Just two short years ago in 2007, Prince Fielder was the toast of the town in Milwaukee. Fielder was the jolly fat man that could hit baseballs further than anyone had seen.
Over the next two seasons, Fielder, the Brewers, and the fans of Milwaukee would experience an up-and-down relationship that seemed finally to have come full circle.
Fielder became the youngest player in baseball history to hit 50 home runs when he accomplished the feat at only 23 years of age in 2007. He finished third in the MVP voting and led the Brewers to within two games of their first playoff berth in 25 years.
He became known for his big smile as much as he did his tape-measure home runs. Although Fielder was large in size, everyone looked past his waistline and only cared about the home runs that brought the Brewers back to prominence.
The following year in spring training is when the trouble began. Fielder felt disrespected by the Brewers' organization when they renewed his contract with only a slight increase in pay. Fielder felt he deserved more money to match the big numbers he put up the season before.
Fielder came out in the press after the incident and said his time would come and that he would get his money eventually. That led many Brewer fans to speculate as to Fielder's imminent departure once he became a free agent.
The off-the-field issues affected Fielder's game on the field in 2008. Although the Brewers made the playoffs, Fielder experienced a big drop off in production from the prior season.
His home runs fell from 50 to 34, his batting average dropped from .288 to .276, his runs batted in dipped from 119 to 102, and his runs scored total plummeted from 109 to 86.
The lack of production led many to question Fielder's commitment to the Brewers, and many people felt the best option for the team was to trade Fielder over the winter for young pitching help.
Fielder was entering his first year of arbitration eligibility and many thought his pay raise would be too much for the Brewers to handle. To the credit of Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and Fielder, the two came up with a deal that satisfied both parties.
Fielder signed a two-year, $18 million deal with the Brewers on Jan. 22 to secure the financial security he had always sought. All of a sudden, Fielder's smile returned and many speculated he would have a bounce-back season for the Brewers in 2009.
To this point in the season, Fielder has shown a renewed passion for the game, his smile is lighting up ballparks around the league, and he is swinging as good of a bat as he ever has in the big leagues.
Through 57 games this year, Fielder is batting .298 and has an on-base percentage of .430. Both stats are much higher than his career bests. Fielder has always thought of himself as a .300 hitter, but this season he is finally hitting the ball like one.
Fielder's power numbers have also returned to his 2007 form. His 15 home runs ranks sixth in the National League. He is also tied for the league lead in runs batted in with 54 and walks with 44.
It is Fielder's newfound patience at the plate that is the biggest reason for his success this year. His discipline at avoiding bad pitches and the realization to lay off balls when the opposing team is pitching around him enables others in the lineup to have success as well.
Should the Brewers make the playoffs for a second straight year, Prince Fielder's bat will be a big reason why.
Many fans still consider Ryan Braun as the face of the franchise due to his willingness to sign with the team long-term. While this may be true, Prince Fielder is the most valuable member of the team. Without Fielder in the Brewers' lineup, they are an average team at best.
Prince Fielder may not be the best player or even first baseman in baseball, but there are very few players that are better than Milwaukee's king of swing. And you can bet no one enjoys what they do more than Fielder; you can see the joy has returned by looking no further than the smile that lights up Miller Park.