- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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DETROIT -- Prince Fielder's first day as a Detroit Tiger remains a whirlwind in his mind. When a man signs a $214 million free-agent contract, crams his 5-foot-11, 275-pound frame into a suit and tie for the introductory new conference and returns to the city where he once cavorted in the clubhouse and took batting practice as a 12-year-old, it qualifies as a life-changing, emotional and somewhat harrowing experience.
That's why small favors tend to linger. Amid the handshakes and great expectations, Fielder will never forget that the first two welcome-to-Detroit text messages on his cell phone came from new teammates Miguel Cabrera and Delmon Young.
The pattern continued a few weeks later in Lakeland, Fla. When Fielder walked into the clubhouse for the Tigers' first Grapefruit League workout, the Joker Marchant Stadium greeting committee was led by none other than Cabrera, who displayed a pure, unbridled sense of joy at having Fielder in the fold. If there was a smidge of concern that Cabrera might be resentful over having to relinquish his first-base job and shift across the diamond to third to accommodate Fielder, Cabrera allayed it with that first enthusiastic grin and hearty back-slap.
"When I got to spring training, he was the first person to meet me at the door," Fielder said. "Whenever you have the Triple Crown winner meeting you at the door and he's happy for you to be there, it always makes you comfortable.
"It meant a lot when I got that first text from him. For somebody to have to move their position, and be excited about doing it, and already be in shape to do it, I was thinking, 'Did you know about this before me?'"
Superstar position players have thrived through the years despite relationships that range from frosty (think Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in New York) to downright contentious (Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in San Francisco), but Cabrera and Fielder developed an instant bond that fueled them through the ensuing eight-month grind. They went to school on each other's strengths, supported each other through the inevitable nagging injuries and fatigue, and reveled in each other's success.
Their bromance was readily apparent after the final game of the regular season when Cabrera pocketed baseball's first Triple Crown in 45 years and Fielder urged historians and observers to step back and appreciate the achievement. He gushingly referred to Cabrera as the "best ever."
"Miggy is such a cool person," Fielder said. "Whenever he does something, you feel a part of it, because he allows you to be a part of it with him."
The depth of the friendship was evident again after the American League Championship Series, when the two players celebrated Detroit's four-game sweep of the New York Yankees. First Fielder squeezed the game-ending popup from Jayson Nix. Then he nearly squeezed Cabrera's spine out of alignment with a postgame hug.
"They love each other," said Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. "That says it all. They're both genuinely happy for each other when they do well."
The next level
Of course, the two sluggers have been a world removed from "good" this season. Cabrera led the American League in total bases (377) and slugging percentage (.606), and joined Hank Greenberg as the second Tiger to surpass 40 homers and 40 doubles in a season. He also became the first Detroit hitter to reach the 40-homer mark since Cecil Fielder, Prince's dad, launched 44 in 1991.
Cabrera batted .330 with 44 homers and 139 RBIs to win the first Triple Crown since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski achieved the feat in 1967. That offensive onslaught sparked a debate among fans and the media over which player was more deserving of the MVP award -- Cabrera or Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout. The Tigers are biased, obviously. But within the confines of the Detroit clubhouse, the debate gives way to astonishment that people even feel a need to discuss the issue. (The Tigers apparently aren't hip to the whole "Wins Above Replacement" thing.)
"We're looking at history and we're looking at a Hall of Famer," McClendon said. "We ought to take it in and enjoy it. The talk about this guy not being MVP to me is just absurd. This doesn't happen that often, especially not today with the power arms we have and the specialists coming out of the bullpens. I'm not trying to take anything away from prior generations, but I think it was harder to accomplish today than it was 45 years ago."
Fielder, who formed a daunting middle-of-the-order combination with Ryan Braun for five years in Milwaukee, made a smooth transition to the American League at age 28. He batted a career-high .313, ranked second in the league with a .412 on-base percentage and finished with 85 walks and 84 strikeouts. It marked the second straight year than Fielder accumulated more walks than whiffs.
Beyond the numbers, Cabrera and Fielder established a camaraderie and a workmanlike tone that helped the Tigers overcome a disappointing start and a spirited challenge from the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central.
"They've been together since day one," said Tigers outfielder Quintin Berry. "Ever since coming to spring training, they were the duo. They were the ones who were going to put us on their shoulders and carry us to where we needed to be."
Their competitive focus needs to be seen on a daily basis to be truly appreciated. Tigers trainer Kevin Rand said Cabrera and Fielder have two of the highest pain thresholds he has seen in his two decades at the major league level. Fielder played all 162 games this season, and his run of 343 consecutive games is the longest active streak in the majors. Cabrera showed his fortitude after taking a bad-hop grounder from Philadelphia's Hunter Pence off the face and suffering a broken bone and a bloody gash below his right eye in spring training. The Tigers shudder to think how bad the injury might have been if Cabrera's sunglasses hadn't helped deflect the blow.
Cabrera and Fielder share a mental toughness and resilience that helps them through the occasional fallow periods. In mid-April, Cabrera went hitless in 22 straight at-bats. Three weeks later, Fielder endured an 0-for-23 funk. Both players dutifully looked at video, spent extra time in the cage and sweated the details enough to prevent the min-slumps from spiraling into something bigger and more damaging.
Taking what they're given
McClendon marvels at the way Detroit's two stars hang in the box against a relentless assault of fastballs on the fists. Meanwhile, the other Tigers take note of the way they disdain home run trots for more functional at-bats when it's required to get the job done.
"They're big guys who drive the ball out of the ballpark, but they pick and choose their spots," Berry said. "They're not always trying to hit the long ball. If they get something on the outside part of the plate, they're going the other way with it. In RBI situations, they're just trying to get the guy in. It's amazing to watch them move it around the field. They do it all the time."
Of Fielder's 30 home runs this season, only five went the opposite way. But he finished tied for sixth in the American League with 10 "no doubt" homers, according to ESPN's Home Run Tracker. When he pulls the ball with authority, he rarely leaves a doubt.
Fielder's platoon splits have been up and down through the years, but this season he hit a creditable .289 with a .363 on-base percentage in 218 at-bats against lefties. He recorded an OPS of better than .800 against lefties for the fifth time in seven seasons.
Of Cabrera's 44 home runs, 16 came to right or right center field. Although his walk total declined from 108 to 66, he continued to display an Albert Pujols-like ability to go with the pitch and take what he's given.
So how on earth do opposing pitchers approach him?
"I would do everything in the world to try to get the ball in on him," said former Tigers ace Jack Morris. "But if you make a mistake out over the plate, he's going to kill you. You have to show him stuff away, but I'm not going to leave it two inches off the plate. I've got to leave it six inches off the plate. The problem is, he's got such a good eye, you're not going to get him to expand too easily. He's the MVP and he's a Triple Crown winner, and there's a reason for that. He doesn't have many holes."
The Tigers have to be encouraged that they outlasted Oakland in the division series and swept the Yankees while their two main cogs were producing at less than top form. Fielder is hitting .211 (8-for-38) with seven singles and one homer in the postseason. Cabrera is batting .278 (10-for-36) and went homerless in his first 38 plate appearances before going deep against CC Sabathia in Detroit's ALCS-clinching 8-1 victory Thursday.
Now they'll have to overcome an extended rest as they watch the National League Championship Series play out and wait for the World Series to begin. It won't be easy maintaining their edge, even as manager Jim Leyland brings the instructional leaguers to Comerica Park for scrimmages to help the Tigers cope with a five-day hiatus from games. But is anyone out there confident enough to bet against these guys?
"They're the quintessential back-to-back frickin' threats in the lineup," Morris said. "Everybody hopes to have that."
The Cardinals or Giants will find out soon enough if Cabrera and Fielder are collecting rust or simply lying in wait. Detroit's marquee sluggers have been relatively quiet in October. In a few days, it will be time to start making some noise.