A few months after arriving in Japan to play for the Hanshin Tigers last season, Cecil Fielder called Fred McGriff, a former teammate on the Blue Jays, and made a bet as to which of them would hit more homers in 1989. "I told him, 'If you beat me, I'll take you to Hawaii,' " says Fielder. " 'If I beat you, you've got to do something similar.' "
At the time, a bookie might have given better odds on, say, the Orioles' winning the American League East than on McGriff's missing out on a Hawaiian vacation. McGriff, a star first baseman for Toronto, had hit a total of 54 home runs the previous two seasons, while Fielder had been a platoon first baseman and DH in his four years with the Jays. "When I went over [to Japan], I didn't expect to come back for a long time," recalls Fielder.
One year later, that same bookie would probably offer some very different odds on a Fielder-McGriff matchup. Fielder came alive in Japan, batting .302 with 81 RBIs and 38 home runs—just enough to beat out McGriff's American League-leading 36. Riding a wave of confidence, Fielder, 26, returned to the States in the off-season and parlayed his big Japanese numbers into a two-year, $3 million contract with the Tigers. So far Detroit's gamble has paid off handsomely: At week's end, Fielder was leading the league in home runs (10) and RBIs (25).
And what about the payoff from McGriff? "Freddie told me he'd cook me dinner," says Fielder. "I'm going to make him take me to the best restaurant in Toronto."
Fielder's power doesn't derive from some mystical discovery he made in Japan; in his four seasons with the Blue Jays, he pounded out 31 homers and drove in 84 runs in only 506 at bats. "Everybody knew he had the power," says Gordon Ash, Toronto's assistant general manager. "The question was how much was he going to play. Cecil struck us as the type of player who could achieve his maximum potential with every-day play. But we couldn't give him that."
Hanshin could, and Fielder jumped at the opportunity. "It's the same game, isn't it?" he says. "A lot of guys ask me what level of baseball it is over there: Triple A? Double A? It's baseball. You still have to go out on the field and perform."
Fielder certainly did that. Last year he became the first player to reach the back of the Tokyo Dome with a home run. He was also the first to hit two balls out of Yokohama Stadium in the same game. "A lot of people say that going to Japan is just a money thing," says Tiger outfielder Lloyd Moseby. "But Cecil looked at baseball in Japan as if it was the big leagues. Most guys who go over there get paid a lot and just act lackadaisical about the playing thing. Cecil went over there to play ball."
It shows. "A kid with his talent didn't need to learn anything," adds Moseby. "He just had to play the game. The difference in his confidence is night and day. He's not guessing anymore. Now, not only does he know he can play, but he knows that he can be a star."
This season Fielder is a Tiger of a different stripe.