Prince Fielder And The Career That Wasn't

Prince Fielder will retire from baseball. OK, he's not officially retiring, but for all intents and purposes, his career is over. At the age of 32, Fielder isn’t exactly old, and what started as a promising career for the slugger will be forever clouded by “what ifs.”

In his first full season in 2005, the squat lefty smashed 28 home runs. He followed that up with a 50-homer campaign to become the youngest player to ever jack 50 in a season. Then he belted 34, followed by another 46. Four seasons in and Fielder had begun an ascension into the pantheon of all-time great power hitters.

From 2005 to 2012, Fielder hit 260 homers — the eighth most in the league over that time, behind the likes of Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez.

His prowess as a premier home run hitter grew when he won the Home Run Derby in 2009. It exploded when he became the second player to win the Home Run Derby twice when he took home the crown in 2012.

His average of 37 home runs per season had him on pace to join the 500 home run club sometime around 2018. This was a Hall of Fame career in the making.

But sports are fickle, and Fielder’s train suddenly derailed in 2014. The man who had played in 157 or more games every year of his career, and missed just one game between 2009 and 2013, underwent neck surgery early in 2014 and played in just 42 games.

Following that surgery, however, Fielder was back to his durable ways, playing in 158 contests. His power numbers slipped as he tallied just 23 long balls, but it still looked as though Fielder would eventually reach the 500 home run plateau.

All of that leaves us here. Fielder sits at 319 career home runs, the MLB season is 114 games in and Fielder is set to undergo another neck surgery after playing in 89 games. This time, the surgery will not allow him to play baseball again, and the career that seemed destined for Cooperstown will instead end in an operating room.

Injuries are terrible whether they’re minor and keep a player out a few games or major and at least career-threatening, if not career-ending. Every fan knows that injuries are awful, but so often they get labeled as “just part of the game.”

While that’s accurate to an extent, sometimes it goes beyond being "part of the game." So often we write off injuries, assume the player will return in whatever time frame and then go about our business as fans (also as writers, reporters and analysts). That’s our job as sports fans.

At the same time, as people, we have to really start empathizing with players because it helps keep sports in perspective. To get to the professional level in a sport, it requires a love of the game and a fire that we can only try to wrap our brains around. We may understand it, but we don’t know it.

What we do comprehend is mostly selfish. We see a player who could have been great, but his career came up shy of that distinction. As fans, through no fault of Fielder’s, we were robbed of seeing one of the game’s premier power hitters for the entirety of his career. We have to instead wonder, “What if?”

“What ifs” are part of sports, and they come in all shapes and sizes. But Fielder’s is particularly tragic. This is a man who grew up with a father who played Major League Baseball. He spent his entire life playing, hoping to get to the Majors. Now at just 32 years old, he will never get to play again.

It’s impossible to empathize with the gravity of a situation like this, but it’s easy to sympathize. Fielder’s career is over, but personally, I’ll continue rooting for him as he moves beyond his playing days.

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