Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 5/29/12
By Joan Niesen FOXSportsNorth.com MINNEAPOLIS It's nails on a chalkboard. It's jarring. It's more screech than laugh, the kind of sound that shatters glass in cartoon. It's too high-pitched to be gruff, too giddy to be the shriek of a grown man. And yet there Prince Fielder sat after the Detroit Tigers' 10-6 win over the Twins on Friday, his impossible laughter cutting through the thumping rap music. It was the best kind of punctuation to a much-needed game. Detroit had won, on its way to a sweep of Minnesota and Fielder's best series yet as a Tiger, and the first baseman had earned those laughs. For a few brief minutes, Fielder forgot that he'd just batted .083 as his team was swept in Cleveland. He forgot the dogged attention following each of his moves since he'd signed a nine-year, 214 million deal with the Tigers on Jan. 25. He forgot that he'd batted just .191 in six series in Minnesota during his career, that these were new opponents and new ballparks, new challenges in a new league. Struggles and the discomfort can fade in moments like those on Friday. They fade when you bat .775 in a three-game series with two doubles and three RBI. They're drowned out by the music and jokes, the rare instances when Fielder's season starts to feel how it should. Because so far, this is not what anyone expected. The confusion is bigger than just Fielder, though. It goes beyond one man to 25, to the pieces that were supposed to make up something great but have instead yielded a 23-25 record. The Tigers aren't yet the team they were supposed to be, and for the first time since his 2005 debut, Fielder is fighting to establish himself. He's battling a set of misperceptions borne not only of a new team but of a new, underperforming team that mortgaged its future on him. That can't be easy. When Fielder played in Milwaukee, he was an unquestioned star. He was a portly vegetarian, supposedly, a three-time All-Star, the only Brewer to hit 50 home runs in a season. He'd helped to turn the franchise around, leading the team to its first playoff berth since 1982 in 2008. He was surly, maybe, but beloved; fans stood and cheered for his final at bat as a Brewer on Oct. 16, 2011. But Fielder lost some of that identity amid the rumors and vitriol, the Internet speculation of he-said, they-said, that accompany big-name contract negotiations. He arrived in Detroit with a 214million-pound weight on his back, expectations both blurred and ballooned by the Tigers' impending ascendancy. He arrived and announced that he was no longer a vegetarian and had only been for a few months. He was ready for a new mythology, a new identity, but what he got was something much more difficult. He arrived in Detroit much older than his 27 years. (Fielder turned 28 on May 9.) He was lumped with the other big-name free agent of 2011-12, Albert Pujols, ascribed with an assumed veteran status despite his much younger age and a maturity he might not yet possess. In a city where no one knew him not like they had in Milwaukee assumptions prevailed. Fielder had been the Brewers' biggest star, so of course he was the leader in their clubhouse. Fielder was lauded for his offense, so of course he should come into Detroit and immediately hit above .300. Fielder wasn't a replacement or the solution to a problem. He was just an addition to something already great, so of course the Tigers should win. It's amazing what frenzy can obscure. Fielder was rarely the player who spoke up in Milwaukee's clubhouse, he said. Former teammate Corey Hart called him a "loud guy," but he was just one part of a leadership corps on a Brewers team that included 15-year veteran Craig Counsell. "I don't think I'm so much vocal," Fielder said. "At times I'll say something, but I just really try to play hard and do it that way. I've never been good at talking much. Every now and then, but unless there's something that needs to be said, I try not to do that." As far as that lauded offense goes, take a look at the numbers. After playing out of his mind against Minnesota over the weekend, Fielder went into Monday batting .317. That's the highest batting average he's posted on May 28 of any season since he went into May 28, 2006 batting .324, and he's never finished a season with a batting average higher than .299. Sure, Fielder is on pace to hit only 24 homers and drive in 94 runs, but the hits are there, and his team's overall offensive struggles can explain at least some of that lower RBI pace. And that whole "the Tigers were already perfect and Fielder just made them better" mantra? That's a farce. The Tigers didn't begin to pursue Fielder in earnest until designated hitter Victor Martinez tore his left ACL in January. They needed to make up for the loss of his 103 RBI in 2011, and Fielder was their guy. Shifting Miguel Cabrera to third base and the uproar that move created did its part to create the image of Fielder nosing his way into a team with no real need, but in reality, the situation was anything but. The Tigers weren't desperate, but they had a place for their new first baseman. Remember all that, and Prince Fielder in Detroit is a very different player. He's hitting well, struggling defensively, and doing his part to fit into the role his new team had waiting for him. Better even than that, in his first two months with the Tigers Fielder has proven that the real version of himself, the one hidden behind that cloud of expectations, is well suited to succeed in the transition he's making. Fielder isn't a dreadlocked superhero. He doesn't make speeches and grand gestures, and his brand of leadership travels well. He's a professional among professionals, the new guy in a clubhouse of players who've known each other for years. To waltz into Detroit and become the most vocal player in the stadium would have been wrong, and lucky for Fielder, that's not his style. "We're all professionals, so I think that's the best type of way to lead at this level," teammate Alex Avila said of Fielder's example. "Going out every day and playing hard, that shows you something. He's definitely been doing that this year." Players don't want to listen just for listening's sake. When there's something that needs to be said, Fielder will say it, but otherwise, he just plays baseball. In the Tigers' current situation, Fielder's example has earned him acceptance among his teammates, including Avila, who said that he feels like he's known his new teammate for years, not just a few months. It's still new, but Fielder is finding his way. He's finished talking about the adjustment, about switching leagues and the challenges that brings. It's just baseball, he said, and the biggest challenge is integrating himself into the Tigers' clubhouse. "It's the same," Fielder said of his season. Then he caught himself: "I mean, obviously it's just different." "I think that's more the adjustment, as far getting accustomed to things rather than the baseball part. It's being with a different team, different clubhouse. It's just totally different, especially when you've been somewhere more than five years already. I think that was the big adjustment, rather than the competition. The competition's great, but it's still baseball." Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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