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Playing With a Fuld Deck

Tampa Bay's new hero has made it easy to forget Manny Ramirez.

By 4.21.11

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TAMPA -- Baseball is our most statistically analyzed sport. But there are no stats to identify the player who captured the hearts of his local fans most quickly. If there were, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam "The Man" Fuld might have his first Major League record.

Record or no, Fuld is a story by Frank Capra, with music by Burt Bacharach. He entered this season at age 29 with only 131 major league at bats and one home run. He was only hitting his weight because he doesn't weigh very much. At this relatively late baseball age, and with few successful days in the bigs, he doubtless felt fortunate to be the 25th player on the Rays 25-man Opening Day roster, and may well have wondered if it might be time to explore the  possibilities of a career in car sales. At best he could look forward to a season of pinch-running and giving regular Rays outfielders the odd day off.  

But just a few games into the season, fate intervened. Manny "Being Manny" Ramirez got cross-wise to MLB's drug policy again and chose to retire rather than endure 100 games on the porch. (Manny, with a total of one hit as a Ray, may be the second player, along with Jose Canseco, to wear a Rays hat when being inducted into the Pharmaceutical Hall of Fame.) Manny's departure obliged Rays manager Joe Maddon to play line-up musical chairs, which led to our Sam being installed as a regular in the outfield, where's he's played all three positions with distinction. He's made the best of a chance a guy with four years of college ball and more than 600 games in the minor leagues had no idea he would get.

Since being installed in Maddon's lineup, all Fuld has done is hit .368 (through Tuesday, when a mortal oh-for-four day dropped him from .396), lead the AL in stolen bases, and make so many spectacular catches in the outfield that he owns the 11 o-clock highlight reel. (My sources inform me that ESPN executives are considering changing the name of "Baseball Tonight" to "The Sam Fuld Show.")

The Durham, New Hampshire native has had two four-hit nights, including four extra-base hits in Fenway one magical evening before the usual packed house there, including about 30 family and friends down for the event. He even wrapped one around the Pesky Pole in Fenway for his only home run of the year. "The best I've ever seen" is a common enough and fair description of the full-out daylight robbery catch Sam made of Juan Pierre of the White Sox's bases-loaded drive in Whatever-the-Corporation Park in Chicago.

These Fuld pyrotechnics, along with some other players coming to life, have helped the Rays turn around a season that began 0-6 on the strength of an offense so limp it could be used as the before in a Viagra ad. The post-Manny, Sam Fuld Rays have won eight of their last 11 and are playing some of the most interesting baseball in the Northern Hemisphere. Rays fans are loving it, and they're loving Sam.

At season-end Fuld may not be leading the Rays, let alone the AL, in batting average. But he will almost certainly be leading MLB in dry cleaning bills. In his all-out style of play, he's forever sliding, whether it's making circus catches in the outfield, sliding into bases, or sliding back into bases behind pick-off throws. By the third inning he usually looks like he's been in a train wreck. If anything slows him down during the season it might be that he's all over rug burns from sliding catches on the Trop's awful playing surface.

Fuld was such a big baby, 10 pounds at birth, his parents called him "Sumo Sam." But he grew to more resemble a jockey than a nose guard. The Rays program lists him at 5-10 and 180 pounds. But if Fuld weighs 180 it would have to be carrying all of his bats plus the donut. He's compact and fast. He'll never hit 25 home runs in a season. But he's wiry strong, and his level, line-drive swing will produce plenty of gappers for doubles and triples. He's a natural lead-off hitter. He's fast, knows the strike zone, has good pitch recognition, and outstanding bat control.

In the outfield Fuld is sure-handed, covers a lot of ground, is not afraid to leave his feet, has a strong, accurate throwing arm and a quick release. On the bases he's a one-man disruption platoon, forcing opposing pitchers and infielders to pay attention to him. In short, he's just the man to help the Rays stay competitive, and help Rays fans get over the loss of Carl Crawford.

So if Sam Fuld is this good, how come he's just showing up now? Where has be been for 29 years? And what were the Cubs thinking when they threw Fuld into a multi-player deal that sent Rays starter Matt Garza to Chicago?

Probably no one knows the answers to these questions, least of all pole-axed Cubs officials watching Fuld turn in one web-gem after another on baseball wrap-up shows. Perhaps Fuld is just a late bloomer. More sinisterly, perhaps 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. 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.

It's great fun now for Fuld and for his many new admirers. No one knows if the pixie dust will be around all season. He won't take anyone or any team by surprise the second time through the league. Pardon my passive voice, but adjustments will be made. But Fuld doesn't have a big swing full of holes. And the Stanford economics graduate is as smart as he is talented. So he should be able to adjust to the adjustments. Unless he pulls, pops, or breaks something his defense shouldn't suffer. And he brings speed to the park every night.

Dennis Quaid is too old for the role now (not to mention too big). But if Sam keeps this up, the folks who made The Rookie may want to consider getting back to work. Sam Fuld's story is as inspiring as that of Jimmy Morris, and could justify its own space on the big screen. I'll be there when this one opens, that is if there isn't a Rays game on that night.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.