Back before the Summer of '98, when we hung on the chemically enhanced swings of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, before BALCO and Bonds, before federal agents dug through Barry's trash … there was Big Daddy.
In 1990, Cecil Fielder, the calorie-enhanced Detroit Tigers slugger, had baseball buzzing. That year, Fielder crushed 51 home runs. Now, he wants to make it clear that he didn't need steroids to help him do it.
"No, I didn't need that, man,"said Fielder, speaking for the first time about the topic to NESN. "I didn't need that kind of stuff. Never."
He speaks with an edge to his voice and admittedly carries a sizable chip on his size-XL shoulders. And it only grows after watching his one-time contemporary McGwire come clean about steroid use. Fielder, who often put up All-Star numbers as a first baseman in Detroit, takes McGwire's steroid use personally, saying that McGwire started a number of All-Star games that perhaps should have gone to other worthy players.
When Fielder hit 51 home runs in 1990, he was the first to top the 50-homer mark since George Foster slammed 52 homers in 1977. And the last to do it before Foster? Willie Mays in 1965. For the better part of four decades, a 50-homer season was a slightly more common occurrence than a Halley's Comet sighting.
Fielder was the 18th player in history to hit 50 home runs in a season, but in the time since, 23 players have turned in 50-homer single seasons, including his son, Prince Fielder.
In hindsight, it was obvious that the home run parade was just a charade.
"I just didn't understand how these certain guys started hitting the ball as far as I was hitting it," he said. "I didn't relate it to steroids because in the '90s, I didn't feel it was as prevalent as it was later on in the '90s."
Fielder is reminded that McGwire claims steroids can't help you hit 70 home runs, but he doesn't want to hear it.
"I'm not going to buy that at all," he said. "I just don't think that Mark, as a guy that I played against my whole career, and a guy that was the starting first baseman for a lot of those All-Star teams — a few of them that I didn't make … I just can't buy that. I can't buy the fact that he or anyone else who's used substances doesn't believe that it bettered their careers, bettered their numbers."
The conversation inevitably steers toward the Cooperstown question — should McGwire deserve Hall of Fame consideration? Fielder's answer is as powerful as the swing that delivered 318 career home runs.
"I just think that it's a shame that now, you're going to tell me that a guy like Fred McGriff doesn't belong in the Hall? I think he does," Fielder said. "The numbers are so inflated that guys that really deserve to be there weren't getting an opportunity to get there."
As Fielder makes his point, he wonders out loud how an admitted steroid user like McGwire can land a job as a big league hitting coach. Granted, there are plenty who would argue that Fielder isn't without his own shortcomings — a fair point, especially considering the trouble he got himself into by gambling.
But in Fielder's eyes, nothing compares to a player's decision to cheat with steroids.
"It just takes away from the pure players who played the game and did it the right way," Fielder said. "I remember those years that Mark was hurt, but hey, that's athletics. People get hurt, but you don't take away from your legacy."