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Sam Fuld rises from sub to super

In the first two weeks of April, his first time in the major leagues so early in a season, the Tampa Bay Rays' Sam Fuld made a diving catch in Chicago some players said was the finest they had ever seen. He had the best hitting debut in the 99-year history of the stadium he grew up visiting as a boy with a goal. He had his first four-hit game in the majors. He quickly had his second.

Rays pitcher David Price called him the most exciting player in baseball. He was talked about on ESPN and written about in the New York Times. On Twitter, giddy fans turned him into a playful Internet meme, tagging their tweets as the legend of Sam Fuld. Team officials, one fan wrote, have renamed the stadium Tropicana Fuld. "He was," manager Joe Maddon said then, "ready for his moment."

The success was so sudden, and the attention so significant, the Rays decided to declare May 29 Sam Fuld Superhero Cape giveaway day. He was for a moment the league's leading hitter. Now, a month and a half later, he is hitting .224, more 0-for-4 than 4-for-4, a mortal mark that might make the promotion seem a stretch.

Super Sam?

But Fuld, 29, is the New Hampshire-reared, Stanford-educated, Type 1 diabetic son of a state senator and a university dean. He is a husband to Sarah. He is a father to Charlie. The average American man is 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. So is Sam Fuld.

Here, then, is what really makes a man super.

• • •

Start with his Kryptonite.

When Fuld was 10, in Durham, N.H., he was getting thirsty all the time, peeing more than usual and losing weight. The diagnosis was diabetes. He would have to regulate his blood sugar because his body wouldn't do it for him. He would have to prick his fingers to check his blood, and he would have to give himself shots of insulin, several times a day, for the rest of his life.

Fuld's parents played sports in high school, and his father played in an adult baseball league and his mother played in an adult softball league, but what Fuld took from them far more than any athletic ability was his analytic mind and even-keel demeanor. He was, says his third-grade teacher, an uncommonly bright boy who did everything he was supposed to do, never getting flustered. He carried with him almost everywhere a book of baseball statistics called The Complete Baseball Handbook.

Now he studied with the same focus his own numbers — what he ate, when he gave himself shots, how it made him feel — keeping meticulous log books.

For a diabetic, unhealthy fluctuations in blood sugar can have devastating consequences. The disease demands a keen awareness of self, of one's limitations, and also of what can be done to manage them. What diabetes did for Fuld was make his genetic temperament an absolute requirement.

Never too high. Never too low.

• • •

Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H., is one of the most prestigious, rigorous secondary schools in America. It can be a difficult place to keep up let alone stand out. Fuld's labs, his physics teacher says, were "perfect." On the athletic fields, he was the captain of the soccer team, the captain of the indoor track team, the captain of the baseball team.

He made the varsity as a freshman. He went 0-for-2 in his first game. He went 0-for-3 in his second. He then got 21 hits in his next 27 at-bats and finished the season hitting .609. Hitting with a bat made of metal and not wood for him was almost too easy. In his senior year, he hit .550, and it was the worst batting average of any of his Exeter seasons.

Head coach Bill Dennehy and assistant coach Dana Barbin invented a new word: "Fuldian."

He made a habit of doubling runners off first on fly balls to center field. The runners trotted halfway to second to wait for the catch to be made and then couldn't make it back in time to first. Fuld's arm was faster than their feet.

The field at Exeter back then didn't have a fence. The varsity outfield melded into the junior varsity outfield. Several times in his high school career, a ball was hit so far, Fuld had to run into the JV game to make the catch.

Professional scouts came to watch him and liked him but also told his coaches: His arm could be stronger. His speed could be faster. And his size. Always his size.

Their son, say University of New Hampshire dean Ken Fuld and New Hampshire state Sen. Amanda Merrill, had even then a combination of confidence and perspective. He knew the math. Only the very best high school baseball players get to play in college or the minor leagues. Only the very best players in the minor leagues get to play in the major leagues. There are 25 players on every team, and 30 teams, which means there are only 750 jobs, and there are millions of players who want them. Fewer than 50 players from New Hampshire have ever made the majors. Making it, especially for someone like Fuld, is the realization of the tiniest speck of a chance.

At Exeter, on midwinter nights, Barbin, also the head hockey coach, left after his practices around 7 to head home, out into the 3 feet of snow and the cold New England dark. From inside the steamy, lit-up Thompson Memorial Cage, he often heard the same sound: Ken Fuld pitching to his son, night after night after night.

Ping!

Ping!

Ping!

• • •

Fuld went to Stanford for college. He was all-league three times and All-American twice. He set a school record for runs scored. He played and starred in three College World Series.

The Cubs drafted him after his junior year, in the 24th round, but he chose to go back for his senior season so he could graduate with his class, which he did, with an economics degree and a 3.15 grade point average. The next year, the Cubs drafted him again, this time in the 10th round.

In the Cubs' minor leagues, in Peoria, Ill., in Daytona Beach, in Knoxville, Tenn., in Des Moines, Iowa, he batted more than 2,500 times. He made diving catches that got standing ovations. He ran into walls. People called him a "crash test dummy." "That guy," his manager in Des Moines told a local reporter, "will run through anything." He had on his arms scabs and scrapes like baseball shrapnel wounds. Reporters asked him about the bold, even reckless way he played, and he always answered essentially the same way.

Look at me.

I have to.

He played in fall leagues in Arizona. He played in winter leagues in Venezuela. He won most valuable player awards and leadership awards. He got called up to Chicago, to the majors, in 2007, in 2009, in 2010. He got his first hit in the majors in July 2009. He hit his first home run in the majors that October.

Cubs fans remember Fuld most for a catch he made at Wrigley Field late in the season in 2007. A Pittsburgh Pirate hit a ball deep to right-center. Fuld ran full-tilt into the brick wall and caught the ball, then spun around and threw it to first base, on one accurate hop. Double play. The crowd at Wrigley chanted: "Sammy! Sammy!"

He kept getting sent back down.

• • •

The Rays traded pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs in January and got handful of players in return. One of them was Fuld. The Rays liked him because of his reputation for above-average defense and smart if not standout offense. He made the major-league team out of spring training for the first time in his career.

Then, in the first week of the season, aging batting savant Manny Ramirez failed another steroid test and retired instead of accepting a suspension — an ignominious end for him, and an unexpected opportunity for Fuld.

He made a stumbling, eye-opening catch by the bullpen at Tropicana Field on April 3. He stole three bases on April 7. He made on April 9 the diving, two-out, bases-loaded catch in Chicago, the play of the day, the play of the week, maybe the play of the year.

April 11 was a Monday. The Rays traveled to Boston to play the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Fuld grew up watching the Red Sox and came to games from his home an hour-and-a-half away. He had been in the dugout as a bat boy for the baseball team from UNH. He had been on the field as a high school senior during a predraft workout. This was different. His parents drove down from Durham. His sister lives in Boston and got off work and came to the park. His wife, Sarah, flew up with their son, Charlie. Dozens of friends and coaches from Exeter bought tickets.

During batting practice before the game, Fuld saw Barbin, the assistant baseball coach who remembered all those nighttime swings in the cage in the winter. Fuld jogged over.

"Look," Fuld said, holding out his hands. "I'm shaking."

His family went to their seats in Section 21, behind home plate, up under the stadium's second-deck overhang, and his sister Annie thought: God, please let him just get one hit.

Fuld came up in the first and flied out to right. He came up in the second inning and hit a home run down the right-field line. Teammate Johnny Damon was waiting at home plate. "Hey," the veteran Damon told him, "wave to your parents." On his way back to the dugout, Fuld looked over his left shoulder, up at Section 21.

Then he came up in the fourth and doubled to left. He came up in the sixth and tripled to center. Sarah looked at Annie. Annie looked at her parents. "The whole night," Annie would say later, "we just kept saying, 'I can't believe this is happening.' " A single, and Fuld would hit for what in baseball is called the cycle, meaning a single, a double, a triple and a home run, all by the same player in the same game. It is a rare accomplishment.

Fuld came up in the seventh and flied out to left. He came up in the ninth, one more try, and he lined an outside fastball into the left-field corner. Damon and Price, his teammates in the dugout, had the same thought: Stop at first.

Down in West Palm Beach, Jim Munsey, Fuld's agent, whose sons played with Fuld when they were teenagers, was watching the game at his house on his 54-inch TV. Up in Exeter, Dennehy, his old high school coach, saw the ball leave his bat. At Fenway, in Section 21, the Fuld family watched the ball rattle up against the green wall.

They all had the same thought.

No way he's stopping at first.

"I just assumed," his mother would say, "he would go as far as he could."

Fuld sprinted to first. Then he did what he does. He kept going.

• • •

On the wall in the first-floor bathroom of the family's home in Durham is a picture of Fuld as a boy kissing his sister when she was a baby. On a shelf by the television is a picture of him with Sarah at their wedding. And on the television, one night earlier this month, was a picture of him, live, hitting at Tropicana Field in a game against the Yankees.

The room was quiet and tense. His father sat in a wooden chair closer to the screen. Every time he came up, almost every pitch he saw, his parents exhaled. Every time he made an out, which that night he did four times, they said: "Oh," or "Oooh," or "Ah."

"It couldn't last," his father said. Probability wins in the end. "People set up unrealistic expectations," he said.

Todd Kalas, the Rays' sideline reporter, appeared on the screen before another of Fuld's at-bats, wearing a cape. Come to Tropicana Field on May 29, he said, and get one of these. He mimicked Superman's flight.

Fuld's parents cringed a bit. Their son took a first strike. They rubbed their foreheads. A second. Then a ball. Then a swing and a miss.

He wasn't going to hit .400 in the major leagues. Maybe he wasn't even going to hit .300. Every night wasn't going to be that Monday night at Fenway Park. Maybe no other night.

"The more you play, the more failure you encounter," Fuld said the other day on the phone from Detroit. He was asked about Sarah and Charlie. "Having a child," he said, "is a great way to make your 0-for-5 days go away. Both Charlie and Sarah, they offer a lot of perspective."

Never too high. Never too low.

Last winter, they bought a house in Palm Beach County, and they are making it a home. It's their first. Sarah is pregnant again and due in November.

So here is Sam Fuld on Sam Fuld Superhero Cape giveaway day: His parents are in town. It's a day game. Maybe for breakfast he will feed scrambled eggs and avocado to his son. Sarah and Charlie will drive him to Tropicana Field, like they always do, because they have only one car. Sarah will tell him good luck and have fun. He will get out of the car and stick his head through the back window and say goodbye to Charlie and Charlie will giggle and smile. Then Super Sam will walk into the stadium to get ready for work.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelkruse.

Sam Fuld rises from sub to super 05/27/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 10:33pm]
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