Iron men: It takes health, heart to play in all 162
Prince among dedicated group to compile impressive streaks of no days off
Playing 162 games or hitting 30 home runs -- which is the more difficult, demanding task?
The question was put to Prince Fielder, now playing for the Rangers after seven seasons in Milwaukee and two in Detroit. The remarkably durable first baseman has missed one game in the past five seasons, playing all 162 four times. Fielder has launched 30 or more homers six times.
"Home runs just happen," Fielder said after giving it thought. "Playing every day, that's something you have to decide to do. Only one guy [the manager] can determine if you play every day. There are 29 different teams, and all those pitchers, who can keep you from hitting home runs."
Fielder, who turns 30 on Friday, was joined in 2013 by Billy Butler, Hunter Pence and Joey Votto in the unofficial Cal Ripken Jr. Club, playing all 162 games.
Starlin Castro, Adam Jones and Ichiro Suzuki were Fielder's fellow iron men in 2012. Prince did not miss a game in two seasons in Detroit before getting shipped to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler.
In 2010, his final season in Milwaukee, Fielder missed one game with the flu, leaving Ichiro and Matt Kemp as the lone 162-game men. In 2009, Prince had no company in the Ripken club.
Since the start of 2006, his first full season, Fielder has missed a total of 13 games. His only absence since 2008 was on Sept. 13, 2010, when he became severely ill with a virus in Houston. It ended a club-record streak of 327 consecutive starts for the Brewers.
"That's incredible, great to see," said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who played 162 games in back-to-back seasons for the Rangers early in his career. "A lot of it is luck, a lot of it is genetics and a lot of it is hard work. Guys that can play every day and stay productive are rare."
The most durable player in baseball is built along the lines of an offensive lineman, but that hasn't prevented Fielder from distinguishing himself as a guy who comes to play -- and play.
Lou Gehrig, the Yankees' legendary "Iron Horse," and Ripken, the pride of the Orioles, set incredibly high standards with their consecutive games records of 2,130 and 2,632, respectively. Ripken didn't miss a game for more than 16 years in eclipsing Gehrig, whose record stood for 56 seasons.
"No one will ever come close to it," Teixeira said of Ripken's record. "I'm still amazed at that streak, playing that position, that he didn't get hit by a pitch or cleted at shortstop. You would expect something like that. Incredible, really."
Teixeira's Texas franchise record of 507 consecutive games ended on June 9, 2007, when he suffered a strained quadriceps muscle landing awkwardly at first base while running out a ground ball.
"Obviously, it's a lot easier to play every day when you're 24, 25 years old," he said. "There's no way I could do that today. From that standpoint, the physical part of the game is a grind. I don't think it's mentally as much of a grind as physically."
Like Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, who has played at least 154 games in nine seasons, Fielder has prided himself on being Mr. Reliable to his managers and teammates.
"Obviously, you have to be prepared every day," Fielder said. "I want to be able to come out every day and help my team win. It means a lot to me that my teammates can depend on me."
Asked if he has played with injuries over the course of a 10-year career, Fielder nodded.
"Of course," he said. "But nothing too bad. Obviously, if I can tolerate it, I'm out there."
Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy made it to the post a career-high 161 times last year -- impressive for any player but especially for a middle infielder with the risks inherent in takeout slides at second.
Murphy, who has played 155 or more games three of the past four seasons, recognizes the value of loving what you do and preparing every day as if you're a student at finals time. But that, he'll tell you, can take you only so far.
"Good fortune," Murphy said, firmly, when asked to identify the key to playing every day. "You can love the game all you want, but if you get injured, you can't play. A guy like Josh Hamilton gets hurt, it's not because he didn't love the game or prepare. He just didn't have good fortune."
Most Major League managers -- and a lot of players -- will tell you that playing every day is the most underrated of all talents, requiring a rare mental toughness. It's in Fielder's DNA.
"Prince loves the game," Texas manager Ron Washington said. "He has a passion for it."
Fielder's dedication was evident in running full tilt from first to home for Texas' 14th run in a rout of the Angels last Sunday at Angel Stadium, giving Alex Rios his third RBI on a bases-loaded triple.
"You do it," Fielder said, simply, "because it's the right thing to do."
Adrian Beltre, Fielder's teammate, has played at least 150 games nine times, missing by one game in 2007. Despite several nagging injuries, the Rangers' third baseman joined Murphy and Castro with 161 games played last season.
"Adrian is amazing," said teammate Elvis Andrus, who has a running competition with Beltre over who plays the most games. "He can be all banged up, and he still goes out and plays -- and plays hard. He doesn't ever want to miss a game."
Asked the same question presented to Fielder about the challenges of 30 homers vs. 162 games, Beltre didn't hesitate.
"Home runs are hard to get," he said. "Playing every day is easy. You just go out and do it."
It hasn't been easy for Beltre this season. He opened the season on the 15-day disabled list with a strained quad, missing 14 games.
Fielder has two advantages: the relatively safe position he plays and the availability of the designated-hitter role in the American League. He has made only 34 career appearances as a DH, fewer than four per season.
"Defensively, first base is not like being a shortstop or a catcher [in terms of physical demands]," Fielder said. "But it's not easy. If you're in the infield, you're always involved. I do a lot of leg work to keep as strong and flexible as I can be.
"I've never played the outfield, so I'm not going to comment on how difficult that is compared to first."
Of the 18 players who appeared in at least 160 games last season, five (Fielder, Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Davis) were first basemen and four (Pence, Jones, Nick Markakis, Jay Bruce) were outfielders. There were three second basemen (Murphy, Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano), three third basemen (Beltre, Evan Longoria, Kyle Seager), two shortstops (Castro, Jimmy Rollins) and one DH (Butler).
Rios, in his second season with the Rangers after starring for the Blue Jays and White Sox, has played at least 145 games in eight of his 11 seasons, with a high of 161 in Toronto in 2007.
"You can do it if you take good care of yourself -- get your rest, eat right," Rios said. "What you don't want to do is change the way you play. The more you think about playing safe, it can be more harmful than beneficial.
"I'm here to play every day, every game. That's what I like to do."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.