LAKELAND, Fla. — The word "Detroit" is stitched across the chest of Prince Fielder now. He wears the navy and white uniform his father once wore and has made himself at home with his new team.
On a hazy Saturday morning, just as the clouds were giving way to sunshine, he bounced around the field at Joker Marchant Stadium, playing catch with his sons and getting his pre-game hacks in.
It could have been different, though. Fielder, who signed a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers in late January, could have been a Washington National.
The Nationals were the rumored favorites for some time during Fielder's prolonged free agency and, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said they were "in negotiations until it didn't make sense" for them to be involved any longer. But Detroit, a darkhorse in the race, dropped the offseason's biggest bombshell just more than six weeks ago. Ultimately, as far as the first baseman could remember, the Nationals never made him a formal offer.
"I definitely wouldn't have minded playing for them," Fielder said Saturday. "But, I'm here.
"Everything worked out for the best."
The Nationals' pursuit of Fielder began slowly. He wasn't on their offseason list when the winter began but as the market for him began to take shape, their interest became more and more real. A December meeting in Washington with the Nationals' ownership group, including principal owner Ted Lerner, and Rizzo helped to solidify their enthusiasm. He had viewed Washington as a place of interest from the start, and during the meeting, from the conversation to the way he carried himself, Fielder wowed them. He could see himself in D.C.
"Definitely," he said. "Why not?"
"I always thought they were a team that had a lot of young talent, and they were going to be really good," Fielder said. "They were good already, it's just sometimes you've got to find that one more thing, I guess, but I felt like they were going to have a chance to contend right now. I think they're a great team."
But the Nationals weren't prepared to go near the nine years the Tigers offered. The length of the contract, more so than the money, sources said, was a sticking point for them. If there was one way Washington stood out to Fielder during a process that lasted longer than any free agent in history to sign a nine-figure contract, it was Bryce Harper.
And count Fielder among those who feel Harper is on the brink of greatness.
"They had a 19-year-old phenom, that was about the only difference [between them and other teams in pursuit]," Fielder said. "I personally think Bryce is going to be a superstar."
Fielder knows what it's like to grow up in the spotlight. He was born into baseball, following his father, Cecil, to the ballpark as a kid. Even he is amazed by what Harper has done with the attention paid to his every move. "He's like LeBron James," Fielder said. "He's been the man."
"I really like Bryce a lot. I think he's a stud. I really do," he said. "It's a lot to deal with and for him to keep working at his craft and the way he's handled is success, it's special to see that, especially out of a 19-year-old. I know at 19 I wouldn't have been able to do it.
"For him to come out and keep doing what everyone wants and thinks he's supposed to do, it's not easy to do that."
Harper, of course, is a fellow client of Scott Boras, as are seven other players on the Nationals' 40-man roster, and Fielder said he heard through Boras often that the Nationals' players were pulling for him to land with them. The tantalizing power he brings from the left side of the plate was simply too much for them not to want in their uniform. One player, though a non-Boras client, described it as "heartbreaking," the day Fielder signed with the Tigers.
Fielder appears at peace in a Tigers' uniform. He got the mega-contract he and Boras set out for at the start of the offseason. While his feelings on the Nationals' chances for contending may remain, he'll watch from afar. He'll stay in Detroit, helping to form one of the most intimidating lineups in the major leagues.
The Nationals' and Fielder's mutual affection was there, it just wasn't enough.
"You usually end up loving the team that loves you," Fielder said.
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