MILWAUKEE -- It was Albert Pujols, the fellow first baseman and free agent to be, who called time in the eighth inning of what would prove Prince Fielder's final at-bat in the Brewers' final game of 2011. Pujols, a rival facing a similarly uncertain offseason, gave the fans at Miller Park a few more moments to say goodbye. At least, that's what the standing ovation felt like. No one knew Fielder's future for sure after Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, a 12-6 Cardinals win that brought the Brew Crew's best season in nearly three decades, and perhaps the tenure of one of the franchise's best players, to a sudden end. As Ryan Braun said, "Who knows? Crazier things have happened." Fielder and the Brewers may suddenly discover the common ground that eluded them during 2010 Spring Training, the last time they had serious discussions about an extension.
Or, Fielder may exercise his right as a player with six years of big league service to test the marketplace. He almost certainly will find it friendly. Pujols simply made sure that if this was goodbye, Milwaukee fans had a chance to say thanks. "I've been in that situation in St. Louis with the best fans in baseball, and I wanted Fielder to get a great standing ovation," Pujols said. "He's done so well for this organization, and I'm pretty sure he'll be back." Fielder's own teammates are not so sure, and they lined up in the clubhouse to give Fielder hugs. Fielder and Braun, the team's heart of the order for five fantastic seasons together, shared a private moment in a hallway off the main clubhouse. Braun told Fielder he was proud of what they had accomplished together. Later, Fielder consoled his oldest son, Jadyn, who was crying outside the clubhouse. Dad carried his boy inside, where both of the young Fielder boys have been a near-daily fixture during their father's tenure with the team. "Look, they're still here," Fielder said, pointing at players, from Corey Hart to Nyjer Morgan to one of the boys' favorites, Japanese reliever Takashi Saito, all of whom were still packing up. "You want to say hi to Ueck? Let's go say hi to Ueck." Bob Uecker, the Brewers' Hall of Fame radio voice, is particularly fond of Fielder and his kids. It was a scene similar to one last season, when Fielder was removed from Milwaukee's final 2010 home game to another standing ovation and said some goodbyes. Then, it seemed clear that he would be traded for pitching. No one considered that general manager Doug Melvin might keep his slugging first baseman to make a big run. Run the Brewers did, setting a franchise record with 96 regular-season wins, then winning a postseason series for the first time since 1982. A win in Game 4 of the NLCS left them tied with the Cardinals in the best-of-seven series, two wins shy of the World Series. Three days later, the run was over. This time, it was different. Fielder will hit the open market days after the World Series. He is 27, more than four years younger than Pujols. "It's the reality of it now," Braun said. "Everybody recognizes the reality of the situation. Everybody understands the circumstances. We'll see what happens. Regardless of what happens, everything he has accomplished here in the last six-plus years is incredible. He is one of the greatest players in franchise history, one of the best teammates in the league, an incredible competitor. I'm proud that I was able to be teammates to him for about five years." Fielder was Milwaukee's first-round Draft pick in 2002, a big leaguer by '05 and an everyday starter in '06. By the time he had played his 162nd and final regular-season game in 2011, the only Major Leaguer to start every game, Fielder ranked second to Robin Yount in franchise history with 230 home runs to Yount's 251, first in franchise history with a .390 on-base percentage and sixth with 656 RBIs. Only 10 players have appeared in more regular-season games for the Brewers than Fielder. So when he took the uniform off Sunday night, he fought emotion. "I had to clear the throat once, but it was all right," Fielder said. "I love these guys. I've been playing with most of them since I was 18. So this organization has been great to me. Yeah, man, it's just been good. It's been real." It just did not have the ending -- if this is indeed the end -- that Fielder was hoping for. Fielder batted .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs in 2011, one of his finest all-around seasons, but said he envisioned the Brewers winning the World Series. They fell two wins short of getting a shot. "Obviously, everybody knew it was my free-agent year," he said. "But the amount of fun ... it's been the easiest year I've ever had, for some reason. I think because of the coaching staff and the players, I think this has been the easiest year for me mentally, being able to go out every day and just playing hard. This year has been awesome. I'm happy about everything, this whole year." Cardinals manager Tony La Russa paid his respects. He had St. Louis coach Dave McKay get Fielder's attention during that at-bat in the eighth inning. La Russa tipped his cap and clapped for Fielder. "I've watched him grow up, and he's grown up to where he's not only just a dangerous producer, but I've watched how he is part of the leadership of that club," La Russa said. "Who knows? I mean, I don't know what his future is. He may come back. He may be much more well off than he is right now, but he's a special guy. He's got a lot of that ahead of him." Teammates credit Fielder as being one of baseball's most-liked teammates, and manager Ron Roenicke credited Fielder for keeping the clubhouse light. "There's nothing I like more when I come to the field and I'm sitting in my office and I hear him laugh," Roenicke said. "It's contagious. I know the clubhouse is going well when he's laughing. And I know we're ready to play." Where will Fielder be laughing in 2012? That's a question for Hot Stove season.