MILWAUKEE He's gone. He's really gone.Milwaukee Brewers fans knew the day would come, but they were never really ready for it. The signs were everywhere, but until Prince Fielder agreed to put his name on another teams contract especially with his free agency lasting through Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then rapidly approaching Groundhogs Day -- there remained hope in Milwaukee that maybe somehow, someway, Fielder would find his way back to Miller Park on a short-term deal.But that hope fought a losing battle with reality Tuesday when the three-time All-Star first baseman agreed to a nine-year, 214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers.What now?Fielder has been such an integral part of the Brewers for what seems like an eternity that it's almost hard to imagine how the team will move forward without him.The question on every Brewers fans mind for months has been about how the team would replace Fielder in the lineup not only this season but for years to come. It's a subject that will be debated repeatedly over the next few weeks as the team prepares to open spring training at Maryvale, Ariz.But Fielder represents so much more than just an intimidating presence in the meat of a once-fearsome lineup. His 230 career home runs, 656 RBI, .282 average and .540 slugging percentage are impressive numbers, but they aren't just the signature of a phenomenal young baseball player experiencing a 200 million-plus payday; they represent the resurgence of a once-moribund franchise and the awakening of a long-dormant fan base.
Forget about his on-field abilities for a moment and pause to consider Fielder's legacy in Milwaukee.From the moment he was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2002 MLB draft, Fielder represented hope. He represented optimism. He represented a change in fortunes and a belief that the future might not be so bad after all for a franchise that hadn't been to the postseason in two decades.Fans followed his minor league exploits while an assembly line of no-name journeymen and unproven youngsters kept spots warm at the major league level. Fielders Miller Park debut -- an Aug. 14, 2003 minor league game between the then-Brewers Class A affiliate, the Beloit Snappers, and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers -- drew 14,447 fans desperate for a look at better days to come. Fielder anchored the lineup, which included fellow top prospects Tony Gwynn Jr. and Rickie Weeks.He went 1-for-5 in that game, singling off Cesar Jimenez in the fifth inning.Fielder would tear up minor league pitching for another two seasons before making his big-league debut June 13, 2005. A week later, with five major league hits to his credit, he electrified Brewers fans for the first time with his first career home run which, coincidentally, came in the same game as Weeks' first blast.From that point on, it was a love affair. His shirts, bearing No. 28 on the back, flew off the shelves. Alongside his good friend Weeks and Ryan Braun, the Brewers slowly clawed their way to respectability. Milwaukee dealt talented and popular first baseman Lyle Overbay to Toronto following the 2005 season, clearing the way for Fielder to be the everyday starter. Neither Fielder nor the Brewers looked back, and the bulky slugger played all but 13 games over the next six seasons.At 23, he became one of the youngest in history to hit 50 home runs in a season. He won a pair of Silver Slugger Awards. He made the All-Star team three times, winning the Home Run Derby in 2009 and earning MVP honors at the 2011 game in Phoenix. He helped the Brewers make the playoffs twice in the past four seasons. Brewers fans equate Fielder with winning, probably because the team didnt have a winning season from 1993-2006 and has had three in five years since. During his six seasons as the starting first baseman, the Brewers went 501-471.Fielder was a man of few words. Most of his postgame interviews involved the phrase, "It's cool," or something along those lines. He didn't need to speak, though. He did his talking on the field and behind the closed locker room doors. He was an unquestioned leader of the team and somebody his teammates loved dearly.On Fielders way out of the clubhouse following the Brewers' 12-6 loss to St. Louis in the sixth and final game of the National League Championship Series, third baseman Casey McGehee stopped him near the door. The two men shared a long embrace, with tears running down McGehee's cheeks."Outside of my family," McGehee told a reporter, "there aren't too many other grown men I would tell them that I love them and truly mean it. He's one of a kind."Fielder truly is.Though the young slugger never went out of his way to ingrain himself in the community like Braun, when Brewers fans look back on an era that may have saved baseball in Milwaukee they'll immediately think of Fielder. Braun has easily become the face of the franchise. But when it comes to heart, nobody personified that better than Fielder.More than anything else, Brewers fans will miss that.Follow Andrew Wagner on Twitter.