Sports

Sundays With Mitch: Leave Prince Fielder Alone!

August 18, 2013, 10:47 AM

Every Sunday, Freep sports columnist Mitch Albom steps away from the games to write about The More Important Things. Mitch's moralizing screeds don't seek to enlighten and inform as much as they attempt to reinforce the prejudices of his fan base. They are as antithetical to the purpose of journalism as any dispatch from a Final Four not actually attended by the reporter.

As a service to readers, and to the very notions of logic and reason, we deconstruct Mitch's latest short-sentenced hackery.

Detroit Free Press: What do we, the public, have the right to know about celebrities?

Hmmm, good question. First thought is the public has a right to know what information is available in the public record, but we're sure Mitch will explain why that is so very wrong.

Last week, Prince Fielder, the Tigers superstar, was defended by a teammate, Torii Hunter, during a radio interview. Hunter suggested that Fielder, who has struggled at the plate, was dealing bravely with off-field issues and continuing to work hard every day.

It was only a few words, Hunter trying to defend his pal, but the effect was to pop a cork on a bottle. Suddenly, people breathlessly wondered what could be plaguing the highly paid slugger? And while Fielder himself said everything was fine, the news media began scurrying.

Wait a second, Prince Fielder's teammate said Prince was dealing with an off-the-field issue, so fans and reporters assigned to cover the Tigers became curious about specifics? Quelle horreur!

Soon after, a blog report surfaced that Fielder had filed for divorce back in May. Fielder did not reveal this. But someone did a search through court records near his off-season home in Florida. There, because the law demands it, paperwork had to be filed. And there, because the law demands it, that paperwork is accessible to anyone who knows how to properly search for it.

Court records are public information because the court system is supposed to be a transparent, neutral arbitrator. This is an important principle of the American system of government -- judges don't decide in secret.

However, and perhaps we can forgive Mitch for a little lie by omission here, if there is a good reason to prevent public access to legal filings, then a judge can seal the record. That happens all the time when appropriate. Obviously, it wasn't deemed necessary in the Prince Fielder divorce case.

The result? Bang! Instant headlines across the country, including in the Free Press. Fielder’s divorce, quiet for months, was suddenly worldwide news. And just as suddenly, fans started speculating on things like: how bitter, how much, who was at fault, etc.?

It’s human nature, right?

It's also human nature to exaggerate because, as anyone who has been listening to sports talk radio or reading fan comments around the web knows, reaction to the news of Prince Fielder's divorce has been empathetic and reasonable. When people are on his case, it usually sounds like this:  "He needs to separate his personal difficulties from effecting (sic) his onfield performance. Just like anybody else that's employed, he's still expected to do his job."

I think we can agree that's not an unreasonable thought. And plenty of other fans say they'll take a down year from Prince Fielder since his "down year" is still likely to produce 25 home runs and 112 RBIs. Very few fans are speculating about the nitty-gritty of the divorce case, as Mitch alleges. 

The cause-and-effect factor
Well, perhaps we should think more about human nature in this right-to-know era of news reporting. No one apologized to Fielder. No one hesitated to report his divorce. Once it was out there, it seemed fair game.

But why? What does his married life have to do with baseball? Could the divorce be affecting his play? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it’s a sore shoulder. Maybe it’s a swing adjustment. Maybe he’s fighting with a sibling. Maybe a business deal went bad. Maybe he needs his eyes checked. Maybe it’s just — how about this for a radical concept? — a slump or an off year.

Yes, why was it fair game? Perhaps because Fielder's teammate, a All-Star veteran widely described as a clubhouse leader, offered up Fielder's personal problems as an explanation for his on-the-field struggles. Sorry, Mitch, but when a player as respected as Torii Hunter publicly speculates on the reason for a slump or whatever, people would (and should) give weight to that opinion.

Not everyone reacts the same way to issues. Miguel Cabrera was arrested for drunken driving in February 2011; with that hanging over his head, he had one of his best seasons. You simply cannot assume connections.

That last sentence is spot-on. For example, one simply cannot assume a DUI creates the same level of long-term personal turmoil as a divorce that radically alters someone's family life. 

I am glad I was not assigned to ask Fielder about his marriage issues, because I wouldn’t have done it. I refuse to ask him about his love life unless he says he wants to talk about it or his wife pulls on a uniform and bats cleanup.

Mitch Albom bravely refuses to ask Prince Fielder: Torii Hunter says some off-the-field issues have been weighing on you, do you think those matters are affecting your game? Not since the Washington Post returned Janet Cooke's Pulitzer have we seen such heroism in journalism. Off-topic: Isn't it crazy how newspapers once fired journalists for cooking stories?

Maybe this is my age showing. Or maybe it’s my weariness at our business thumping its chest over what public figures “owe” the public.

Who is thumping chests or demanding something "owe[d]" to them? The picture Mitch is painting here is a feeding frenzy that simply isn't taking place.

No one hounds Prince Fielder with questions he's already answered or refused to answer. No one camps out at his house or tries to scam an "interview" with his young children. Talk radio isn't taking hours upon hours of calls about Prince's divorce. An issue was raised BY HIS TEAMMATE and it was reported, calmly and fairly, based on information readily available in the public record. 

Divorce's pain for children

Cue Helen Lovejoy.

First of all, what’s a “public figure” anymore? With reality TV, everyone is a camera lens away from celebrity. Does that mean everyone surrenders all rights to privacy? 

Legally, as it relates to libel/slander law, a public figure is "a personage of great public interest or familiarity like a government official, politician, celebrity, business leader, movie star or sports hero." We aren't dealing with libel or slander here, but that definition seems a good description of what most reasonable people would call a public figure. You are a public figure if you choose to operate in the public sphere. 

In any case, it's irrelevant since Prince Fielder's status as a "public figure" had nothing to do with the availability of information about his divorce. Every no-name chartered accountant's divorce filing is available for public consumption at a clerk's office somewhere. There was no "right to privacy" surrendered here because, unless a judge specifically decides otherwise, no one has a right to privacy in legal cases. 

Second, we in the news media sometimes treat the Freedom of Information Act as a tacit blessing to report anything, shirking our responsibility to one another as human beings.

FOIA, it should be remembered, was established in the 1960s as a means to keep the federal government from hiding sensitive information from its citizens. Not so we could pull up every Internet morsel of a person’s existence.

Here we really see Mitch Albom's gifts for deceit and deception on full display. The Freedom of Information Act has nothing to do with Prince Fielder's divorce. One doesn't need to file a FOIA request to view public court records.

Mitch also misstates the scope of FOI laws. They aren't simply a federal matter. FOIA laws also exist on the state level. Mitch should know this. He's probably, in his many hours in the Free Press newsroom over the years, heard his colleagues discuss "FOIAing" documents from state and local government. 

But that’s what it has engendered. Decades ago, a Detroit reporter would have had to travel to Florida, find where Fielder lived and sift through files of courthouse paperwork — if allowed — just to locate a document concerning his divorce. Chances are no newspaper would bother with the time or expense.

Or that reporter in those magical "good old days" would have called a friend at a Florida paper and asked him, as a favor, to send an intern over to the courthouse. 

But today, it can all be done with computers. And since everyone seems to be a blogger, all it takes is one overly curious person and the cyberspace monster is globally fed.

Yes, some government officials have made public documents available online so they may be more available to the public. What monsters. This is the greatest abuse of power since the Holocaust. 

I feel bad for Fielder. I know his parents. Know they went through a tough divorce. And I imagine that affected him, as divorce affects all children. Now he has children of his own facing a similar hurdle.

Only Mitch is brave enough to say the unpopular thing: That Prince Fielder's divorce won't be fun for his children. A regular Winston Churchill, this one.

He doesn’t owe me details. He doesn’t owe you. We may watch him play, but we don’t pay him.

Actually, we do pay him. Every time we tune into a game or buy a ticket, we are paying his salary. Mike Ilitch didn't give Prince Fielder that $214 million contract just to be nice. He did it because he believed Prince Fielder would be worth at least $214 million plus $1 to the Tigers over the long-run.

If his bosses want to ask how divorce is affecting his swing, that’s their issue. Last I looked, being a celebrity didn’t mean you lost the right to have problems — or surrendered the right to confront them in peace.

So you're just mad at Torii Hunter for talking about Fielder's off-the-field issues? Why didn't you just say so, Mitch?

I actually saw a recent “Nightline” report on two famous actresses pleading to protect their children from paparazzi. The response from a celebrity magazine editor? “No one told them they had to have children.”

Really?

Wow, tabloid editors sound like terrible people. What does this have to do with Prince Fielder, his divorce, or the public's right to access court documents? Besides absolutely nothing. 

Fielder is just another statistic in the envy-based, build-them-up-then-knock-them-down world we live in. But someday, this right-to-know attitude is going to bite enough people that the right to other things finally will effect a change. I hope I live to see the day.

Mitch Albom constructs so many strawmen, he must buy wheat stalks by the gross. Tiger fans aren't filled with envy because they expect their superstar first baseman to perform like a superstar. No one is rooting for Fielder's failure or booing him when he comes to bat. Fans are eager to see Prince Fielder break out of his slump and help this team get back to the World Series. 

It is only when you go down the rabbit hole and enter Mitch's distorted reality do you find the awfulness he describes. On this plane of existence, fans have plenty of empathy for Prince Fielder's situation.


Read more:  Detroit Free Press


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