Twice crowned: Tigers' first Derby winner a Prince
Slugger first to win title in each league, second multiple champ
KANSAS CITY -- Tigers fans grew infatuated with Prince Fielder's power way back when he homered in Tiger Stadium in batting practice as a kid. Nearly two decades later, and six months after he rejoined the organization as a player, he put that uppercut swing to work and became the first Tiger to win the State Farm Home Run Derby.
In the process of his 28-homer barrage on the right-field fountains of Kauffman Stadium on Monday night, Fielder became the first player in Derby history to win a title in each league, and the second to win multiple crowns. He joined Ken Griffey Jr., one of the players whom he admired as a kid.
As Fielder took one tape-measure shot after another, including a seven-homer outburst in eight swings to run away in the final round, his childhood didn't look that far away, even at age 28. For an event some hitters don't like to participate in, Fielder looks like he relishes it.
"Oh, it's fun," Fielder said, "and when these guys are out there, they are having a blast. And especially when you have kids, when you see your kids having a good time and seeing how much they enjoy it, you have a good time as well. I'm just happy that I'm healthy and able to be here, and happy that they like it, too."
Fielder's two sons, Jadyn and Haven, looked more tired than their dad as they joined him on the podium after the win. Yet as easy as he made it look, he made it clear that it definitely wasn't.
Fielder has always been one of the game's most impressive home run producers, but he spent most of this season's first half showing off his pure hitting skill. His .299 batting average at the break would tie his career best for a full season if he can keep it up, but 27 Major League hitters had more home runs than his total of 15.
When he signed with the Tigers over the winter, the highlights of his batting-practice sessions were replayed over and over. This kind of display was what Tigers fans dreamed about.
Fielder was a Milwaukee Brewer when he won the 2009 event at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, well before he became a free agent and signed with Detroit. For good measure, he brought back Brewers Minor League hitting coordinator Sandy Guerrero to pitch to him, as he had every previous Derby he'd hit in.
Fielder was the last to advance out of the opening round, making it only after Matt Kemp and Robinson Cano combined for just one home run. Even so, Fielder barely missed two others off the outfield fence, one of them in straightaway center. Guerrero could see him heating up near the end of the round.
"As soon as he starts getting his timing, he gets locked in," Guerrero said. "There's a signal there as soon as he gets his timing. ... When they let us in the second round, we had a chance, because it takes him a little bit to get the timing down. But I noticed at the end [of that round], his timing was going good."
The home runs Fielder hit were some of the most impressive of the night. He sent a 454-foot drive into the right-field fountains, then nearly corkscrewed himself into the ground on one swing that launched a 448-foot shot into the water in right-center field for his last home run of the first round.
"Once we got into the second round, he got the better timing," Guerrero said. "He was outside already one time, so he knew the feeling of it. I knew we had a chance."
It wasn't just the 11-homer second-round total that impressed, but the distances of many of them. Fielder sent a 476-foot loft into the upper-level fountains in right-center, a 464-foot shot into the second deck of the fountains, a 461-footer to the same area and a 458-foot drive to cap his round.
When he completed his second round, Fielder owned not just the longest drive of the Derby, but the top four. He also had topped his home run total with the Tigers this season, 16 to 15.
It was the best round any Tiger had put on in this event since Ivan Rodriguez wowed the home crowd at Comerica Park by reaching the finals in 2005.
"The ball just met the barrel more, I guess," Fielder said. "They just went further the next time."
Guerrero noticed the difference, especially when he missed his spots on a couple throws.
"There were a couple pitches low. They could be maybe two and a half, three inches off the ground," Guerrero said, "and he just drove those to the fountain. And he's looking at me like, 'Keep it right there.' But that's really tough to do. There were a couple of them, and that shows what kind of incredible hitter he is."
Once Jose Bautista survived a swing-off, it set up a finals matchup between the slugger the Tigers were supposedly trying to trade for in 2010 -- his breakout season with the Blue Jays -- against the slugger Detroit signed a year and a half later. It was no match.
Fielder batted first and put the Derby out of reach, homering seven times before he made his second out. He homered 12 times for the round, leaving a tiring Bautista with little hope.
Fielder was tired, he said later, but he wasn't showing it. They had a system, Guerrero said. He'd take two pitches, then hit the third one out.
"I wasn't trying to swing too hard," Fielder said. "That's probably why they went over, I was out of breath. That's why I was taking a lot of pitches in between. I'm just happy it worked out."
Bautista homered seven times in the finals, 20 total. Once Bautista made his 10th out, Fielder hugged his two sons, who were on the field with him.
When Fielder was on the podium for media day duties earlier in the day, Jadyn had predicted his dad would win this. When asked why, he had a simple answer.
"Because he's the best player ever," Jadyn said.
In Derby history, he might be.