Ilitch brings a Prince to Motown

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    Fielder group_picThe Detroit Tigers recently pulled off one of the biggest free agent signings in Detroit sports history, getting one of the best hitters in the prime of his career to come to Detroit.

    The signing did not come cheap for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch as former Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder inked a nine-year, $214 million contract.

    When Fielder came to the Tiger Club at Comerica Park to be introduced to the media, he was only a little more than a mile from the site of the old ballpark that was his playground two decades ago. Seeing him put on the Old English D reminded many of the time when he used to hang around Tiger Stadium when he was a kid, watching his dad, Cecil Fielder.

    Fielder’s signing has taken Major League Baseball by storm. The prospect of Fielder and American League batting champion Miguel Cabrera batting next to each other, on paper produces one of the most, if not the most, intriguing and arresting offensive tandems in both leagues.

    “It’s awesome,” Fielder said. “I really don’t know what to say. I just never thought this could happen, and it’s happening now. It’s an awesome moment. … It’s a really special day.”

    The Fielder signing came a little more than a couple of  weeks after team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, manager Jim Leyland and Ilitch got the news of designated hitter Victor Martinez’s likely season-ending injury. All talked about the complications and challenges the Tigers would have to deal with in replacing him. By all accounts Fielder seemed like a long shot, given his desire for a long-term deal and the Tigers’ commitment to Cabrera and Martinez.

    “This came about when Martinez got injured and we sat down, Dave and I and some of the other key people in the organization, and talked about how we’re going to handle this,” Ilitch said. “I got a little dizzy because this person would move here and this person would move here … and I got to thinking, and I said, ‘You know, they’re all going to have pressure on them to match that .320 batting average and 100 RBIs (Martinez’s 2001 stats). They’re going to feel pressure to fill in that slot. I don’t want to run into that.’ I was telling Dave I’d feel a lot better if we could just totally solve it, then when (Martinez) gets back, I think we’ll have a very, very explosive team. That’s really how it got going.

    “I figured we had to do it. I didn’t feel right piecemealing people in, trying to fill that. … I just got the feeling that we’re better off trying to get a replacement.”

    Fielder grew up around the Tigers in the early 1990s and was a frequent presence around the Tigers clubhouse, taking batting practice with coaches and hitting home runs of his own in an empty Tiger Stadium.

    “There’s a lot of good memories,” Fielder recalled. “Hopefully I can give those to my two boys because I think those memories have actually helped me. Especially in professional baseball, seeing how all these guys who I thought were just superheroes, how much they were having fun playing baseball. They were just having fun the way I was at 12. It helped me a lot, and showed me what I really wanted to do.”

    Fielder finished third in NL MVP voting last season after batting .299 with 38 homers and 120 RBIs, 107 walks and a .415 on-base percentage, finishing second in the NL in all those categories except batting average.

    The Fielder signing is all about Ilitch, 82, who very much yearns to add a World Series trophy to his four Stanley Cups the Detroit Red Wings have won under his watch. Ilitch is truly a fan’s owner, who wants to win and will step out on faith to try and get it done.

    Leland Stein can be heard on WGPR radio (107.5) every Sunday from 11 p.m. to midnight. He can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com.

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