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Cecil Fielder

January 21, 2010

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of short stories by Raymond Carver. I always circle back around to his stuff, usually when I’m feeling like I can barely get out of bed, and he helps me get out of bed. This latest Carver jag grew out of my reading of a new biography of Carver by Carol Sklenicka. I learned a lot of new stuff about Carver in the bio, including that as a boy he was fat. Maybe that information helped me notice, after all these times reading his stories, that many of them include descriptions of eating, and that these descriptions, in the often harrowing context of a given Carver story, turn the act of eating into something sacramental. Carver’s fictional world is rife with uncertainty, disconnection, loneliness, loss. The concrete act of eating, in relief against these immeasurable hungers, takes on a power that borders on holiness. It’s something to hold onto, an affirmation. One of his most famous stories, “A Small, Good Thing,” ends with a baker offering food to parents whose son has died. Another of his well-known stories, and one that helped launch his career, is simply called “Fat” and centers on a waitress trying and failing and continuing to try to get at what it felt like to serve a man who was enormously obese.

***

“A big fat guy who hit home runs for a few years.” – Bill James’ entry, in its entirety, on Cecil Fielder in James’ Historical Baseball Abstract

“He is fat . . . but that is not the whole story.” – Raymond Carver, “Fat”

***

In “Fat,” there is a muted element of wonder in the waitress’ description of the prodigious amount of food she kept bringing to her customer. Reading it, I was reminded of a book I’d read as a child.

I don’t know if it’s still around, but RIF, which stood for “reading is fundamental,” was a program that visited schools and allowed each kid to choose a book to bring home. I always went for a sports book, something like Basketball’s Big Men or Baseball’s Best Catchers. One of my choices was a dual biography of Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson (it had no back cover but two front covers, one featuring Ryan in an Angels uniform and one showing Reggie in his Oakland garb), and in the Reggie bio there was a description of what he ate for breakfast every day. It was like several meals all rolled into one. Eggs and pancakes and sausage and bacon; orange juice and milk and coffee; potatoes and grits and oatmeal and big hunks of bread slathered with butter; and steak, always a big thick slab of steak. I think there might have even been a milkshake. But it was the huge steak that always floored me. For breakfast! I imagined Reggie hunkering down every morning and shoveling it in, and in this vision I was both an amazed watcher of the strapping slugger and the slugger himself, feeding every last alley of hunger inside. Reggie seemed superhuman in many ways, not least because of his ability to devour so much food and turn it into power.

***

Eating was a big deal for me back then. I loved Saturdays for the day-long ritual of eating it offered. I started out with several bowls of cereal, each spiked with heaping spoonfulls of sugar and backed with glasses of milk and buttered toast, all of this downed in front of cartoons: Bugs, Scooby-Doo, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, Fat Albert, Thundarr the Barbarian. At noon I’d switch to lunch and eat Spaghettios, which I’d chase with a tower of Chips Ahoy and more milk as the television programming edged into sports. All these years later, I’m still coming to terms with that first ritualized response of mine to empty time. Now whenever Saturday rolls around I feel that same pull—television to numb and food to provide the illusion of fullness. It’s chiefly a quirk of genetics (along with the limiting of Saturdays to once a week and my eccentric, outdated love of pedestrianism) that I’m not the size of a sofa.

***

If you had to choose a last meal, what would it be? I think this question came up back on Baseball Toaster, though I can’t recall where. I know Scott Long sometimes delved into food on his blog, The Juice, so maybe it was there, but I’m not sure. But I think I joined into the conversation and said I’d choose a Fenway Frank, the implication being that I’d be in Fenway watching the Red Sox as I ate it. I understand now that the hot dogs there are nothing particularly special, but when I was a kid I honestly thought they were the greatest-tasting food I’d ever eaten. I was being fed on every level. I was surrounded by my family, sitting next to my brother, wolfing down a hot dog, talking about baseball statistics, and watching the real-live versions of the Cardboard Gods, right there below me. It was worship.

***

Back then I dreamed of being a season-ticket holder at Fenway, but instead my connection to that place has always remained one that retains a kind of mystical distance. I return when I can. One of my most memorable adult returns came in the early 1990s, when my brother and I traveled up from New York to Boston to stay with our aunt and uncle and catch a couple games in a series against Detroit. Early in one of the games, Roger Clemens gave up back-to-back homers and then drilled the next batter, John Shelby, who charged the mound. Before Shelby could get to the ace, the late, great John Marzano, a backup catcher getting a rare start, made a flying tackle of the charging Tiger. Both benches emptied. My brother and I had never seen a brawl in person before, and this was a pretty good one, even though it didn’t take that long for it to calm down to the usual shoving and holding waltz where everyone on one team partners up with someone of roughly similar size and weight on the other team. This partnering was actually the best part of the brawl, because it offered everyone in attendance a joyous testimonial to the singular sensation that was Cecil Fielder. Since there was no one of equal size on the Red Sox’ roster (or on anyone’s roster), Mo Vaughn and Carlos Quintana, themselves both hefty specimens, combined to form the equivalent of Cecil Fielder, each holding one of his leg-sized arms and looking hilariously tiny as they did so, as if Cecil could send them sprawling with a chuckle and a shrug if he felt like it.

I loved Cecil Fielder that day, and every day of his career thereafter, save for when I had to avert my eyes when he donned pinstripes for a couple years near the end. He was a big fat guy who hit home runs. What’s not to love? And now that the uncertainty of the world has revealed itself to be every bit a part of that one thing I had always held in stark opposition to uncertainty—baseball statistics—I love Cecil Fielder even more. Who knows what the numbers in the single-season home run record list mean anymore? Since Cecil Fielder became, in 1990, the first player since George Foster in 1977 to hit over 50 home runs in a season, the once-rare feat has been achieved at just over a once-a-season rate. When Fielder did it, it seemed to me a thing of wonder, as if it hadn’t been done in a lifetime. I had been a kid when Foster had done it, and by 1990 I was, at least biologically, an adult. Since things are different when you’re an adult, Fielder topping 50 taters didn’t shine as brightly on my life as Foster’s feat, but it was amazing nonetheless. The devaluation of the mark since then has shrunken the significance it might otherwise have, but to me it remains something special. From the big, fat man: a small, good thing. 

19 comments

  1. The last brawl I saw was the first ballgame I took my youngest daughter to. It involved Joe Blanton and Ichiro. Blanton was backing up home plate when a throw went wild and landed at Ichiro’s feet on the on-deck circle. Blanton shoved Ichiro out of the way to retrieve the ball, and then all hell broke loose.

    Maybe if Ichiro was fat and Blanton was skinny instead of vice versa, it wouldn’t have happened.

    Which might help explain this interview question with Ichiro on MyNorthwest.com:

    Q: If you could trade places with anybody in the history of the game for one day who would you like to trade with and why?

    Ichiro: There’s not really a certain who that comes to mind but I think I would like to become a really fat player.

    http://www.mynorthwest.com/?nid=374&sid=266497


  2. Josh, you are totally right about Foster’s 52 homers seeming otherworldly in 1977. Looking at his card as an eight or nine year old and seeing the “5” in that column was almost beyond comprehension.

    The funny thing about Fielder, as most everybody remembers, is that he was exiled to Japan for a year (I don’t know why, he seemed to do OK with Toronto before then, maybe somebody else can explain it) and hit 51 homers the season he came back. Looking back, Carlton Fisk, Jack Clark and I can’t help but wonder…. In any case, it amazes me how much Prince Fielder is just like his dad. Prince is probably even heavier, though.


  3. I think Fielder went to Japan for the dough (he got a much better deal than what he was making with the Jays), and also because he was blocked at first by Fred McGriff.

    I guess nothing is ever certain, and no one is beyond doubt, but in looking at the numbers, Fielder was already pummeling homers at a pretty good rate as a young man on the Jays (14 in just under 200 at bats in his second-to-last season in Toronto). He goes to Japan, comes into his own as a wildly beloved slugger, and strides home with renewed confidence just as he’s hitting his athletic prime. That scenario–and his gym-avoidin’ body–has me thinking that the fat man did it legit. If he didn’t, I don’t really want to know.


  4. Josh,

    This is a very good post and thanks for the Raymond Carver recommendation.

    Cecil Fielder was such a huge man. My God, he barely fits on the baseball card! Also, I liked the Detroit away jersey better with DETROIT spelled in block letters rather than the script 3 color Detroit they use today.

    Sb1902,

    You’re right about Foster and those 52 HR in ’77 seeming otherworldly back then. What’s often forgotten is that Foster hit 40HR in 1978! So back to back Foster hit 92HR, almost 100 in two years which just seemed incredible to a kid back in the 70’s.


  5. I remember John Marzano, when he was with Seattle, got into a pretty good brawl with Paul O’Neill. Unfortunately that’s the only memory his name triggers.
    Also I remember when Cecil was with the Yankees, Prince was maybe 12 or 13 and already hitting balls into the Stadium bleachers during BP.


  6. Nobody EVER remembers RIF!!! “How’d you get so smart?” “Reeeading!” And then at the end you’d see RIF and its address (a P.O. Box in Washington, D.C.) written in the sand, before a wave washed it away. That’s how I remember it anyway.

    Here’s your game–Mo Vaughn’s 10th MLB game: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS199107060.shtml

    Last brawl I saw in person: The Coco Crisp thing. What a moment. I was up in the pavilion so we were able to go to the TVs up there and watch the replays. The oohs and ahhs of the crowd each time they’d show Coco’s Matrix move were great.


  7. cecil was a great player and delivered some key rbi in the yankees’ 96 series run. not homers, just bouncers up the middle when it mattered.

    i was living in california when he hit 52. one angel game vs detroit, charlie sheen bought the entire bleacher section in left field in case he popped one. i guess that was his career highlight, eh?

    cecil fielder tcb. it’s too bad he and prince are estranged. the story is that the kid hit bp homers at tiger stadium at age 12. prince indeed. i hope he loses some weight so he can play longer.

    my favorite fat player was john kruk, followed by david wells.


  8. My first Tigers game was in 1990, a game against the A’s and the Bash Brothers, there must have been 7 or 8 homeruns hit that day, including a shot by Cecil that hit the left field roof in Tiger Stadium and ricocheted off out of the park. Here is a commercial I remember from my youth, starring Cecil and his young son:


  9. Josh,

    I was at the Shelby/Marzano game as well. Besides the excitement of the fight, what I remember about that game was that Pete Incaviglia hit the longest homerun I’ve ever seen. It didn’t just hit the light tower above the Green Monster, it actually went into the bank of lights themselves atop the tower. Must be 100 feet above the field.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS199107060.shtml


  10. How right you are about when “50” meant something! Being a Yankee fan through and through, rooting for the 1990 Yankees was not something for the faint of heart. You had to really ‘like’ the team. I did, enough that I decided to go to the last game of the 1990 season, not because of my fandom, but that Cecil was stuck on 49 homers with one game left.

    Me and 13,380 fans, Yankee fans or just baseball fans found a hardly full stadium (picture that today, less than 14,000 fans at a Yankee game!), but there was excitement, at least for me, in seeing him go for 50. It WAS why I bought the ticket. (certaninly the 67-95 Yankee team that year did not inspire us).

    I was only 11 when George Foster last got to 50 in a season, but that was over in the “other’ league, so no AL’er had done it, I am guessing, since Mantle?

    In the fourth, against the forgettable Steve Adkins, who, from memory wore something like Number 62, Cecil drove one into leftfield and there it was! 50!

    I have some pics, with an actual film camera of him rounding the bases. It was a BIG deal then. Now, not so much, Jose Canseco’s grandmother can hit them out of most parks today.

    Another rememberance of that game, the next time Cecil came up, the Yankees Stadium scoreboard still had up his stats from his first AB, which still read 49 HR. When he came up after hitting the 50th, the crowd expected the board to have the 50HR on it. When the crowd suddenly started yelling and hollering about it, magically, after about a pitch or two, the scoreboard operator changed it to 50 HR. The crowd cheered that.

    Then, I think the at bat after that, he hit number 51!

    Pretty Cool-

    And, it was cool having him join “us” in 1996 for the stretch run, not so much a power threat that he was, but he did get a bunch of clutch hits during the 96 playoffs and WS. Just the threat of the “Big Guy” in the lineup helped that team- remember, the 96 Yankees were not a big power team at all.

    Good stuff, just writing here for the first time, used to read and comment over on your other blog- still checking your work out often.


  11. Also, check out the lineup from that game, Sparky Anderson hit Cecil second in the lineup! I took a look, he hit second the last two games of 1990, I am sure to get more at bats in his quest for 50.

    He certainly wasnt in that spot to slap a single to RF!


  12. i love carver, and i always liked cecil, even though i was never a tigers or (gag) yankees fan. i agree that i don’t want to know, in his case, if he wasn’t hitting them legally. perhaps too many mcdonald’s burgers was part of the weight problem for father and son?

    since “r-i-f” are the first three letters of my last name, i still hear references to “reading is fundamental” all the time.

    i’ve always had a fear of being fat. one of my uncle’s best friends, a sports bookie, was a beanpole until he turned forty, when he suddenly looked like he was giving birth to twins. (no, not the minnesota kind.)


  13. Being somewhat “fundamentally” un-read, I’ve always confused Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler – in my mind, the Garry Matthews and Garry Maddox of letters, as it were.

    As for John Marzano, I always saw him as a real lunchbox-toting, working-class, salt-of-the-earth type of guy, the archetypical back-up catcher’s back-up catcher.

    And I have even more respect for him now, as according to his ultimately tragic bio on wikipedia, Marzano “became a cult hero” in Seattle for doing what I’ve openly fantasized about for years: “Throwing a Haymaker” at that tantrum-throwing poster boy for churlish self-absorption, whining immaturity and poor sportsmanship, Paul O’Neill.

    R.I.P Marz. Here’s to ya.


  14. Ramblin Pete,

    I never understood the unwavering adoration/blind eye Yankee fans used to have for Paul O’neill. Yes he was a very good player but like you said he was immature, threw tantrums, was a poor sportsmen, and was self-absorbed, and Yankee fans constantly overlooked his behavior. Behavior that would by ridiculed and scorned by Yankee fans if performed by a Red Sox or Met player.

    But Seriously, what’s the difference between what O’neil did and What Jefferies did? I guess O’neil was a better player and won in NYC so his antics were overlooked.


  15. As a Yankee fan, I can tell you, a lot of it was because O’Neill was very, very good with the media. I think he earned a measure of protection for that (also didn’t hurt that his sister was writing about food for the NY Times). If the NY media had decided he was a jerk, you’d better believe those tantrums would have been written about with malice day after day and he likely would have been run out of town.

    The think about O’Neill’s loony shit-fits is that they were almost all inwardly directed. He usually exploded when he failed to do something, and given how mild-mannered he seemed when talking to the tv & radio reporters, I know a lot of fellow Yankee fans just found it funny. Whenever an interviewer brought up the subject, he seemed completely embarassed.

    But mostly we didn’t mind because the guy hit .300 a lot and won 4 WS. Let’s be honest.


  16. Blanemon,

    Those are all valid points you make, especially with the media.

    Plus he was an extremely popular with the female Yankee fans. Especially among the over-30 white suburban fans during the 90’s.

    Like you said, he hit and played good defense and won 4 WS so a lot of his transgressions were overlooked.

    I think what helped him also was that he was already an established ML player that had won a WS with the Reds. As opposed to Jefferies who was young and hadn’t won or accomplished anything.

    I just think it’s funny the words used to describe both O’neil and Jefferies for doing essentially the same behavior. O’neil was described as a “gamer”, “competitive”, “high energy” and “Classy”, Jefferies was described as “Babyish”, “Immature”, “uncooperative.”

    It’s just interesting to see how people who have a good rapport with other people and are successful are perceived compared to people who are unfriendly and unsuccessful are perceived for doing the same behavior.


  17. I just remembered a line in Bull Durham that reminds me of the topic of perception.

    If you have fungus on your shower shoes but win 20 games in “The Show”, you will be perceived as colorful.

    If you have fungus on your shower shoes but pitch in the minors you’re just a “Slob”.


  18. As a teenager, my first introduction to Carver was “The Cathedral”. My folks had no idea why I suddenly wanted scalloped potatoes and cube steak for dinner all the time.

    Some time later I read “Vitamins” and swiftly proceeded to imitate Carver again. This time it was by drinking prodigious amounts whiskey, not a favorite of mine, with milk (neglecting to understand the milk was likely used to combat the ulcerous effects of the alcohol). The routine did not have a happy ending.


  19. I remember seeing my first baseball fight on TV in 1967. I was 9 years old and living in Hartford. We got channel 8 out of New Haven and my dad adjusted the rabbit ears on top of the TV to get Red Sox games on our ancient black and white 19 inch 1957 model TV. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees. Thad Tillotson pitching against Jim Lonborg in a night game. A day before there was an article in the Hartford Times about Joe Foy rescuing his family in a house fire in his hometown of The Bronx. Here is a description I found of the incident: When the Red Sox descended upon New York for a series in late June in 1967, infielder Joe Foy paid a visit to his parents who lived thirteen blocks away from the Stadium. He discovered their house was on fire and pulled them to safety. The next day, he powered Boston to victory with a grand slam home run.

    The next day New York right-hander Thad Tillotson decided to have a go at the man of the hour on June 21. Foy managed to evade the first high fastball, but the second one nailed his helmet. He went directly to first base without complaint, but when Tillotson came to bat in the bottom of the inning, Boston pitcher Jim Lonborg struck him on the shoulder. Threatening Lonborg with retaliation as he trotted to first, the Yankees pitcher was quickly intercepted by Foy who had traversed the field from his third base position. Adopting a belligerent tone and demeanor, he advised his assailant: “If you want to fight, why not fight me? I’m the guy you hit to start all this trouble.” Rico Petrocelli, who never shied away from a fight, laid some good hits on fellow Brooklynite Joe Pepitone.. That year Lonborg won the Cy
    Young while nailing 19 batters. He would put an X on his glove for every victim.



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