SPARKY Anderson has never been known to underestimate his players. Especially in spring training.
So, when the Detroit Tigers' manager made what some considered lavish predictions about his Japanese import six months ago, it didn't exactly send the price of Cecil Fielder's rookie card through the roof. Neither did it induce the folks at Cooperstown to place an early order for a plaque.
But here it is the middle of September and Fielder is the leading basher in the major leagues. He's threatening to become the first player to hit 50 home runs since Cincinnati's George Foster in 1977. Anderson had a dugout seat then, too, since he was still managing the Reds. "You've got to have something going for you," quipped Anderson.
Not that he could even recognize a potential 50-home run hitter, much less predict one. Ask Sparky if, in his wildest dreams, he could envision the kind of season Fielder is having and he'll tell you no. And then he'll qualify his answer by saying what he thinks Fielder is capable of doing -- for the next 10 years.
"There was never a question in my mind when we left spring training that he'd hit between .220 and .230, hit 30 home runs and drive in between 90 and 100 runs," said Anderson. "You can't stop him from hitting 30 home runs.
"He's a lot like [Jose] Canseco and [Mark] McGwire -- they're going to run into 30 home runs." Anderson didn't mean that literally -- only that their bats will make enough incidental contact to conquer the fences 30 times a year.
"You're not going to stop anybody like that from hitting 30 home runs," said Anderson. "He's 26 years old -- and for the next 10 years he'll hit 30 home runs. The question is, what will he hit for average? I'm not going to say he's going to hit .285 or .290 (Fielder is currently hitting .286).
"He's got some holes -- who doesn't? -- but don't make any mistakes. The man is strong."
With 45 home runs and 116 runs batted in on a third-place team (though not one in contention), Fielder is a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate. But this is one area where Anderson's loyalty runs only so deep.
"I've always felt that a [division] winner has to have the MVP," he said, "and I'm not going to change after 21 years. I've got two guys who could win it -- Cecil and Alan Trammell, who's also had a great year.
"But if I had to pick a guy it would be [Oakland's] Rickey Henderson. He's got 26 home runs, over 100 runs scored, 56 stolen bases -- and that team has won when the other guys were out of there. What else can you do that he hasn't done?"
The A's overall dominance ("no way anybody beats Oakland if they play up to par," said Anderson) could work against anybody wearing the green and gold uniforms. That might be enough to open the door for Fielder, who admits the MVP honor would cap his season, but isn't necessary to prove the point he wanted to make when he signed a $3 million, two-year contract with the Tigers last winter.
"Winning the MVP is something my family and myself probably would never forget," is how Fielder describes the possibility. "It would be exciting considering everything we went through trying to get the opportunity to play every day."
Until last year, when he took his one-year sabbatical in Japan, Fielder was trapped behind Fred McGriff in the Toronto organization. There weren't any teams knocking over the Blue Jays with offers they couldn't refuse, so Fielder took the yen and went to the Hanshin Tigers.
He's already exceeded Anderson's expectations, and sent a message to those who doubted his ability. "There's nothing I have to prove to anyone anymore as far as playing baseball," he said.
"I feel good knowing that I proved some people wrong . . . I'm just glad I could perform well."
Which is more than a slight understatement. Anderson's comparison of Fielder to Canseco and McGwire may be slightly premature, but at least somebody has taken notice.
"I respect him -- he hits them like I did when I was young," said Canseco, who is younger than Fielder.
That remark came after a particularly awesome power display the two put on in Tiger Stadium. "Jose hit one over the 440 sign in the first inning," said Anderson. "Cecil came up and hit one into the [centerfield] exit -- he hit it farther. And then he hit one over the roof.
"You should have seen Jose on his last at-bat -- he almost came out of his shoes. He was trying to hit the ball to Mars."
Last night Anderson decided he didn't need to start his slugger and he was right, the Tigers thrashing the Orioles, 8-0. Sparky said a day of rest usually results in even longer home runs.