SPORTS WATCH

How the Jays goofed on a gentleman

The fans love sleepyeyed Cecil because, unlike most of the sweaty millionaires, he always has time and patience for them

TRENT FRAYNE October 8 1990
SPORTS WATCH

How the Jays goofed on a gentleman

The fans love sleepyeyed Cecil because, unlike most of the sweaty millionaires, he always has time and patience for them

TRENT FRAYNE October 8 1990

How the Jays goofed on a gentleman

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

The Cecil in Cecil Fielder is pronounced Sessil. Can you believe that? Here is a guy, nine times larger than the Pillsbury Doughboy, close to 250 pounds, six-three, with a chest on him like a polar bear's, and he says his name is Sessil.

Now, he is the surprise new home-run king of all of baseball. But there was this day in 1983 in Dunedin, the sleepy little Florida town where the Blue Jays train in the spring, when Cecil came waddling from the clubhouse, a ponderous, easygoing, smiling guy who can hit the ball practically over to Clearwater, and all the Canadian scribes are calling him Cecil as in Seesil.

“Hey,” says the big fella, “what's this Seesil? All you boys from Medicine Hat?” Medicine Hat! How did Medicine Hat get in here?

Well, it turns out it was in Medicine Hat, Alta., that the Jays got their first look at Cecil. This was the summer of 1982 when Cecil’s bat was the property of the Kansas City Royals and he was playing first base for their farm team at Butte, Mont., in the Pioneer League. The Pioneer League is also home for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays, much to Cecil’s delight back then. He wore out Blue Jay farmhands while compiling a .322 batting average and 20 homers and becoming the all-star first baseman in the Pioneer’s 70-game summer season.

The Blue Jays had a manager at Medicine Hat named Duane Larsen. One day, when the Kansas City Royals were looking for an experienced outfielder, they got in touch with Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays boss, enquiring about a spare outfielder named Leon Roberts. Right away Gillick called Duane Larsen in Medicine Hat wondering if the Butte ball club might have some promising youngster whom Pat could get for Roberts.

“Yeah, there’s this big kid, maybe 19 years old, named Fielder who can hit,” Duane Larsen told Pat. So the deal was made. Cecil's name was Sessil then, too.

“My momma always called me Sessil an'

The fans love sleepyeyed Cecil because, unlike most of the sweaty millionaires, he always has time and patience for them

Sessil is what it is,” Cecil told the Toronto scribes in Dunedin, wearing a big smile when he got there the next spring. Cecil is a guy who smiles all the while, then as now, a likable, down-to-earth fellow, sort of sleepy-eyed and shambling.

Nowadays, of course, in their less-than-fevered pursuit of a place in the American League playoff, the Blue Jays could use a boost from Cecil’s restless bat. They'd have it, too, if they’d been a bit more prescient after latching onto the brute from Butte who has been defacing the upper deck inside Tiger Stadium all season long, swatting prodigious flyballs and, of course, closing in on 50 homers. Only 11 guys in baseball history have stroked that many.

Cecil was a Blue Jays chattel as recently as 1988, making balls disappear into the cavernous grandstand that served as the left-field bleachers in Toronto’s comical old Exhibition Stadium, their first home. Still, second-guessers have been slow to pounce upon the Jays’ tallest foreheads for their lack of foresight. For mere money, of which the largely Labattowned Blue Jays have pouring from every vat, the ball club’s management dispatched Cecil to the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League after the 1988 season. Until then, Cecil had

spent bits and pieces of four years in a Blue Jays uniform, depositing 31 homers in that span to indicate that he had a live bat.

The trouble was, as everybody agrees to this day, there was no place where Cecil could make it onto the ball club, dumb as that sounds. He is a first baseman and, as such, he cannot carry Fred McGriffs glove in the field and McGriff, the incumbent, is a slugger, himself, and the same age as Cecil.

Initially, the Blue Jays figured Cecil to be their right-handed designated hitter—that is, the DH who went into the batting order against opposing left-handers. But in that role, he wasn’t getting to the plate often enough to become a consistent threat. “He just wasn’t getting the at-bats,” as Gillick phrases it. In hindsight, Gillick confesses that he probably erred in not making Cecil the everyday DH, against lefties and righties. Still, that's a move that’s easier to justify nowadays in light of Cecil’s season at Detroit than back when he was getting into half the ball games or fewer.

In the waning moments of the long season, the principal focus on Cecil was whether he would stroke that 50th homer. No player, including Cecil, will admit the symbolism of 50 dingers, but it’s a number that has eluded some great challengers. While Willie Mays (1965) and George Foster (1977) hit 52, numerous sluggers closed in on the number in the closing weeks, but then faded on the very brink.

The revered Lou Gehrig twice stopped at 49, and four others, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson, Mark McGwire and André Dawson, also got stuck on 49. Willie Stargell, Dave (King Kong) Kingman, Frank Howard and Mike Schmidt hammered 48. Two of the alltime all-timers, Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson, went dry at 47, as did Toronto’s George Bell in his best season, 1987 (George has been nowhere close since then: 24 in 1988, 18 in 1989, and stuck in the 20s this season as the giant presses roll).

Almost everybody who has ever contacted Cecil carried high hopes that he would reach the elusive 50. Cecil is a nice guy to run into, with an unfailingly agreeable disposition. “All the players liked Cecil from the first day,” Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says. “He is who he is. He doesn’t try to be liked; he’s just relaxed and comfortable being himself.”

The fans like him, too, because, unlike most of the sweaty millionaires, he always has time and patience for them. Thomas Boswell had a piece in The Washington Post after watching Cecil on the field in Baltimore in which he noted that almost every major-league player avoids the fans who stand along the box seat railings after batting practice, seeking autographs.

“Even though no fan spots him or calls his name, Fielder walks directly to the box seats and takes a small boy's program and pen and begins the autograph session,” Boswell wrote. “He keeps signing for 15 minutes until the police order him to stop and go into the clubhouse.”

No question, the Blue Jays goofed on Cecil. And they’re among the first to admit it. “I’d love to see him hit 50,” said Pat Gillick. “Cecil’s a real gentleman.” Pat says it “Sessil.”