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Almost every night
the father watches the boy on television, cheering every home run, cursing
every strikeout. He studies the boy--the massive, tattooed arms, the prodigious
midsection, the mighty swing--and it's as if he's seeing a younger version of
himself. He hears the broadcasters hail the boy as one of the game's next great
sluggers, and the father roars back at the TV, "He's got 40 career homers!
Take it easy!" The father watches the boy wave at a fastball on the outside
corner, and he's ready to pick up the phone and scream, "Now, what the hell
were you doing so far off the plate?"
The boy is 23-year-old Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers, who has followed in Cecil's footsteps as a first baseman. In the eighth inning of a May 15 game in Philadelphia, Prince pulled a sinker below the knees into the rightfield seats at Citizens Bank Park. It was his sixth homer in 11 games and 12th of the year, tying him then for tops in the National League. Cecil, who had started working as a roving hitting instructor for a nascent independent league earlier this month, missed the moment because he was at a scrimmage in South Carolina with Kash Beauchamp, a former teammate in the Toronto Blue Jays' minor league system and the South Coast League's VP for baseball operations. "I see Cec later, and I can tell he's checked a Brewers box score because he's got that glow on his face," says Beauchamp, who recruited Fielder. "'Kid got him another one,' he says to me."
They were once inseparable, the father and the son. During the 1990s Cecil was one of baseball's most recognizable figures: the man they called Big Daddy, a sumo-sized first baseman with a big smile and devastating swing. Cecil mashed 51 home runs for the Detroit Tigers in 1990--when 50 was still a magical number--played in three All-Star Games and won a World Series with the '96 New York Yankees. And beefy, dimpled Prince was there every step of the way. He joined Cecil on road trips during the summer and was a fixture in his father's clubhouses, where players wrestled with him, stuffed him in laundry baskets and loaded him up with candy. Prince took batting practice with major leaguers. He appeared in commercials alongside his dad. He chilled with superstars like Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. "I'd go over to Griffey's house [in Seattle] and play video games with him," Prince says. "He beat me in everything, but it was cool--like he was one of my friends. It was like that with everyone. Those were fun days."
But soon after Cecil retired in 1998, it all began to unravel for the Fielders. Cecil became engulfed in a number of lawsuits, and despite his $47 million in career earnings, he and his wife, Stacey, ultimately lost their dream home, a 50-room, $3.7 million palace on the biggest estate in Florida's Brevard County. An acrimonious divorce tore the family apart. For five years Cecil eluded creditors and ducked reporters, but now he is back in baseball for the first time since his playing days, traveling from one Southern hamlet to another, teaching minor league kids to hit. He lives in Atlanta with his new wife, Angie; their two-year-old son, Grant; and Cecil's daughter, Ceclynn, 15, from his previous marriage. "Everything's good," says Cecil, who is silver-goateed and weighs 260 pounds, his weight for most of his career. He looks fit in that Big Daddy way, as if he could step into a batting cage and still beat the hell out of the ball.
Sitting in front of his locker before a game in Philadelphia, Prince, who is married with two kids, says the same thing about his life: "Everything's good." In just his second season he is establishing himself as one of the NL's top lefthanded hitters: At week's end he ranked in the league's top six in homers (12), slugging percentage (.574) and RBIs (33). His Brewers were in first place in the NL Central and off to the best start (27--17) in the franchise's history. "For the first time in a long time everything is calm in Prince's life," says Brewers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., a close friend of Prince's. "He can focus on baseball. And he can focus on his family, raising his kids. He wants to be a great father. He doesn't want to make the same mistakes that he perceived his dad made."
The boy was always big--nearly 50 pounds when he was just a year old--and always had a mammoth appetite. "You'd see the kid running around holding a package of raw hot dogs," says Beauchamp, who lived with the Fielders in a trailer in the early 1980s, when he and Cecil played for the Class A Kinston Blue Jays. "He'd eat every one of them, then still eat a meal." By the time Prince was a sophomore swatting tape-measure shots at Eau Gallie High in Melbourne, Fla.--he once launched a ball that shattered the window of a gas station across the street from the ballpark--he had ballooned to over 300 pounds. "I realized I had to lose some weight to be a serious baseball player," says Prince, who as a youngster heard all the fat jokes showered upon his father. "With reporters there was always something negative with my dad, no matter how well he did. He didn't seem to care about what was said, but it angered me. I didn't want people to ever say I was lazy or didn't work hard. So I decided that they weren't going to be able to say that about me."
Prince dropped 50 pounds between his sophomore and senior years, but major league teams that drooled over his raw power still worried about his weight. It was a concern for the Brewers, whose scout Tom McNamara visited the Fielders' home just before the 2002 draft. McNamara asked Prince to get on a scale; he refused and instead invited McNamara to one of his workouts at a local gym. "I sat there amazed by his work ethic," says McNamara. "He really showed his hunger to succeed."
Milwaukee took Prince seventh in the draft and, with Cecil serving as his agent, inked him to a $2.4 million signing bonus. That summer at Ogden, Utah, Prince roughed up pitchers in the rookie league--he hit .390 with 10 home runs in just 41 games--and by August was promoted to Class A Beloit ( Wis.). He was walking off the field after a game there when a man emerged from the bleachers and confronted him. It was a process server who'd been trying to track down Cecil for months. In front of his team Prince was given papers that named his father as defendant in a lawsuit. The case had nothing to do with Prince, but still, says Gwynn, "he was embarrassed."
Just as Prince's baseball career was starting, his family was unraveling. Several other creditors, it turned out, were also after Cecil, who owed millions due to failed business ventures--from classic cars to real estate--and gambling losses. "We spent two to three years trying to track him down all across the country, at All-Star Games, through his son," says Robert Fleischacker, the attorney who sent the process server to Beloit on behalf of a trailer company that claimed Cecil owed $909,000 for defaulting on a lease agreement. He had guaranteed the leases for a Detroit-area trucking company. "We'd spent enough time and resources trying to find him," says Fleischacker. "It just wasn't worth it anymore, so we stopped." Another creditor is Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, which successfully sued Cecil for more than $580,000 that, according to court papers, he lost during a gambling binge in 1999.
Cecil's financial woes came to light in 2004, during his divorce proceedings with Stacey. Each blamed the other for the family's financial ruin: Stacey pointed to Cecil's gambling; he cited her extravagant spending. Prince took Stacey's side, engaging in shouting matches with Cecil in the courtroom and over the phone. " Prince felt like he needed to protect his mother and become the man of the house, so we had some heated conversations," says Cecil. "Some bad things were said." Prince also accused his father of taking $200,000 of his signing bonus without permission. "My father is dead to me," he told The Detroit News in 2004.