielding will hurt. Had Fielder been able to overcome his injuries and recover his stroke, this is where he was headed. As with his predecessors, it would only have made him more essential.
Sadly, it was not to be. Fielder's injuries put him on the list of players like Cleveland Indians great Hal Trosky (migraines), Tony Oliva (knees), and Don Mattingly (back), who seemed to have gotten good purchase on a spot in Cooperstown before their bodies dragged them down. That doesn't change anything about what Fielder could do at his best, or diminish it even slightly. Losing Fielder diminishes the game, but it's also a good excuse to celebrate a truly unique player. Baseball is a game that lets you come as you are; we're lucky Fielder stayed as long as he did.
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