07/19/1993 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE FORMER STACEY GRANGER REMEMBERS the first time she saw Cecil Fielder. It was back in 1980 at Nogales High School in La Puente, Calif. "I noticed his long eyelashes," says Stacey. "I thought he was cute. But when he stood up, I thought, 'Uh-oh, he's not my type.' He had on burnt-orange bell-bottom pants and high-top Converse shoes. He looked like an upside-down funnel."
Uh-oh. That's pretty much what major-league baseball said for years about the 260-lb. Fielder, who was tasked for being overweight and undertrained. But just as Fielder changed Stacey's mind—they were married in 1983—he has also converted his baseball critics. Cecil "Big Daddy" Fielder is the first player since Babe Ruth to lead the majors in runs batted in for three consecutive seasons. What is more, he appears to be doing it again—with 70-plus RBIs as baseball breaks for its annual All-Star game.
"Finally," says Fielder, hunkering back in the dugout before a recent game, "it's becoming a situation where my size is not an issue. It feels great. Believe me, between my teammates and the people I play against, I get respect."
Growing up outside Los Angeles, Cecil, who is 6'3", was always heavy. He got his athletic ability from both parents: Tina, a former secretary, had been a high school track star, and Edson, who ran a janitorial sendee, an all-state shortstop. But his weight dogged him—at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and on Kansas City and Toronto minor-league clubs, where he was passed over for players with sleeker builds.
The lack of a big-league paycheck began to pinch in 1984 when the Fielders had a son, Prince. "Cecil had $12 in meal money a day," says Stacey, recalling the lean times. "But I had to work three jobs and get food stamps because there wasn't enough money for me and Prince to eat." Things were so bad that Cecil nearly quit baseball in 1985.
Finally, after the 1988 season, he decided to accept an offer of $1.05 million to play for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, where his shape was not considered a problem. "I was there for one reason—to hit," says Fielder, who had it written into his contract that he would determine what exercises he did. In just 384 at bats, he hit 38 homers, which interested the stateside Tigers mightily.
In 1990, his first full season with Detroit, Fielder hit 51 home runs, becoming only the 11th man in history to break the half-century mark. In 1991 he hit 44 more—and proved that he was here to stay. This past January the Tigers gave him a five-year deal worth $36 million. The Fielders have moved into a 34-room mansion in the executive enclave of Grosse Pointe Farms outside Detroit. Cecil's wealth has enabled him to give $1 million to each side of his family and bring Stacey's aunt, Vercy, a native of Opelousas, La., to live with them. He's wild about her Creole cooking. "That gumbo, man," he says, "that stuff is good."
Cecil is crazy too about his 16-month-old daughter, Ceclynn. But Prince is clearly the heir apparent. At 9, he already tips in at 162 lbs. (The doctors forecast a 6'7" 250-pounder.) He also plays first base for a local all-star team. "And he can hit," says Cecil.
"Baseball has been taking care of me very nicely. There has been some rough times. But it has all been worth it. Everything has worked out for Cess," he says, leaning back in the dugout, grinning broadly.
BRYAN ALEXANDER in New York City and ANITA LIENERT in Detroit