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Tampa Bay Rays' Sam Fuld still amazed by rise to prominence

PORT CHARLOTTE — A year ago, Sam Fuld was, well, interesting.

Fringe major-leaguer, acquired in a trade, with a shot to make the Rays as a backup. Decent backstory, what with the diabetes, lack of size, Stanford education, intellectual parents, Stats LLC internship. Scrappy rep. Good quote. Nice enough guy.

Hardly, though, the stuff of legend.

"He was," manager Joe Maddon said, "just Sam."

But that was before the breathtaking catch in Chicago, the frenzied Fenway Park debut, the Super Sam Fuld Superhero Cape giveaway, the guest spot on the All-Star Home Run Derby broadcast, the dazzling dash to beat the Royals. Before the Twitter explosion, before all the interviews and national stories, before he was asked to sign autographs, to lend his name to causes, to write articles about what he thought.

Before he became The Legend.

"I never would have thought all that stuff would have happened," Fuld said. "And in such a small time frame."

What happened was only slightly more amazing than how it happened: Manny Ramirez failing a drug test and deciding to retire a week into the season, Johnny Damon moving to the DH slot and Fuld — a part-time player, and slow starter at that — taking over in leftfield, starting 37 times (more than he had in parts of three seasons with the Cubs) over the next 38 games and sizzling for much of the time, the best player the Rays had.

"None of that made any sense whatsoever," Maddon said. "But that's how this thing works sometimes."

It wasn't as big as Tebowmania, but it wasn't much different — albeit in a smaller market — from the recent emergence of the New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin.

"We were Linsanity before there was Linsanity," said Jim Munsey, Fuld's agent. "We were the baseball Linsanity."

Probably the most relevant residual from last season was that Fuld proved, at age 29, that he could actually play in the big leagues — that he wasn't too small, or too injury prone, or too limited by his diabetes.

It was the first time in seven pro seasons that he spent the full year in the majors, making this the first spring training where he can relax knowing his spot — pending Friday's recurrence of soreness in his right wrist — is somewhat secure. "A foreign feeling to me," he acknowledged.

But some of the byproducts were pretty good, too.

• Like his buzz from turning his first game at Fenway Park into a night for the ages, a son of New England putting on a show for 30 friends and relatives with a Rays record-tying four extra-base hits plus a diving catch becoming a household name in enemy households.

"That's still a surreal event," said his father, Kenneth, a dean at the University of New Hampshire. "Without question, the coolest thing about this."

• Like the plastic blue capes the Rays gave out in his honor, that Damon wore onto the field to shag balls and take out the lineup card in tribute.

"At the time, I couldn't even get a T-shirt giveaway in Iowa (despite four seasons with the Cubs' Triple-A team), and now to have something at the major-league level was pretty darn cool," Fuld said. Cooler, the Iowa Cubs then responded with a Fuld jersey shirt giveaway.

• Like the six-page article on Fuld in the New Yorker, a high-brow publication not typically prone to writing about such mundane subjects, introducing Fuld's story to an otherwise unaware audience — such as the colleagues and acquaintances of his own parents, the college-dean dad and New Hampshire state senator mom.

"That was their only source of seeing anything about Sam," Kenneth said. "We're long-time subscribers to the New Yorker and have a great deal of respect for their journalistic prowess and creative writing. So we thought that was terrific."

Fuld was also featured in USA Today, the New York Times and Foxsports.com in addition to the local and New England papers. And he was asked to write book reviews for the Wall Street Journal and his memories of Game 162 for the Grantland.com site.

(So what would top that? "The cover of the Rolling Stone," Maddon said. "If he gets on there, he knows he's made it.")

• Like the push for All-Star votes after he was added to the ballot and the perch on the ESPN set during the Home Run Derby, although in the awkward role of protecting the "talent" by catching balls. "Obviously it would have been cool to play in the All-Star Game, but the fact that I was on the ballot and got some votes and was asked to help out, that whole experience was pretty cool," he said.

There are some anecdotal ways to quantify Fuld's rise to prominence:

The 20,000-plus followers on his @SamFuld5 Twitter account (and visitors to his new website, samfuld5.com); the extra equipment Nike and Rawlings quickly provided in excess of his original contract; the number of offers pitched to Munsey (including a possible spokesman's role for a diabetic supply company) and the amount of unlicensed merchandise on websites Munsey had to chase down; the emails and calls from suddenly not-so-distance relatives or long-lost friends (including one Kenneth hadn't heard from in 53 years); the frequency with which Fuld would be recognized even though he spent the offseason at his Jupiter home with his wife, Sarah, son Charlie and new daughter Jane. (Charlie and Jane? "I'm trying to bring old-school back," he said.)

But the most benevolent benefit of the Fuld frenzy was the expanded forum for his efforts with diabetes causes, working in several capacities with JDRF, the leading foundation for juvenile diabetes work, and hosting a camp at USF for 100 diabetic kids.

"Part of what really makes us proud of Sam was they way he used his one brief moment of fame," Kenneth said. "He capitalized on it by doing some good things."

In a way, everything has changed for Sam Fuld. In another way, he's still very much the same.

"Gosh," he said. "I just get a little more attention now."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampbay.com.

Tampa Bay Rays' Sam Fuld still amazed by rise to prominence 03/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 10:03pm]
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