Prince Fielder was just a kid when he first bopped around the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse. He was part of the daily scenery. He sat by his father's locker, eyes wide open, and sometimes pretended he was one of the players.
Now he's back with the Tigers.
Now he's a big kid.
Actually, a bigger kid at 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds (or thereabouts). He smiles a lot. He laughs easily. With a full-figure body, a thick beard and a personality that fills the room, Fielder is difficult to miss.
"When a guy like that walks through your door, the players are going to notice,'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
And so are the opponents.
The Rays (3-0), fresh from a season-opening home sweep of the New York Yankees, will get an up-close-and-personal look at Fielder today when they begin a three-game series against the Tigers (3-0) at Comerica Park.
"Prince Fielder? That young man can hurt you with his bat,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Fielder certainly damaged the Red Sox. In Detroit's three-game sweep, Fielder, the cleanup batter, went 5-for-12 (.417) overall. He bashed two home runs in Saturday's nationally televised 10-0 rout.
It's early, of course, but Detroit fans expect a big-bucks payoff from Fielder, 27, who signed a nine-year, $214-million free-agent contract with the Tigers on Jan. 25. When Detroit lost Victor Martinez to a season-ending knee injury during winter-conditioning drills, its response was sudden and dramatic.
Hello to Prince Fielder, a three-time All-Star with the Milwaukee Brewers. He already has been a league-leader in home runs (50 in 2007), RBIs (141 in 2009) and walks (114 in 2010).
Hello to Miguel Cabrera's position switch – from first to third base – which frays some nerves defensively. But in Cabrera and Fielder, the Tigers probably have the game's best 3-4 hitting combination.
Goodbye to any thoughts about Detroit's financial unwillingness to play ball in the American League.
"I'm excited to be here, really excited,'' said Fielder, whose father, Cecil, led the AL in RBIs three times while playing for Detroit, where he hit 51 homers in 1990. "I've just got to be me, do the things that I've always done, and it will all be fine.
"There's going to be pressure. There's supposed to be pressure. I'm OK with that. I'm just looking to do my part.''
But that part will be considerable.
Former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, worked out consistently with Fielder during the offseason in Orlando. Not once did the Tigers come up as a future home for Fielder.
"I think it's now a situation where Prince obviously wants to prove to everyone that he's well worth the money,'' said Larkin, now an ESPN announcer. "He's going to be impactful wherever he goes. He's an MVP type of guy.''
"Prince is going to give the Tigers that emotional edge, where everybody knows they are there to win, not just there to show up,'' said former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, a member of ESPN's Sunday night announcing team. "That's the way he carries himself. He's going to give that team an edge, just like Justin Verlander's 100 mph fastball.''
Maddon said Fielder's presence in the Detroit lineup – along with the Los Angeles Angels acquiring Albert Pujols – has made life a lot more competitive in the AL.
"Look, the Tigers were a really good team before they got Prince,'' Maddon said. "I mean, we have that extra wild-card team now. Cool. But there are so many candidates for that extra position.
"It just makes everything much thicker. We have all these expectations attached to us, which is wonderful. I'm all for it. But you've got to know how tight things are going to be in the American League. You've got to play the game right. You've got to pile up the wins and hope you have enough to qualify.''
In Detroit, there's the hope that Fielder could help make the difference between a playoff team and a World Series champion.
Replica Fielder jerseys were omnipresent during spring training in Lakeland. The good feelings flowed throughout March. Some observers said they had never seen a high-profile Tiger player sign as many autographs or spend as much time with the fans.
"They're making me feel like I'm welcome,'' said Fielder, who played his first major-league game at Tropicana Field on June 13, 2005 after being called up by the Brewers. "It was a while ago, but I guess some of them remember.''
Tigers greats Al Kaline and Willie Horton still tell stories about witnessing a 12-year-old Prince Fielder driving balls over the Tiger Stadium fence during batting practice. Back then, everyone sensed a special future. And now that future will be spent with the Tigers.
It's hard to tell who's more delighted – Detroit fans or this fearsome, teddy bear of a player. This honeymoon might last a while. He's Prince Fielder. But around Comerica Park, he's also Prince Charming.