Detroit Finds an Import It Likes : Baseball: Cecil Fielder slugs his way into the hearts of Motor City fans.

BALTIMORE SUN

Cecil Fielder is walking through yet another bizarre afternoon.

The sports announcer for Japanese-based Fuji Television is trying his best not to crack while interviewing Fielder. Displaying patience in the face of technical adversity, the announcer presses on, mumbling a question in Japanese that is passed on by a translator to Fielder, who leans forward in a chair.

A choral group is rehearsing the national anthem, and amplified voices in perfect harmony bounce off the seats at the Oakland Coliseum. It is like a sound check for the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels Tour.

The technicians are going berserk. The announcer is growing furious. But Fielder is smiling, gulping for air, trying to suppress laughter while completing the interview.

And why shouldn't he be laughing?

Fielder, born in the U.S.A., rejected in Canada and rejuvenated in Japan, is in the most charmed summer of his baseball life.

Fielder has emerged as perhaps the most compelling and unbelievable figure of this baseball season, materializing like some samurai Roy Hobbs after a year's stay in Japan and finding his way back to a new home with the Detroit Tigers.

Before Saturday night's game at the the Kansas City Royals, Fielder was the American League leader in home runs (25), was second in RBI (63) and was batting .295 (79 for 268). He also was third among American League first basemen in fan balloting for the All-Star Game, July 10 at Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Despite not hitting a home run since June 17, Fielder is threatening to become the sixth American Leaguer to hit more than 50 in a season, joining the exclusive group of Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Mickey Mantle.

Detroit batting coach Vada Pinson calls Fielder "an angel in disguise." All-Star shortstop Alan Trammell says Fielder has carried the Tigers "like no player I've ever seen." And Manager Sparky Anderson says, "No one could have predicted what Cecil has done."

Yet Fielder remains a mystery, a man drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, signed by the Royals, developed by the Toronto Blue Jays and given a second baseball life in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers. Fielder is a power hitter who learned patience and a labeled failure who discovered success. In short, he embodies the baseball belief that what separates the ordinary from the extraordinary is sometimes nothing more, or less, than opportunity.

"I just needed a chance," Fielder said. "My career was almost over before it began."

The raw numbers say Fielder is 26, stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 230 pounds. He is big. George Foreman big. If polyester could talk, it would shriek each time Fielder slips his uniform on.

Fielder also is playful and soft-spoken. Invariably, he can be found in the Tigers' clubhouse wrestling a teammate to the floor and laughing with delight.

So how on earth did someone so large, with a joyous personality to match, slip through baseball's cracks and fall all the way to Japan? And then come back again?

"It's easy," said Oakland Athletics General Manager Sandy Alderson. "Things like that happen all the time. That's how the Baltimore Orioles come up with a Mickey Tettleton or the Oakland Athletics pick up a Dave Stewart. This game is full of surprises."

But this goes beyond surprise. Twice this season, Fielder has hit three home runs in a game. He is as powerful pulling the ball to left field with a wicked wave of his 35-inch bat as he is driving the ball the opposite way.

"With Cecil, you throw the ball, and then you pray," said Oakland's Stewart. "The man hits everything."

Even Oakland's Jose Canseco, baseball's first $5 million a year player and one of the game's most feared home-run hitters, is a Fielder fan.

"I don't like the power hitters who barely hit home runs," Canseco said. "Spare me the grief. But Cecil, he not only hits it, but he hits it a long way."

The moral to the story: Never give up on a big man with pride.

Fielder was a three-sport star at Nogales High School in La Puente, a melting-pot community near Los Angeles. Basketball was his first love. He was a starting point guard as a 14-year-old freshman and led the team to a state playoff semifinal during his senior season in 1981.

In football, Fielder played linebacker and was used as a quarterback on long passing downs. Baseball was just something Fielder played to occupy time during the spring and summer.

John Romano, the Nogales' baseball coach, recalls Fielder's hitting tape-measure home runs that sent balls bouncing onto golf courses, skipping down streets and soaring over houses.

"He really wanted to play basketball in college," Romano said. "But basketball coaches didn't like his body. He was 6 feet 2 and 218 pounds. It was his father, Edson, who convinced him to play baseball."

Hailed as a possible heir to Willie Upshaw at first base or Cliff Johnson at designated hitter, Fielder failed to meet the expectations of the Blue Jays. In parts of four fitful seasons, Fielder hit 31 home runs and drove in 84 runs in 506 at-bats, but he became lost in the shuffle as the Blue Jays developed Fred McGriff.

"The Blue Jays didn't have any room for me," Fielder said. "I was the odd man out. I never complained. I never said I wanted to get out of here. I'm glad they gave me the opportunity to go elsewhere."

What the Blue Jays gave Fielder was a chance to play for Hanshin in Japan for $1 million, plus perks that included a furnished apartment for his family, a satellite-television dish to pick up American baseball games and a personal translator.

Fielder terrorized Japanese Central League pitchers in 1989, hitting .302 with 38 home runs. His first homer was a 500-foot shot that slammed into a King Kong poster at the Tokyo Dome.

"I hit the monkey in the leg," he said. "I thought they were going to give me a watch. Some of my teammates even thought I might get a car. But I didn't get anything."

Fielder received only polite encouragement from his teammates, who consider foreign domination foul play. Although he was prepared to remain in Japan for another season, Fielder feared for his security when another American, Larry Parrish, was released after leading the Yakult Swallows in home runs. Fielder exercised an option, received his release and auctioned his services to the highest American bidder.

There was no war. The Tigers were the only team to show an interest in Fielder, signing him for $3 million for two seasons.

"I didn't look at it as a gamble," Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie said. "I knew he could hit and hit with power. He had better statistics than any Triple-A minor-league player in this country."

For a time, Fielder put up numbers that, if generated throughout the season, would have given him a 68-homer pace. Inevitably, he cooled off. But, with a power hitter, another streak may be around the corner.

"When Cecil goes 0-for-4, people think he's slipping," Tigers outfielder Lloyd Moseby said. "But he'll be OK. This man is going to be the Most Valuable Player of the American League."

Fielder will hear none of that. Comparisons to Maris and Ruth are useless. MVP talk is silly.

"All I wanted was a chance," he said.

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