DETROIT — Prince Fielder stood with a smile and recalled his earliest memories of old Tiger Stadium, when he would hang out at the ballpark where his father hit so many massive home runs.
“For me, it was always Sparky saying I was going to pinch hit — and I really believed him,” Fielder said, referring to former manager Sparky Anderson. “I’m just glad I get to come back.”
The Tigers introduced Fielder on Thursday after finalizing a $214 million, nine-year contract with the free agent first baseman, who is expected to hit a lot more home runs than his dad.
Fielder was born in 1984, the last time Detroit won the World Series. After luring him back to Michigan with the fourth-largest deal in baseball history, the Tigers are hoping Fielder will help usher in a new championship era for the Motor City.
“This is awesome,” Fielder said. “It’s kind of a dream come true. I’m excited.”
Detroit began seriously pursuing Fielder after designated hitter Victor Martinez tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during offseason conditioning. Now the Tigers have three of baseball’s biggest stars — Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander — all in their primes. Detroit won the AL Central by 15 games last year but lost to Texas in the AL championship series.
“We’re trying to win right now,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “We tried to win last year. We were close. I think we’ve reached a point now, on a yearly basis, we feel that way. When you look at the core of our group of players, there’s a lot of guys that are on that field right now that are quality players.”
It will be up to manager Jim Leyland to figure out where to play all of his powerful hitters. He said Thursday the Tigers will move Miguel Cabrera from first base to third to make room for Fielder. He also listed a possible batting order, with Cabrera hitting third and Fielder fourth.
It’s a lineup based on power, not speed. That much is clear.
“If they hit it where they’re supposed to hit ‘em, they can trot,” Leyland said. “We’re going back to the old-fashioned baseball. We’ve got big-time power on the corners.”
Fielder’s father Cecil became a big league star when he returned to the majors from Japan and hit 51 home runs with Detroit in 1990. Cecil played with the Tigers into the 1996 season, and young Prince made a name for himself with his prodigious power displays during batting practice at Tiger Stadium.
Detroit plays at Comerica Park now, and times have changed. Leyland manages the Tigers, not Sparky Anderson.
As for the Fielders, their strained relationship has been well documented, and Prince didn’t elaborate on it Thursday.
“I’m just ecstatic about being with the Tigers,” Prince Fielder said. “I’m just here to enjoy the day.”
Fielder did want to debunk one thing: Back in 2008, he talked about becoming a vegetarian, but that apparently didn’t last long after all the commotion.
“I’m not a vegetarian,” he said. “I was, for like three months.”
Fielder’s contract includes a limited no-trade provision. He can be traded to 10 clubs without his consent before 2017, when he gains rights to block all trades under baseball’s labor contract as a 10-year veteran who has been with a team for at least five years.
He will earn $23 million in each of his first two years with Detroit, then will make $24 million annually in the final seven seasons of his contract, according to terms obtained by The Associated Press.
That contrasts with Albert Pujols’ backloaded $240 million, 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels, agreed to last month.
Pujols gets $12 million this year and $16 million in 2013, with the salary increasing to $23 million in 2014 and then rising $1 million annually.
The move carries plenty of risk for the Tigers. Fielder is 27 and has been extremely durable during his career, but Detroit is committing to him for almost a decade.
“I go by my instinct, like everybody else does,” said owner Mike Ilitch, who signed off on the massive deal after what had been a quiet offseason for the Tigers. “My instincts told me that this is going to work out fine.”
The next big step will be Cabrera’s. He’s returning to a position he played while with the Florida Marlins, but he’s played only 14 games at third base with the Tigers — all in 2008 right after he joined the team.
Fielder made 15 errors last year, the most in baseball by a first baseman.
“Mr. Ilitch and Dave have given me a lot of nice pieces to this puzzle. It’s my job, along with coaches, to figure out how to put that puzzle all together,” Leyland said. “(Cabrera) is not going to have the agility, most likely, defensively that Brandon Inge had. You give up a little something, but you get a whole lot in return.”
Leyland said he talked to Inge, who lost his job as Detroit’s everyday third baseman last season.
“He’s not the happiest camper,” Leyland said. “He certainly understands.”
Dombrowski indicated he’s satisfied with his roster heading into spring training, although it’s hard to rule out any more moves after the Tigers shockingly emerged with Fielder.
The pitching rotation is anchored by Verlander, who won the Cy Young Award and MVP last year, but Detroit’s fifth starter spot is still uncertain. Dombrowski said the Tigers could bring in some non-roster invites to compete for that job.
“I think positional player-wise, we’re pretty well set,” he said.