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An ode to Prince Fielder and his beautiful, violent swing

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Baseball has unexpectedly lost one of its greatest sluggers, but there's no way he'll be forgotten.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for Prince Fielder’s introduction to the general public and casual baseball fan, it was in a best-selling book. Thousands and thousands of people found out that Cecil Fielder had a kid, and he played baseball, and ... well ...

Cecil Fielder could have swallowed Jeremy Brown whole and had room left for dessert, and the son apparently has an even more troubling weight problem than his father. Here’s an astonishing fact: Prince Fielder is too fat even for the Oakland A’s. Of no other baseball player in the whole of North America can this be said. Pittaro seems to think that the Detroit Tigers might take Fielder anyway, for sentimental reasons.

That’s from Moneyball, a tremendous baseball book. Unfortunately, the whole chapter about the 2002 draft is unintentionally hilarious in retrospect. It reads like Michael Lewis wrote a breathless chapter about the hole cards in a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em without waiting for the dealer to deal the common cards.

Billy lifted up the first card, pleasantly surprised to find the nine of clubs. Paul looked around, voice quavering, "I hope this next one is also a nine."

Billy slowly revealed the second hole card. Also a nine. Of hearts.

Paul grabbed Billy by the shoulders and shook him with excitement. "Pocket nines!", said Paul. They knew that they had just increased their odds of winning the hand.

***

Chapter 4

But it’s the Fielder bit that makes you cringe the most. In a story that took great effort to explain how the A’s were the heralds of a new era, the best slugger in the book was a teenager who was laughed off the page.

Fielder wasn’t too fat for the A’s. He wasn’t too fat for the Tigers. And he certainly wasn’t too fat for the Brewers. From the moment Fielder put on a professional uniform, he was the middle bowl of porridge, just right, even if people kept talking about the bowl the porridge was in. A big ol’ bowl of dinger-mashing porridge, indeed.

Fielder is unlikely to play baseball again, which isn’t something you should ever have to say about a 32-year-old. He underwent his second spinal fusion surgery for herniated discs in his neck, and if you want to find people blaming this on his weight, they’re out there on the internet. I’m not sure why. See the neck is up here, and the way gravity works is like, well, it’s not important, they’ve already made up your minds.

It’s apparently surprise-retirement week around baseball, with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira both announcing that they’re playing their final games, and that should make it a little more difficult to express why we should care about another retiring superstar.

Should make it more difficult. And yet it’s Prince Fielder, one of the most recognizable faces in baseball. Caring about him being pushed out of a game is a tautology — you care about Prince Fielder retiring because he’s Prince Fielder. He started as a dismissive footnote in a book that celebrated unconventional baseball players, and he became one of the most famously unconventional players of his generation. There’s no getting around why — it was explicitly detailed in a bestseller that was released right after he turned 19. Dude was bigger than most baseball players.

And that’s why he was so necessary. Baseball isn’t an assembly line of generic athletes 3D-printed from the same Chris Evans-looking blueprint. It’s Randy Johnson and Jose Altuve playing cornhole at an Astros family reunion. It’s Marcus Stroman throwing to David Ortiz with the game on the line. And it’s certainly Prince Fielder stepping in with the bases loaded — not fat, that’s the wrong way to look at it.

No, he was a presence. That’s the word. He was someone who commanded attention, a player without secrets. There was no Altuvian hidden power that would sneak up and surprise you. Fielder was a player who looked like he could hit a ball 450 feet. Then he would hit a ball 450 feet. Other players could hit a ball that far, but none of them surprised you less than Fielder. There was an artistry to just how he hit them, a signature pause as he unwound the bat that he had just violently coiled around his body. It looked like this:

Watch it in real time:

It’s not preening. At least, not totally. It’s more of a natural Newtonian equal-and-opposite reaction to just how hard he swung the bat. And if the ball happens to be sailing over the infield by the time he can remember to jog, well, he gets to watch it for a split-second. Those are in the unwritten rules somewhere, keep looking.

It’s that violent swing, though, that might be responsible for the neck problems. The reason he was so eminently watchable might be the reason we don’t get to watch him anymore. Which means we should probably watch more of his home runs, just in case we didn’t appreciate them enough the first time.

Just seeing if you were paying attention with that last video, which is also fun to watch.

Fielder will finish his career with 319 home runs, good for 116th on the all-time list (tied with his father, oddly enough). I watched a lot of players ahead of him on the list. And at the risk of being overly dismissive of some other memorable careers to prove my point about Fielder, I won’t tell my kids what it was like to watch Vinny Castilla hit a home run. I won’t be an octogenarian sitting down to tell a story for a baseball documentary about what it was like to see Jermaine Dye step into the box.

But I’ll remember Fielder. Because he was so imposing. Because he was a slice of baseball’s glorious variety. Because of the reasons that got him mocked before he played a professional game. Because of the against-the-grain impulse that put him on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue in 2014. Because he stood out.

Because he looked like the physical manifestation of a long home run.

That’s all a player can hope for, to do great baseball things and be remembered. Some players get lucky enough to do the great baseball things. Most don’t. But even in that subset of the lucky players, there’s a much smaller subset of players you absolutely can’t forget. There’s Prince Fielder. It’s stunning and sad that it ended so abruptly, so unceremoniously. But it happened, we were there and it was pretty danged awesome to watch.