WINNIPEG — Living on the fringe is no festival, especially when you’re a diminutive and aging 29-year-old athlete trying to fulfil a lifelong dream to play regularly in Major League Baseball.
Diagnosed at age 10 with Type 1 diabetes and having to self-inject at least six times a day – often in the dugout between innings – could diminish your aspirations even more.
But Sam Fuld (pronounced Fold), at right, has been a big part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ early season success as they vie with the Yankees and Red Sox for first place in the American League’s eastern division.
The lead-off hitter in the batting order, Fuld started the season in early April as if he was going to replicate his gaudy college numbers. During the first three weeks of the season, he was in the top 10 in batting and led the American League in steals. His outfield plays were so spectacular that they were featured on North American sportscasts almost nightly, and several near-impossible snags even made it to YouTube and MLB’s website.
As of late May, opposition hurlers began to detect that Fuld struggles against lefties and have been pitching to his weaknesses. The result has been that his numbers have fallen off to a more realistic level, but in 44 games and 170 plate appearances, he hit 10 doubles, two triples and two homers along with 12 stolen bases and 18 runs driven in.
While stats are foremost in baseball, especially to players and fans, “Super Sam,” as he has been dubbed, brings other intangibles to his game. Fuld already has two four-hit games to his credit in the early going, and as of late last week, he was hitting .234 with a slugging percentage of .354.
With the Durham, N.H.-born Fuld, the Rays now have their agitating lead-off hitter, and in late May, they went on a 20 of 27 winning streak after going 1 and 8 to start the season.
Fuld’s getting the job done, and Rays’ manager Joe Maddon considers him a real tough kid and a prize catch, especially after star left fielder Carl Crawford left the team after last season to sign with the Red Sox as a free agent.
But despite his current achievements, it’s been a ponderously slow climb up the ladder to success. Fuld, who was for a second time drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2004 in the 10th round, appeared to be a lifetime minor leaguer. He put in five seasons with the AAA Iowa Cubs, where he played in 230 games, had 811 at-bats and hit a respectable .273.
On occasion, he was called up to the Windy City, and between 2007 and 2010, played in 98 games. In only 131 at-bats, he hit .252 as a fourth outfielder and demonstrated that defence surely wasn’t one of his shortcomings.
As luck would have it, the Cubs and Rays engineered an eight-player swap in early January, and Fuld was sent to Tampa Bay, where he made the team in spring training as the club’s fourth outfielder. Maddon, a good judge of talent, recognized that the versatile Fuld could play all three outfield positions, is a speed merchant who’s solid on defence, can steal bases and is a patient hitter who makes above-average contact at the plate. It wasn’t long before he was put in left field and handed the lead-off spot in the batting order.
But Fuld is more than a diamond in the rough, as he starred at all levels. Being small of stature, he realized he was an underdog, because most major league teams prefer larger, stronger athletes in the outfield who can produce power at the plate and dish out instant victory with the long ball.
While programs list Fuld as five-foot-10 and 180 pounds, he admits that’s a bit of a stretch and that five-foot-eight is more accurate.
A top player in high school at Berwick Academy in Southern Maine, he was recruited by 94 colleges. He selected Stanford University, where he majored in economics. He was a two-time All-American in his four years as a starter in centre field for the Cardinals. As a freshman, he batted .357.
At all levels, accolades, awards and titles foretold that the speedy, acrobatic, high-average hitter was destined to have a successful pro career.
For Fuld, however, baseball is only one of several reasons to be thankful. He comes from a supportive home where education was highly valued. His father, Ken, is a dean and professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, and his mother, Amanda Merrill, is a New Hampshire state senator.
Fuld is married to Sarah, his high school sweetheart, who is a top athlete in her own right, having won a pair of national lacrosse championships at Princeton University. They have a son together named Charles.