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Opportunity With Angels Has Fielder Champing At The Bit Rejection By Yankees Eats At Happy-Go-Lucky Slugger

Cecil Fielder’s bad moods usually disappear more quickly than a plate of pasta in front of the slugger, who is affectionately known as “Big Daddy.”

The Anaheim Angels’ new DH has a happy-go-lucky personality and a thousand-watt smile that can fill a clubhouse with warmth and laughter, and why shouldn’t he?

His life has been filled with fame and fortune, his prodigious feats as a power hitter earning him a five-year, $36 million contract in 1993.

He has been married to his high-school sweetheart for 14 years, they have a son (13) and a daughter (6), and they live in a 19,500-square-foot, 50-room Florida dream house that is equipped with so many amenities they rarely have to leave home.

But for much of 1997, Fielder was downright grumpy. It was hard to tell - he wasn’t snapping at reporters every day or short with his teammates. But his relationship with the New York Yankees had grown so acrimonious that he actually considered leaving the game.

“It was not a fun year at all,” Fielder, 34, said of injury-plagued 1997, when he had only 13 homers and 61 runs batted in and went on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

“I lost that loving feeling for a while. I didn’t feel comfortable, the fans and George (Steinbrenner, Yankees owner) made it difficult, and it gave me a bad taste about playing. I considered retirement, but that would have been a mistake because I still have some things I want to accomplish.”

It was a bizarre transformation for Fielder, who went from World Series hero in 1996, when he hit .391 to help the Yankees defeat the Atlanta Braves, to bum in the eyes of Steinbrenner and Yankees fans, who were so peeved at Fielder last spring they booed him on opening day.

It began with Fielder, unwilling to be a platoon designated hitter with Darryl Strawberry, asking to be traded at the beginning of spring training. Some thought this was a ploy to pressure the team into signing him to a contract extension.

The Yankees had until March 15 to trade Fielder or risk losing him to free agency, but a minute before the deadline, at 11:59 p.m. on March 14, Fielder’s agent phoned the team and revoked the trade demand, assuring Fielder of his $7.2 million salary.

There were reports of a heated exchange between the agent and Steinbrenner, who was not happy that Fielder’s weight had bloated to 271 pounds, and New York columnists ripped the “money-hungry” Fielder for not having the guts or conviction to forsake his contract and leave.

It took Yankees fans less than a New York minute to weigh in with their displeasure. “That was hard, getting booed on opening day,” said Fielder, who has averaged 33 homers and 107 RBIs for the past eight years. “That first day pretty much set the tone for the whole season.”

Things got worse. On July 15, he tore a ligament in his right thumb during a head-first dive into home plate, an injury that sidelined him for two months.

By the time he returned, it was clear the Yankees had no intention of re-signing him.

“Everyone comes to a point in their career when they wonder if this is what they really want to do,” Fielder said. “But you don’t realize how much you miss the game until the first time you’re home watching it. I made up my mind I wanted to play.”

The rest of baseball didn’t seem too convinced. Fielder had only two decent offers and chose to return to Southern California, taking a huge pay cut to $2.8 million.

It could be the steal of the season. Fielder reported in excellent shape, weighing about 245 pounds, and he’s highly motivated to prove to everyone, especially Steinbrenner and the Yankees, he can still play. And how convenient: The Angels open the season at home against New York on April 1.

“I was really surprised we were able to get him,” Angels manager Terry Collins said. “One of the things that excites me about him is he wants to show people he’s not done. He wants to put up big numbers and if he does, he’ll get another big contract.”