- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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MILWAUKEE -- One by one they came to say goodbye, and each time Prince Fielder responded with a smile, a nod and a thank-you. Mark Kotsay. Randy Wolf. The trainers. The clubhouse attendants. All of them. They all wanted a piece of this moment. They all wanted their two seconds with the leader.
At 11:05 p.m., when the hugs and handshakes were finished, the 5-foot-11 inch, 285-pound first baseman stood in front of his locker and pulled his blue Milwaukee Brewers No. 28 jersey over his head for what was likely the last time. He didn't cry. He didn't take a deep breath. He didn't nod or shake his head. He just slipped the jersey over his head and replaced it with a black T-shirt that said D.A.R.E -- Dare to Be Excellent.
It was as though it were any ordinary June game. This, of course, this was anything but. Instead, it was the last game of the 2011 season for Fielder and his Brewers, a disappointing 12-6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.
In a few weeks, the man in that black T-shirt will become one of the most sought-after free agents of the offseason, seeking a rumored eight-year, $200 million contract. As a Scott Boras client, it's unlikely Fielder will offer any hometown discounts, likely pricing the midmarket Brewers out of his services.
And so this night and these moments likely were his last as a Brewer.
"I'm just trying to say goodbye to my teammates," Fielder said in a postgame news conference. "It's the offseason; you're not going to see them at 3 [p.m.] every day. I'm trying to say goodbye. And keep the throat clear."
It was far from the ending Fielder had dreamed of. Not even close. No, if he were writing the script, there's no way the Brewers would have lost. No chance he would have ended his Brewers career 1-for-16. Shaun Marcum wouldn't have allowed more runs (four) than he would have recorded outs (three). And the Brewers wouldn't have had three errors, including two on one play.
"I envisioned us winning the World Series," Fielder said. "But that didn't happen."
Instead, his likely final night as a Brewer was highlighted by a steady stream of emotional goodbyes. First in the top of the eighth inning, when he stepped up to the plate to lead off and was greeted with a standing ovation from the Miller Park crowd. Then a few seconds later, when he rolled a 1-2 pitch to second baseman Nick Punto and was again serenaded with applause.
Before the top of the ninth, as Fielder was rolling ground balls to his infield teammates, also likely for the last time, Cardinals first-base coach Dave McKay wrapped his arms around Fielder's back and asked him to look into the St. Louis dugout, where manager Tony La Russa wanted his attention.
"I wanted to congratulate him on a great year," La Russa said. "He looked in, and I tipped my hat and clapped for him."
Then back in the Brewers clubhouse, after his emotionless news conference, he sat in the leather Brewers chair in front of his locker and tried to console his crying 6-year-old son, Jadyn, who wore a replica Fielder jersey from this summer's All-Star Game.
"It's OK," Prince said. "It's OK. There's Rickie. Rickie is right there."
Indeed, "Uncle" Rickie Weeks was right there, sitting in the locker next door, as he had for as long as the boy could remember. Uncle Rickie had just told the media that no, he and Fielder hadn't had the free-agent conversation, but he hoped to now that the season was over. For now, Weeks' concern was Jadyn.
"You all right?" Weeks asked the boy.
"C'mon," Prince said. "We'll get some ice cream."
A few feet away, Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio held court, lights, cameras and microphones poked in front of his face, telling anyone who would listen that he hoped it wasn't Fielder's last game in Milwaukee.
"We are planning on participating in the sweepstakes," Attanasio said.
Of course, it's Attanasio's checkbook that will do the talking this offseason.
Fielder's legacy in Milwaukee is one of nearly unmatched individual success. Since the Brewers drafted him with the seventh pick in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft, he has shed critiques of his weight to blossom into one of the game's most durable and successful sluggers. This season, he was the only player in the majors to start every one of his team's 162 games. He was second in the National League in home runs, RBIs, walks and on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage, total bases and extra-base hits.
This season, Fielder became the first player in team history to produce five straight 30-plus homer seasons, and he joined Cecil Cooper and teammate Ryan Braun as the only Brewers with four straight 100-RBI years. He's also the only Brewer with three straight 100-walk seasons. In fact, before Fielder, no one had done it once.
As a team, the Brewers set a franchise record this year with 96 victories and won their first postseason series in 29 years.
"Whatever he ends up deciding, I hope it's not overlooked what he meant to this franchise," teammate Casey McGehee said. "It's not very often that you can say one of your superstar players is truly leading by example.
"But whether it was the middle of June or October, he truly cares about every at-bat, every play, every pitch. It's not like he's just out there to be out there. He knows what he means to this team, and he's a guy we could always count on every inning of every day."
If Fielder leaves, everyone will have their individual reasons for missing him. Prince was a favorite of nearly all the players' kids who visited the clubhouse. He was the player every kid wanted to meet and the player who would get down on a knee and instantly relate to little ones one-fifth his size.
But perhaps no one will miss him more than McGehee, whose son Mack suffers from cerebral palsy. It was two years ago this past July when Mack McGehee kneeled down in front of home plate and, with Fielder's help, threw out the first pitch to his awaiting father.
So after it was all over Sunday night, it made sense that McGehee sat in front of his locker struggling to control his emotions. Of course he clung to a spit bottle like a life preserver, his eyes filling with tears as he talked about Fielder.
How do you say thank you? How do you say goodbye? He didn't know. And at nearly the exact moment McGehee pondered that thought, Fielder began making his way to the clubhouse door to head home. Along the way, he stopped in front of McGehee's locker, and the two men embraced for several seconds. "I love you," McGehee said, sobbing.
With that, Fielder was gone. He headed down a Miller Park hallway, his sons by his side, the youngest dragging along the life-sized Monsters Inc. mascot Sully that had become the "Beast Mode" rallying point this year for the Brewers.
Back in the clubhouse, McGehee tried to put it all in perspective.
"Outside of my family," he began, his words cracking, "there aren't too many other grown men I would tell them that I love them and truly mean it. He's one of a kind."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.