In June of 2002 I was a few months from turning twelve years old. I had just completed fifth grade. This was just a year and a half after I began truly following sports in any capacity. In 2000-2001 the first sport that I focused on was basketball, during the one season in the last thirty years that the Bucks actually mattered. I remember flipping through the channels on TV when a Sam Cassell to Tim Thomas alley-oop drew me in to the Bucks game. The Bucks had their great run that year, winning their division and coming painstakingly close to the NBA Finals. At the time, I remember I hated baseball. It was too slow, I didn't feel connected to any of the players. But really, the root of the problem was that the team I should have been rooting for--the Brewers--was in the midst of a terrible run with seemingly no hope on the horizon.
In June of 2002, the Brewers drafted Prince Semien Fielder with the seventh pick in the June amateur draft. People at the time called it an overdraft. His bat was prolific through high school, and his pedigree suggested that he certainly inherited talent. However, he has also always been a bit hefty and many scouts had serious reservations that he would stay in shape throughout his career. Many considered Prince to be a likely DH prospect, something the Brewers had little use for other than as trade bait.
But oh man could Fielder hit. He signed almost immediately after being drafted and was assigned to the minor leagues where he had a combined .998 OPS between rookie and A ball. He also, of course, had a bit of media attention on him during his time in the minor leagues. As I looked through the Journal-Sentinel's sports section, that caught my eye. A couple of years into Fielder's career, and my allegiances towards the Brewers grew stronger and stronger. At last, there was something to root for in Milwaukee baseball. And I changed my sporting preferences drastically - gone was my love of basketball. By 2005, the sport bored me to tears. Baseball took its rightful spot at the forefront of my heart.
Of course, Prince Fielder wasn't the only young player who instilled some optimism in the Brewers' future. No, Fielder was one of several players who came up very close to each other. Rickie Weeks was someone who had just as much, if not more, hype as Prince Fielder. Then there was also J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart. There were others, like Ben Hendrickson and Dave Krynzel who didn't quite pan out, but whom the organization and its fans hoped would be key contributors to the big league squad. A few years later, players like Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo were called up to help solidify the team.
But none of those players embodied the spirit of the new, young, talented Brewers more than Fielder. To me, a fairly new Brewer fan, he was the epitome of the future, of what the Brewers could be. It was exciting. He was going to be a superstar, I was certain. Back then, I only used the J-S and brewers.com to give me information on the team. It didn't occur to me to look for fan blogs or anything like that. Sundays were especially exciting. Those were the days that the Journal-Sentinel used to run (and probably still runs, I'm not sure anymore) the large, full page, week in review Brewers and baseball columns, with a whole bunch of little news clippings. Often, this was the best chance to get any news on the minors or the chances of a player being called up. Every other day, I would be lucky to see even a paragraph of Brewers news, outside of the game recap.
Every now and then, though, there would be news on Fielder and the other youth in the Brewers system. Even if it was just a small snippet detailing how he went 2-4 with an RBI, it was news. And it fueled my, and many other Brewers fans', hope for the future of the team. In 2005, he hit his first major league home run on the same day that Rickie Weeks hit his. Weeks had been called up for good in the middle of that season, while Prince was there only for a short spell. But that day, with both players hitting their first homers, that was a great moment. That's when the future finally became the present. When you knew the Brewers were on the verge of having something special.
The next season, his rookie year, Fielder had a successful campaign. He hit 28 home runs and had an .831 OPS. Nothing earth-shattering. In his second full season, in 2007, he hit 50 home runs. Any doubt that he might not live up to his potential vanished then and there. He gave us four more great seasons after that. He hit 230 home runs in a Brewers uniform. In six full seasons, he missed just 13 games. He finished in the top-five voting for the MVP award three times.
All the while, I grew up with Fielder. I followed his minor league outings as best I could. I grew as a Brewers fan with each passing season that Fielder was on the big league team. While Fielder's 50 HR outing solidified him as a star in this league, that year and that effort also helped solidify my allegiance to the Brewers. Since beginning to follow the Brewers, I've never had a Fielder-less team. I grew up with Fielder on my television, on my favorite team, and in Miller Park, where I have been countless times over the past six years.
I'm not sure if I really have much of an end point to this. After ten years of being in the Brewers organization, Prince Fielder is officially gone. It's not something surprising. Even years ago, we knew the Brewers wouldn't be able to afford Fielder. He found somebody who could, to the tune of the fourth largest contract in sports history. There's no way Milwaukee could have matched that.
I'm not mad. I'm quite the opposite of that. I'm extremely happy for Fielder. He deserved to get paid. And you know what, he looks really good in that Detroit uniform. I'm thrilled that we, as Brewers fans, got six years of major league service from such a fantastic player. Just like if Zack Greinke leaves for a bigger deal after 2013, I'm going to be happy that we at least got to experience him as a member of the Brewers for a short time. Who knows? Maybe with Fielder, he'll come back to the Brewers after these nine years are up. Hank Aaron did it. It's not beyond reason that Fielder could reprise his role one more time in the future.
But I am sad. An era is ending for the Milwaukee Brewers. Sure, the team could be just as good as they were last season. They still have Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo. They still have Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and Nyjer Morgan. They now have Alex Gonzalez and Aramis Ramirez. They might have Mat Gamel, if he's good enough.
But the heart and soul of the Brewers team is gone. Prince Fielder, for several years, embodied the Brewers. He had fun on the field, even if certain people found it disrespectful. He was a ferocious competitor. He was a seemingly great guy who was active in the community. The only person on the team who seemed to match Fielder for personality was Nyjer Morgan. But he's an outsider, not somebody who was homegrown and brought up with several of his teammates. I'm very interested in seeing how the demeanor of the team changes next season without the big guy around.
I wish nothing but the best of luck to Prince Fielder in Detroit. I hope that he can win an MVP award or two. I hope he has many more outstanding years. I'll never forget how Prince changed me as a Brewers fan and I'll certainly never forget how much he helped in turning a laughing stock into a National League contender.
Thank you Prince, we'll miss you.