From cycle breaker to brain truster

Chicago White Sox v Tampa Bay Rays

“A manager’s dream and a trainer’s nightmare,” was once the word about outfield acrobat Sam Fuld—who managed not to scramble his brains enough to rob him of the economics and statistical education that’s since made him the Phillies’ information coordinator.

The Phillies’ incumbent coordinator for major league player information used to be a swift outfielder with a penchant for defense that included a remarkable inability to yield to immovable objects. Sam Fuld also has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford, where he insisted on studying before becoming a major league baseball player, and is striking for a master’s in statistics.

And eleven years ago Saturday, as ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian couldn’t resist remembering, Fuld needed a measly single in the top of the ninth to do what Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Babe Ruth, plus Barry Bonds, never did even once in their careers. A single against the Red Sox, whom the Rays were blowing out in Fenway Park as it was, and Fuld would have hit for the cycle.

He didn’t make it.

Not because he didn’t nail a hit—he shot a line drive into Fenway’s right field corner. But neither did he stop at first the way some players might have done if that’s what they needed for the cycle. Fuld knew his hit was deep enough for a double and that’s what he ended up with, running to second just about standing up. And Fuld never once thought he’d made a big mistake.

It would have been a defining moment in the career of a player who wasn’t physically imposing at 5’9″, who was probably mis-seen and mishandled very early in his career, whom injuries compromised to a certain degree, and who never quite found a full-time slot regardless of his contact skills at the plate and his fearless defense.

But it wasn’t baseball. Even with a host of family and friends in the seats (Fuld is native to New Hampshire and grew up a Red Sox fan) who probably would have been the loudest in the park if he’d completed the cycle, it wasn’t proper baseball so far as Fuld was concerned.

“I never thought about stopping at first,” Fuld told Kurkjian in a post-game interview, the game having been showed on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball. “That’s not the right way to play the game. If you can advance to the next base, you advance. That’s the only way to play baseball.”

So he settled for a night of two RBI doubles, a leadoff triple, a two-run homer into the right field corner seats, and a bath of postgame applause from his Rays teammates. “Everyone in this room respects him even more for that,” said the Rays’ then-general manager Andrew Friedman after that game. “That’s why he’s Sam Fuld.”

Fuld became a Ray in the first place because the Cubs, who drafted him out of Stanford in 2004, found it difficult to find a place for an outfielder described as “a crash test dummy with a death wish” for his daring defense while also swinging a bat that delivered high on-base percentages in the high minors.

In 2008, 2009, and 2010, the Cubs continued having that difficulty. When he was sent to Iowa (AAA) yet again before spring training expired, Fuld was defended from two disparate sources.

“[D]on’t you think you could find a place for a fast guy who gets on base and plays great defense?” asked Rob Neyer, who promptly delivered the answer he didn’t like. “The Cubs did find a place for him. No, not Wrigley Field. Not Heaven, either. Iowa. Again. Where Fuld posted a .383 on-base percentage . . . I’m telling you, there are worse fourth outfielders on half the teams in the majors right now.”

Larry Thornberry, writing then for the political magazine The American Spectator, saw and raised, after Fuld was traded to the Rays for 2011 (in a deal sending pitcher Matt Garza to Chicago and pitcher Chris Archer to Tampa Bay) and made the team out of spring training for the first time—at age 29.

“[P]erhaps decision makers where Fuld has played before Tampa Bay didn’t move him along or pencil him into lineup cards because they were prejudiced against players of Fuld’s stature,” Thornberry wrote. “But those who don’t believe guys of Fuld’s size can be solid major league players should be sentenced to sit in the corner under the dunce hat and read Joe Morgan’s statistics over and over.”

Fuld got his shot as a Rays regular in the first place because Manny Ramirez, being only Manny after all, elected to retire rather than sit out a hundred-game suspension for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. “[T]here are no stats to identify the player who captured the hearts of his local fans most quickly,” Thornberry wrote. “If there were, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam ‘The Man’ Fuld might have his first major league record.”

The bad news is that Fuld went from being one of the American League’s on-base percentage leaders ending April to a drop-off at the plate almost inexplicably. Perhaps his acrobatic defense (wags suggested renaming ESPN’s Baseball Tonight to The Sam Fuld Show after so many highlight-reel outfield plays showed up so many times) took the initial toll on his early plate breakout.

Perhaps more, a wrist ligament injury he suffered that September and re-aggravated the following March eroded his once formidable batting skills. The Rays let him walk as a free agent and he signed with the Athletics for 2014; the A’s farmed him out and left him prone to a waiver claim which the Twins placed in late April.

He played thirteen games before suffering a concussion crashing into an outfield wall; he ended up playing only 53 games as a Twin and still managed to lead the team with a .370 OBP, and flying-trapeze outfield plays, before they traded him back to the A’s at the end of July 2014.

2020-04-12 SamFuldSeanRodriguez

Fuld (right) with Phillies infielder Sean Rodriguez, spring training 2019, before Rodriguez yielded number his uniform number to incoming Bryce Harper.

In Oakland Fuld’s high point was probably the 2014 American League wild card game in which he reached base three times while the A’s fell to the eventual pennant-winning Royals. He moved around the outfield as a part-timer the next two seasons (he led the American League in double plays turned from left field in 2015), never really recovered his batting skills, until the prospect that he’d done so during spring training 2016 ended when he injured his left rotator cuff.

Surgery, season lost, career over. He made his retirement official in November 2017. The Phillies hired him almost before he could finish his announcement that day.

Once it was said about 1960s center field gazelle and 1970s reserve clause challenger Curt Flood that 75 percent of the planet was covered by water and the rest by Flood. When David Price was a Rays pitcher and a Fuld teammate, he plagiarised that observation to say the world was covered 75 percent water and 25 percent Fuld.

What Fuld covers now is baseball knowledge and analytical skill, enough that he was considered seriously for assorted managers’ openings. Last fall, in fact, he was said to be on the candidate lists with the Pirates (who hired Derek Shelton), the Cubs (who canned Fuld’s manager in Tampa Bay, Joe Maddon, in favour of David Ross), the Giants (who replaced retiring Bruce Bochy with ex-Phillies manager Gabe Kapler), and the Mets. (Fired Mickey Callaway, hired Carlos Beltran, unloaded Beltran in the Astrogate wake, hired Luis Rojas.)

A near lifelong Type I diabetic (he was diagnosed at age ten), Fuld is well accustomed to working under pressures. Those who think the analytic nerds come from places having nothing to do with baseball may not have realised that Fuld, who insisted on getting his bachelor’s degree before giving pro baseball a try, merely took what he knew as a player and married it to an already analytical brain.

Even if he scrambled that brain more than a few times making those human cannonball plays.

“A lot of the battle is getting the information to the players when it really matters and that’s when you’re on the field,” Fuld told Philadelphia Inquirer writer Matt Breen in spring training 2018. “You can have all the meetings you want at 1 p.m., but at 7 p.m., when the game really matters, it’s important that they get the right amount of information and the most important information.”

Kapler managed the Phillies in 2018-2019 until he was executed after last season. He was unable to marry his own analytical inclinations to critical, in-game, game-on-the-line moments. Perhaps he forgot that Fuld, his information coordinator, who once immersed himself in Moneyball (the book, not the film) while studying at Stanford, could and did marry both, as a hair-raising outfielder whose very trademark eroded his once-formidable plate smarts and skills but not his intelligence or his feel for the game.

A feel that Fuld displayed for all time on 11 April 2011, in a ballpark where Kapler himself once enjoyed many a high as a championship, real-or-alleged cursebusting Red Sox outfielder. Where Fuld was tempted of the cycle and gunned it past first on to second on an obvious double, ordering that particular Satan to get himself behind.

No wonder there may yet be teams looking for him to take their bridges even if he’s content where he is right now. An analyst who played the game right when he could have stopped short for a moment’s personal glory. It’s as valuable to the game now as sports newscast programmers once held Fuld’s threats to outfield walls everywhere.

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