When the Tampa Bay Rays sent top starting pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs for a few hot prospects in a seven-player trade this winter, folks barely noticed that a couple of intellectual outfielders were also exchanged in that same deal. Fernando Perez, an Ivy League product of Columbia, went to the Cubs, and Sam Fuld, the Stanford product known mostly for his lack of height and daredevil plays in the outfield, went to the Rays.
The Perez-for-Fuld part of the equation was largely overlooked, which was nothing new to Fuld, a speedy 5-foot-9-ish player who'd been up and down with Lou Piniella's Cubs, where he never had more than 97 at-bats in a season. Fuld, now 29, has had to overcome a lot, from smallish obstacles like growing up in a decidedly non-baseball hotbed such as Durham, N.H. (where his dad is a dean at the University of New Hampshire and his mom a New Hampshire state senator) and being a 24th-round Cubs draft choice, to larger ones like overcoming Type 1 diabetes. So he never was one to complain about something like playing time, not when he understands how everyone at this level is talented and everyone deserves a chance. If anyone gets the odds, he does; he showed a unique aptitude for numbers as the small child of a professor.
No sir, there aren't many undersized, Jewish bookworms (he had a 3.15 GPA at Stanford, according to Wikipedia) in the bigs. But the diminutive Fuld harbored big goals all along.
Of course, he never could have imagined a start that has spawned talk of "the Legendary Sam Fuld" or "Superman Sam", where he is seen as the offensive sparkplug on a team that began the year with all-around superstar Evan Longoria (who's been injured) and a couple of famed ex-Idiots, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Coincidentally, Fuld grew up watching and admiring Damon, Ramirez, Mike Greenwell and Mo Vaughn as a member of Red Sox Nation in New England.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, a lover of Fuld's superb, acrobatic defense and historically high on-base marks, was finding time for Fuld even before Ramirez ignominiously departed. But once the Manny era abruptly ended, Fuld's spot as a full-fledged starter became clear. His standout performance has only solidified that. Lo and behold, Fuld was leading the league in hitting at .396 after going 4-for-4 vs. the White Sox this past Monday.
"I never anticipated this kind of start,'' Fuld said in a recent phone interview. "Sure, I have high expectations for myself. But do I think I'm going to win an American League batting title? No. At the same time, I think I can make a significant contribution.''
Fuld is doing more than making a significant contribution. The Rays' leadoff hitter is currently hitting .348 (now fifth-best in the AL) and has seven stolen bases, tying him Oakland's Coco Crisp for the league lead. Fuld is this space's choice for the biggest early surprise of the 2011 season. While former MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Joey Votto lead their respective leagues in hitting, there have also been some great surprises (the top 45 are listed below).
Fuld always has been known as an excellent defender who can play all three outfield positions, and he has been nothing short of brilliant playing left field. (Gold Glove-caliber B.J. Upton is the Rays' center fielder.) But he admitted this spring he still needed to prove he could hit at the major league level, which he is now doing.
Thanks to superior, daring defense (one catch he made crashing into the ivy-covered brick at Wrigley Field is still recalled) and very high on-base percentages (the self-confessed stat freak and early
He took the trade as a positive because it meant "someone wanted me,'' he said. The irony is that it took the sudden departure of one of his childhood heroes, Ramirez, who quit after failing a drug test. (A Rays person said of Manny's short stint with the ballclub: "We went into it with our eyes wide open as to the number of minefields that existed.")
Fuld actually wasn't expecting too much when he got to Port Charlotte, although the Rays are known for putting a high premium on defense, a stance that has been key to the team's two AL East championships in the last three seasons. His outfield versatility, style and attitude opened their eyes midway through spring. "A lot of what happened was unexpected. I was pretty thrilled just to make the team,'' Fuld said. "Manny's retirement came as a shock to everyone.''
Fuld's overall performance may shock some, but nothing was more astounding than his first game at Fenway, where he'd hung out as a New Hampshire kid. Before 30 friends and family, Fuld had four extra-base hits: a homer, a triple and two doubles (a record 11 total bases for a Fenway debut). Going into his last at-bat, Fuld only needed a single to become the second Rays player after Upton to hit for a cycle, and he lined a shot into the left-field corner. While some Rays people were shouting for him to stop at first, he wouldn't think of it. Not his style. "It never really crossed me mind,'' he said. "I think that would have been pretty selfish.''
Fuld has never been considered anything but an organization and team man and he wouldn't do anything to change that. He's come this far his way, despite his short stature, intellectual upbringing in a cold locale, health concern and more. The obstacles seem too many, and too big, to overcome. "I think they're all pretty sizable,'' Fuld agreed. "I've always fought the odds against me. A little left-handed outfielder from New Hampshire is probably not going to be in the big leagues. But I thought, why not? I gave it a shot.''
Beating the long odds, Fuld said, "makes it a lot more gratifying.''
A few major leaguers have successfully battled Type 1 diabetes, such as All-Star pitcher Bill Gullickson and Cubs legend Ron Santo, but the disease is no small concern. Daily shots, which help control it, incite teasing about "shooting up'' from teammates. Fuld said, "It's something I have to be aware of. It's a big juggling act. You have to do your best to keep your blood sugar in a good solid range.''
Fuld continues to overcome, without complaint. "I had times where I was frustrated,'' he admitted. "There were moments where I thought I deserved a little better. But baseball's not fair. Realistically, not being a big prospect, I have to overachieve and outplay guys.''
So far, he is outplaying almost everyone.
• Between all the embarrassing revelations that surfaced in his divorce trial with soon-to-be ex-wife Jamie, plus his need to borrow $55 million since last September, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt got what he bargained for with MLB taking over day-to-day operations of the Dodgers. McCourt now will need approval to so much as buy a desk.
The difference between McCourt and the Mets-owning Wilpons is that the Wilpons have 30 years history running a team and are in trouble due to one horrific if long-standing financial decision (Madoff), while McCourt made countless questionable moves involving the team. The IRS is investigating McCourt (according to TMZ), as well, as he apparently suffered a double whammy Wednesday. ("People in here were freaking out" on Wednesday, an unnamed source said.)
MLB now employs two top ex-Dodger people, Joe Torre and Kim Ng, who surely have some insight into some of the shenanigans going on at Chavez Ravine. Commissioner Bud Selig's hope seems to be for McCourt to realize he is financially unable to run the team (though there's no evidence he understands that yet). McCourt signed paperwork upon becoming owner that he wouldn't sue MLB, but baseball people harbor no illusions McCourt will abide by his promise. One person familiar with the situation says McCourt plans to fight baseball on this.
• Stan Kasten, a favorite of Selig's, would make sense to run the Dodgers for now. (The name was first mentioned by Jayson Stark.) Three other possibilities are Corey Busch, whom McCourt let go upon taking over the Dodgers, former Padres president Dick Freeman and MLB exec John McHale Jr., a former Tigers and Rays president.
• Good job by Brewers owner Mark Attanasio to extend Ryan Braun for $105 million over five years (2016 through 2020). That's the second long-term deal Braun has signed with Milwaukee, while co-star Prince Fielder hasn't signed one and presumably never will. Attanasio, in fact, twice before had offered $20 million-a-year deals (CC Sabathia and Fielder) -- Braun was the first to accept.
• The Brewers are realistic enough to understand Fielder won't be back after the year. Some candidates to sign Fielder should include the Cubs, Mariners (GM Jack Zduriencik was the Brewers' scouting director, and Seattle scouting director Tom McNamara was a scout in Milwaukee), Rangers, Orioles and Dodgers (if they have an ownership change).
• James Loney looks like a potential non-tender candidate, as one scout pointed out, for the Dodgers.
• Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, one of the smarter guys in the game, said, "We have to be honest with ourselves. We can keep saying, 'We're a better team than this.' We may not be."