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ARLINGTON, Texas — Rather than the tears that streamed down his face, it was Prince Fielder’s words that best exemplified the bitter heartbreak of a once-brilliant career cut short.
“This is actually the most fun I’ve ever had and best I ever felt mentally about baseball,” Fielder said Wednesday. “That’s the thing that really hurts. My brain was good; my body, now … my body, it just gave out.”
An emotional Fielder, with his two young sons by his side and teammates flanking the dais, formally announced what he and Texas Rangers had known since a doctor’s diagnosis last month: A chronic neck injury that has necessitated two spinal fusion surgeries would force the six-time All-Star to retire from baseball at the age of 32.
Fielder, in a neck brace, was placed on the 60-day disabled list on July 20 after surgeon Robert Watkins of California recommended that the Texas designated hitter have surgery and not play again, a diagnosis team physician Drew Dossett confirmed days later.
“It’s highly emotional for all of us. I believe, the entire baseball community as you watch Prince talk … his emotions and the things that were important to him,” Texas manager Jeff Banister said. “It is his family, his teammates … not the numbers. You see just what he means to us. He’s a special person. I fell in love with the guy, the competitor and the person.”
Fielder thanked his family and teammates from each of his three professional stops, including Milwaukee and Detroit, in addition to Scott Boras, the agent who joined Fielder on the dais and negotiated a blockbuster $214 million deal for his client with the Tigers in 2012.
Fielder was traded to Texas for Ian Kinsler on Nov. 20, 2013, in a deal that never worked out for the Rangers. The Tigers also sent cash along, $4 million a year to help cover the first baseman-turned-designated hitter’s guaranteed $24 million annual salary through 2020.
Fielder played in only 42 games his first season in Texas in 2014 after a first spinal fusion surgery. He bounced back in 2015, though his power was noticeably in decline, when he hit .305 with 23 homers and 98 RBIs in an All-Star campaign in which the Rangers also won the AL West.
Fielder commanded the biggest dollars on the market because he was one of the game’s top run-producers. Over 12 seasons, he finished with a .283 career batting average, a .506 slugging percentage, an .887 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 319 home runs and 1,028 RBIs.
However, it was clear all season that something again was wrong with the slugger as his power continued to decline while he was in the midst of a career-worst season. When Fielder was sidelined, he was hitting just .212 with eight home runs and 44 RBIs in 89 games.
In his initial visit to the doctor in July, Fielder struggled to walk a straight line, he said.
Texas general manager Jon Daniels said as with any injury, there was an elevated risk of a recurrence of the neck problem Fielder sustained in 2014, but nothing to presume “it would happen so soon if at all.”
Fielder’s contract is guaranteed. Without providing details, Daniels said the team has disability insurance on the contract and “if it plays out like it looks like, (the Rangers) will likely collect on that.”
“You never want to see it go down that way, but what he did in his career is remarkable to say the least,” Texas first baseman Mitch Moreland said. “I’m proud to say that I got to be his teammate. I made a lifelong friend out of it as well. That’s the good part of it.”
Brewers manager Craig Counsell was sad to learn that Fielder’s career was ending. Fielder spent his first seven major league seasons in Milwaukee, where he and Counsell were teammates from 2007-11.
“I went through the same thing,” Counsell said. “Same injury, same doctor, same surgeon. I know what he’s going through and the pain he’s experiencing. It’s not fun. …
“I really valued my time with him. I’m saddened by this news. It’s not the way it should end for him.”
Said Colorado manager Walt Weiss, his team in town for the first of two games in Texas: “It’s tough. He was very well respected. Everything you hear about him is how great a teammate he was. Everything you want, especially from a manager’s perspective, in a player, on top of being a great player.
“That’s what’s important … how great a person he was, great family man, a pro, great teammate, leader … those are the things you want people talking about when you’re done playing.”
Fielder leaves a team with the best record in the American League and third best in baseball while on a run of four consecutive victories heading into Wednesday’s game. With Fielder sidelined, Texas was active at the trade deadline, acquiring designated hitter Carlos Beltran from the New York Yankees and catcher Jonathan Lucroy from Milwaukee. Instead of Fielder giving Moreland an occasional rest at first, it will now be primarily young Jurickson Profar.
Fielder said he hadn’t much thought about his long-term retirement plans. He noted that he has been in a major league clubhouse since he was his kids’ age while his father, Cecil Fielder, was a slugger for 13 seasons. However, he knows where he will be in the short term.
“I’m still going to be here as soon as I get this neck brace off,” he said. “I’m still going to be here with the fellas. Root them on. We still … they still got work to do. I’ve got cheerleading to do. Hopefully, we’ll win the World Series and pop some champagne.”