This feature about Sam Fuld by All Children's Strategic Communications Editor Dave Scheiber is the current cover story for Inside Pitch, the official game program/magazine of the Tampa Bay Rays, and is reprinted with permission. Grab a free copy of Inside Pitch whenever you attend a Rays game at Tropicana Field.
Fuld will be the special guest speaker Saturday, April 20 at All Children's Diabetes Family Day. He'll talk about his journey with type 1 diabetes from childhood through the big leagues, and answer questions during a Q&A session The event includes a wealth of the latest information about health, nutrition and other issues about type 1 diabetes. It will be held between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in the Outpatient Care Center (601 5th St. S., St. Petersburg). For information on required pre-registration or for other details, visit the All Children's Diabetes Family Day web page.
The familiar image freezes a moment of heart and hustle: the silhouette of a leaping ballplayer, with body suspended in mid-air as if defying gravity, and right arm reaching to make a back-handed catch against the odds.
It tells a story of beating far bigger odds with the same relentless determination -of overcoming a lack of physical stature in the sports world, growing up in a decidedly barren baseball region of the country, and facing the daily challenges of a disease that descended on him when he was only 10 years old.
A story of a young boy whose fateful meeting with a veteran pitcher living with type I diabetes changed everything, instilling a desire to persevere and one day help other children in the same way.
It is the story of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Sam Fuld - and how he has imbued that iconic silhouette with the tale of a player who may be small by major league standards but plays big in the game of baseball and life.
"Growing up, I knew I had all these obstacles, and together they just gave me a ton of motivation," he says. "I knew there was only one way to get the highest level and that was to play as hard as I could and always hustle. I knew I would never stand out physically, so I knew I had to stand out by how hard I played."
As the picture that today graces T-shirts and ballpark signs suggests, he has willed himself to out-run the impediments that could have derailed him: the diabetes that demands constant vigilance to keep his blood sugar levels from careening dangerously low or high; the unimposing 5-9, 175-pound big-league physique; and the New Hampshire roots that afforded few chances to hone his baseball skills in the long, frigid winters.
These are the elements that comprise an uplifting modern version of the old novel, movie and play, What Makes Sammy Run?
It's a show that continues to get rave reviews for those trademark "Super Sam" catches that have electrified Rays fans in his three years with the club - and brought cheers from Cubs faithful in his two partial seasons chasing down fly balls by the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field. The reviews are just as stellar from Fuld's teammates who love his all-out style of play, his intelligence and much-noted statistical wizardry ¬- and his upbeat demeanor in games or in his role as a valued bench player.
In fact, the 31-year-old veteran may just be the best-known, most-popular "fourth" outfielder in baseball - with a bond that seems to link No. 5 to fans throughout the game for an array of reasons.
"I think size matters, and the fact that the normal human being can look at this guy and say, 'He's actually smaller than me or the same size as I am,' and he can play major league baseball at this level," says Rays manager Joe Maddon. "So in a sense, I think he's every man. There's an identification that draws the average fan to him.
"In addition, there's the energy with which he plays that's attractive. The average fan loves to see the way Sam Fuld plays the game. On top of that, he's been successful. And then finally there's the fact that he's had kind of a disability to overcome with the diabetes. And he's bright, too. When people look under the surface a little bit and see all these different components, he's easy to identify with and root for."
Fuld's national brand just keeps growing along with the burgeoning "Sam Fuld's USF Diabetes Sports Camp" he's run for the past two years in conjunction with the University of South Florida's Diabetes Center - drawing hundreds of kids from throughout Florida and beyond in early February.
And there's his continued educational outreach on the type 1 diabetes front as the featured speaker at All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine "Family Diabetes Day." Fuld was a smash hit at the event last year and is scheduled to speak again at the St. Petersburg hospital on Saturday, April 20.
Dr. Pallavi Iyer, head of the All Children's Specialty Physicians pediatric endocrinology program, sees Fuld's impact on youngsters with type 1 diabetes and the help he gives their parents as beyond measure.
"I think when families first hear of any big diagnosis like diabetes there's a sense of loss," she says. "They're happy their child is healthy but there's a dread that, 'My child isn't going to be able to achieve all the hopes I had for them.' The child can feel the same thing. As a doctor, I can tell them not to worry and that things will be fine, because diabetes is a disease that can be managed.
"But when they see Sam Fuld out there and excelling at the top level of his sport, that makes a huge difference. And when he tells these kids that they'll be okay and can achieve their goals, too, it's much more believable than what comes out of my mouth. Because kids love Sam, and they listen to him."
Fuld's life was forever changed at 10 when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Unlike type 2 diabetes, the condition is not linked to being overweight and has no known cure - despite hope that one may eventually be discovered. Fuld was an active child who stood out in basketball, tennis and soccer in addition to baseball. Yet he still took the diagnosis in stride, learning to be self-sufficient with his constant glucose blood pokes and insulin injections.
His father, Kenneth Fuld, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hampshire, still marvels at how his son rolled with the punches.
"I often say I'm as proud of the way that he's dealt with his diabetes as I am with his baseball accomplishments," he says. "Sam has been very stoic about it from the beginning. He's said basically, 'This is the way it is, and I have to deal with it.' And he has."
His mother, Amanda Merrill, a state senator in New Hampshire, knew her son was well equipped to handle the curveball life delivered. "He liked to eat everything he was supposed to, and he exercised regularly," she says. "And because he was good with numbers, Sam understood at an early age how to count his carbs."
But then something else happened that counted in a crucial way. In 1993, a family friend, then Boston Red Sox pitching coach Rich Gale, invited Sam and Ken Fuld to Fenway Park to meet Bill Gullickson of the Detroit Tigers. Gullickson, a seasoned starter for the Tigers, also had type 1 diabetes and was more than willing to spend 10 minutes telling a little kid how he didn't have to let the disease hold him back.
"I was definitely a bit star-struck," Fuld remembers. "I think I let him do all the talking. But his positive message had a big effect on me."
Gullickson, in fact, was diagnosed at age 21 at the start of his first spring training with the Montreal Expos. But he didn't unravel. He spent a week in the hospital, learning all he could on controlling his glucose levels and managing his condition on the field and off. He then went on to set a rookie record at the time for most strikeouts in a game with 18 and finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Gullickson would pitch 14 big-league seasons, posting a winning record of 162-136 with a solid 3.93 ERA. Yet among his vivid baseball memories is the meeting he had with the tongue-tied boy with diabetes.
"Rich came up to me and said, 'There's a boy from my hometown and he recently found out he's diabetic - would you talk to him?' " Gullickson recalls. "I said sure and went into the clubhouse and got the smallest Tigers hat they had and a ball. Then Rich brought me over to this little kid, sitting there nervous and quiet. I shared some of my thoughts and hoped it helped. And I figured he'd wind up playing Little League in New Hampshire and maybe some high school ball."
And that's where the Sam Fuld story takes an amazing turn, fueled by the power of paying it forward.
The man who did his best to provide a boost to the quiet little boy had long since retired from baseball when his sister telephoned him one day in 2009. She had just read a story in a Chicago newspaper about an impressive new Cubs outfielder crediting an encounter with Gullickson - 17 years earlier - with making a profound difference in his life.
"I said, 'Holy Cow!' and then went and Googled this guy, Sam Fuld," Gullickson recollects. "I couldn't believe it."
The two met soon after when the Cubs played a game against the Marlins near Gullickson's Miami area home. But it was their next meeting that was extra special - this past February when Fuld invited Gullickson to serve on the coaching staff at his diabetes sports camp at USF.
"I have to pinch myself when I realize how far things have come for me ¬- and to have it come full circle is pretty incredible," Fuld says. "It's funny how it works. That moment when I first met him meant so much to me. And as result, I've remembered that and wanted to have an impact on other kids. So in a way, that one gesture of his made has helped make an impact on hundreds of kids."
Watching their enjoyment at his camp - getting instruction from current or former pro and college standouts with diabetes - gave Fuld an indescribable sense of satisfaction. Many of their stories shared a similar thread: a child rushed to the doctor or ER after experiencing days of excessive thirst and frequent urination, along with flu-like symptoms and sudden weight loss.
One story of a little boy from St. Petersburg stood out. An active Little Leaguer, he was beset by all those symptoms in June 2011. When his pediatrician couldn't get a blood sugar reading - it was off the charts - she dispatched the boy and his parents to All Children's. The diagnosis hit the parents like a ton of bricks, though the boy was too sick to realize what was wrong until he lay in intensive care two days later. An avid Rays fan, not even the sight on the hospital room TV of Tampa Bay blanking arch-rival Boston could bring the hint of a smile.
"I don't want to have diabetes," was all he could muster in a hoarse, hushed voice.
A day later, the family was about to be discharged and begin traveling a new, still uncertain road of diabetes care.
That's when the phone in the hospital room rang. The voice on the other end belonged to Sam Fuld, who had heard of the youngster's situation from the friend of the father.
The call lasted only a few minutes, and the boy was mostly quiet - no different, perhaps, than a young Sam had been in the presence of Bill Gullickson nearly two decades before. But it had a life-changing impact on him - and continues to this day.
I know, because that boy is my son, Davey Scheiber.
When Fuld's first diabetes camp was held last year, Davey was just like the hundred-plus other kids: learning that they could pursue their passion in sports and life with no limits; learning how Fuld himself keeps his condition in check (testing his glucose level eight to 10 times daily); and, in Davey's case, even learning how to do his own blood test for the first time.
He's part of the growing Fuld Fold now, proudly wearing his No. 5 on the back of his Little League jersey and ever-present Rays' T-shirt. Fuld's ease in communicating with kids was recently on display in Port Charlotte, where he staged a clinic for a handful of starry-eyed youngsters - giving them pointers on the game and handling diabetes.
They didn't say much when he had them all take a knee after the workout. But you could tell they were listening to his every word.
And one day, maybe they'll be among countless kids who'll pay it forward, too - just like the old pitcher, and a player who has taught them to dream big no matter the size of the obstacles on the road ahead.