Fielder fits the Yankees like a glove

The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW YORK - Cecil Fielder had us fooled. Beneath all that bulk is a ballerina.

This is how it will look in the history books, at least. The New York Yankees began their comeback in the 1996 World Series when the full-bodied Fielder was forced to play defense.

He looked like a liability - a big, fat blob with a first baseman's mitt - but he proved to be an enormous asset, both literally and figuratively. With the Yankees precluded from using a designated hitter for the three games in Atlanta, Fielder went out in the field and flourished.

He speared the first shot hit his way, turned it into a double play, and has made every play since. He is listed, optimistically, at 250 pounds, and covers less ground than his shadow. Yet his hands are reliable, his arm is accurate, and his instincts are intuitive.

''Cecil is a good fielder,'' said Yankees manager Joe Torre. ''I remember Sparky Anderson telling me (that) when he was with the Tigers and I was broadcasting. He's quick, his hands are good and he's not afraid of the ball.''

His performance in Atlanta justified Torre's most difficult decision of the series. To keep Fielder's bat in the lineup, Torre was obliged to bench his leading run-producer, Tino Martinez. In retrospect, it seems a stroke of genius.

The Yankees swept the Braves in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, and return to the Bronx needing to win one game in two tries to wrap up the World Series. New York seized a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series Thursday with a 1-0 victory, the one run the result of Fielder's fourth-inning double against John Smoltz.

'Me against him'

''I just felt that Smoltz was a power pitcher, and he's going to come right at you,'' Fielder said. ''Last time (in Game One), I had some pretty good swings against him. I figured it was going to be me against him 'cause I know John Smoltz isn't running from anybody.''

Fielder is a career .256 hitter - his two-stage swing prone to strikeouts; his lumbering legs unsuitable for infield singles - but he is among the last people a pitcher wants to see at the plate with runners on base.

He has more home runs (257) and runs batted in (791) than any player in baseball during the 1990s. His status is such that when the Yankees acquired him from Detroit on July 31 - barely an hour before the trading deadline - they also picked up a $9 million salary.

The Yankees thought they needed a big right-handed bat to bring balance to a lineup loaded with lefties and relatively short on power. Then, when the team went into an August tailspin, they wanted more.

''We were just starting to struggle after we got him,'' Torre said, ''and I told him I needed his help to pull us out of this thing. I think that put a lot on his shoulders and caused him to have a tough time at the plate for a while. But we're seeing how good he is now.

''When we got him, early, I think he was trying to hit home runs. But now he's become a much better hitter.''

More disciplined

Fielder's recent play belies his reputation as an all-or-nothing free swinger. He has been content to take the outside pitch to the opposite field, and disciplined enough to do it. Though he has yet to hit a home run in the World Series, he is hitting .421 against the Braves, and .313 in October. He has driven home 14 runs in the Yankees' 14 post-season games.

''To be able to help this ballclub, I'm ecstatic about it,'' Fielder said. ''I accomplished a lot the last seven years in Detroit, but what I did was really on an individual basis. In this situation, I get the opportunity to hit when things are going to count.

''People always said to me when you're making a lot of money, you should be satisfied, but I really wasn't. Individual accomplishments are nice, but this is what it's all about.''

Cecil Fielder waited a long time for a World Series, and he's been worth his weight in gold. With that body, there is no higher praise.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 26, 1996.