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Perspective is strength of Tampa Bay Rays hopeful Sam Fuld

Sam Fuld, in his seventh season of mostly minor-league pro ball, is competing for one of two likely Rays bench spots.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Sam Fuld, in his seventh season of mostly minor-league pro ball, is competing for one of two likely Rays bench spots.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Here's what the scouting report will tell you:

Sam Fuld is somewhat limited. He's shorter than his officially listed height of 5-10 and has never shown much power. At 29, he is too old to be a prospect, and so his best hope is to fill a role as a defensive replacement and spot starter in the outfield.

Here's what you will figure out if he sticks around:

Sam Fuld is hopelessly likable. It's not his background (an economics major at Stanford), and it's not his burden (he has Type 1 diabetes). It might have something to do with his penchant for running into outfield walls, and it helps that he understands his limitations.

Mostly, it's that you might see a little of yourself in Sam Fuld, a kid who grew up loving the game and now a man who hasn't forgotten what that feels like.

Fuld is beginning his seventh season in pro ball. He has played parts of three seasons with the Cubs but has yet to see opening day in a big-league uniform.

This spring is his best chance yet. If you break down the Rays' roster, he is likely one of three players competing for two spots on the bench. He wants the job. He will fight for the job. But he also recognizes the job is not everything.

"Your standards change so much. You have a little bit of success and all of the sudden it's a letdown to be in Triple A," Fuld said. "To be honest with you, it's a dream come true just to play professional baseball, period.

"My goal as a kid was to play minor-league baseball. Once that happens, you kind of lose sight of your standards. So you have to ground yourself, remind yourself you're playing baseball for a living and as long as you have a uniform, that's still pretty amazing."

We all appreciate speed in a ballplayer. We appreciate strength, dedication and skill. We also should appreciate perspective, and this is where Fuld's measures are off the chart.

He figured out long ago that he did not have the physical attributes to be a premier prospect, and so he learned how to play the game on the margins. Taking the proper route to balls in the outfield. Always hitting the cutoff man. Taking pitches and making contact at the plate. Understanding value, and ignoring the extraneous.

This is the reason the Rays targeted Fuld as one of the five players they sought from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade two months ago. They already had their eye on Johnny Damon for leftfield and were in need of someone to play late-inning defense. Fuld is also capable of spelling B.J. Upton in center, and his ability to put the ball in play makes him an attractive pinch-hitter in situations with a runner on third and less than two outs.

"He's a guy with a very interesting profile," said Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "He's a plus defender in all three (outfield) spots with superior contact skills and a really good ability to discern balls and strikes. Those skills, coupled with his ability to hit line drives with such high frequency, makes him a very interesting player."

When it comes to Fuld's skills, career and life, interesting doesn't quite cover it. His mother is a state senator in New Hampshire, and his father is a psychology professor and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hampshire.

Fuld was the finest prep player in New Hampshire at Phillips Exeter Academy (where Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg would soon follow) and was invited to many of the same showcases as Rhode Island's Rocco Baldelli in 1999-2000. ("I thought I was pretty sweet until I came across him.")

When Fuld wasn't playing baseball and studying economics at Stanford, he did an internship at STATS Inc. ("I learned about the place reading Moneyball"), where his job was to watch hour upon hour of major-league baseball games so he could chart pitch type, velocity and location.

And all this is in addition to the diabetes he has been managing since being diagnosed at 10 years old.

Fuld keeps a glucometer on the bench to check his blood sugar level several times a game and, when necessary, goes into the clubhouse to give himself insulin injections in his stomach. ("I'm used to it, but it's still a day-to-day challenge because there's so many variables that go into it: how much exercise I've done, when I play, how much I eat. It's a nuisance, but it's never kept me off the field.")

Fuld had success as a role player in Chicago in 2009 (he hit .299 with a .409 on-base percentage and had several highlight-reel defensive plays) but lost his job to Tyler Colvin last spring and got only a handful of big-league at-bats.

His place in Tampa Bay might come down to a philosophical choice. The Rays would like to have an extra first baseman (Casey Kotchman), an extra infielder (Elliot Johnson) and an extra outfielder (Fuld) but can probably keep only two of the three.

Johnson and Fuld are out of options, so the Rays would risk losing them to waivers if they tried to send either back to Triple A. Fuld knows and understands this. You don't grow up loving the game and getting an economics degree at Stanford without recognizing the business side of baseball.

Will he make the Rays? Will he go to Durham? Will another team grab him? Will his skill set convince the Rays to hire him in the front office?

Fuld, who is married and has an infant son, is certain about only one of those answers.

"A front-office job would be pretty attractive to me. I do love baseball. And it's a great way to stay in the game," Fuld said. "But playing professional baseball has been a dream come true for me.

"All that other stuff — getting a real job, living in the real world — I'm going to postpone for as long as I can."

Perspective is strength of Tampa Bay Rays hopeful Sam Fuld 03/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 12:57am]

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