By Selena Fragassi
Sam Fuld knows a thing or two about numbers. The Chicago Cubs prospect can probably still count the days that have passed since graduating with an economics degree from Stanford. It’s a unique experience that no doubt prepared him to weigh the balance of batting averages and fielding percentages; but in a different world, Fuld may have called his plays in front of a blackboard instead.
“I hate this question,” he jokes when I ask what other job he would be doing if baseball had struck out, “but I’m going to say a teacher… probably math.”
Not a surprising answer from the soft-spoken player; but then again, that’s how the 26-year-old likes it. “The black-and-white aspect of [math] for some reason has always appealed to me,” he says. “I just like having a clear and defined answer.”
One answer that’s still not clear hovers around the question that has followed him to spring training; namely, who will fill the Cubs’ centerfield position in 2008. In a much-talked-about competition, Fuld is up against 21-year-old Felix Pie for the coveted spot after a memorable major league premiere late last year. Called up from the minors in September, Fuld starred in a momentous scene that turned his fate from supporting-cast role to leading-man glory. In the seventh inning against the Pirates, the virtually unknown Fuld dove headfirst into the Ivy to make a catch and a subsequent double play that ended the inning. Moments later, the near-sold-out crowd at Wrigley were on their feet chanting “Sammy! Sammy!”—an ironic throwback to the heydey of Fuld’s famous outfield predecessor with the same first name.
Although the sound may have been a familiar one, only two people in the crowd had recognized the name on the jersey—his parents who had been visiting from Fuld’s home of New Hampshire.
Born into a Jewish-Catholic household an hour outside of Boston, the Red Sox fan and a younger sister grew up near the University of New Hampshire campus. His father, the chair of the psychology department, was an integral part of Fuld’s career aspirations and now devotes a part of his own study to researching the psychophysics of his son’s pastime; most recently exploring the effectiveness of eye block.
“My dad walked to work every day—that’s how close we were to campus,” Fuld says. “So I was able to experience a lot from a young age, whether it was sporting events or just going into my dad’s office.” It was here that Sam had some of his first jobs—including a stint as a batboy for the now-defunct University of New Hampshire Wildcats and a less glamorous experience as the ballpark’s janitor. “I’ll never forget picking gum off the bleachers for one whole day,” he says without the least bit of nostalgia.
His mother, a former state legislator, also spent time working at the university in the undergraduate research department. It’s this strong academic foundation that may explain Fuld’s commitment to his own education, a stronghold that led him to turn down the Cubs initially in the 2003 draft so he could finish his degree at Stanford.
“Academics was always important to me,” Fuld says. “I wanted to go to a good school with good baseball and [Stanford] offered the best combination of the two.” Today, Fuld continues to pursue a master’s in economics in the off-seasons. “I’m not sure when the estimated time of finishing that is,” he says tiredly, “but I’ve started it.”
Although Fuld’s life is full of highs, there definitely were the lows—one that threw quite a curve ball even before he could make his high-school baseball team. At the age of 10, Sam was diagnosed as a juvenile diabetic. “It started in the summer,” he says. “I was thirsty all the time, having to go to the bathroom a lot and I lost about ten pounds.”
When he was first diagnosed, neither Sam nor his family knew quite what to expect, especially since diabetes wasn’t a part of his lineage—a rare occurrence for an inherently hereditary disease. “Initially… I thought of it as a disease that cats got,” he says, recalling his childhood innocence. “That’s the only time I had ever heard of it.”
For a young kid enamored with the sport of baseball, it could have been a deal-breaker. But not for Fuld. “For the most part, I was pretty positive about it and tried to remain realistic,” he says. “I knew as much as I complained about it, it wasn’t going to disappear.”
Clearly, Fuld has overcome the challenge with an anticipated major-league presence that he credits to role models like former Cub Ron Santo who have lived and played with the disease. “I always looked for other current or former athletes with diabetes and they provided hope for me,” he says. “All you need is a little inspiration.” That inspiration came to fruition when he was just 12 and was able to meet a diabetic pitcher who played for the Detroit Tigers on a visiting trip to Fenway. “That was huge for me,” he says. “It was probably a two-minute conversation, but to be able to meet him and talk with him, it was tangible.”
Fuld hopes to continue the trend and make an impression on some of his young fans battling the disease as well. “I enjoy talking about it and providing any sort of inspiration I can to other diabetic kids,” he says. “I make it a point of meeting them and speaking with them whenever possible. It’s important for me to do that.”