I first wrote about the outfielder back in the fall of 2007, when he was on his way toward winning the Arizona Fall League MVP and the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award. He’s still the only player to capture both awards in the same Fall League season.
Then I wrote about him — and Adam Greenberg together — coining the phrase J-LOO (Jewish-Little Over-achieving Outfielders) in 2008. Yes, I’m still shocked that never caught on.
So when I saw Fuld come to Tampa to play the Yankees for a spring training game, now with the Tampa Bay Rays, I had no choice. For those of you who don’t remember him, Fuld is a Stanford grad who deals with diabetes every day in his life. In a game full of false idols, he is a true role model. And here he was, in a fairly familiar position: Competing for a roster spot and getting off to a slow start.
With a different team and uniform, it could be different this time for the 29-year-old outfielder. Fuld spent the first six years of his professional career with the Chicago Cubs and while he’s played in 98 major league games over three seasons, he’s never been able to establish himself as a full-time big leaguer. Now with the Rays thanks to the Matt Garza deal, that could become a reality in 2011.
“I know coming to this organization has been really energizing,” Fuld said. “I had great memories with Chicago and I have a lot of respect for them, but there is something to be said for having a change of environment, trying to impress a whole new set of people. I’ve had a blast coming to this new organization.”
He’s felt that positive despite what seems like an annual trend for the Stanford product. Fuld hasn’t hit that much this spring — Grapefruit League play. In 2010, he hit just .143 for the Cubs, .250 in 2009. Knowing that it takes him time to get going does help him keep from pressing too much.
“Having that experience helps, but it’s never easy,” Fuld said. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself. Having been through it a couple of years, I know how it goes. It’s nice knowing these guys have a lot of faith in me. They know I’m maybe prone to some slower starts. They seem [as though] they’re going to stick with me, give me some more at-bats and hopefully let me get out of this slower start.
“I can’t really put a finger on why it happens. I wish I knew or I’d try to prevent it from happening. I guess some hitters are just like that. I hate to label myself like that, but I do notice that some of my numbers in spring haven’t been that good. Hopefully, I can change that.”
Even with the shaky start, his new team already appreciates what he brings to the field every day.
Fuld’s makeup — the term generally used to describe how a player works and carries himself — and his ability to play all three outfield positions well has stood out.
“This guy’s a nice baseball player — a very, very good defender,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He has really great instincts out there and a fine arm. He works excellent at-bats. He’s impressed on all levels. He’s a major league baseball player right now.
“He’s probably going to get the opportunity here right now. I can see if somebody were to get hurt, this guy could fill in on a regular basis for a while. He’s not going to be overwhelmed by anything. Great makeup, has to deal with diabetes on a daily basis. He’s a pretty tough kid. I enjoy the brightness, I enjoy the exchange.”
Fuld knows better than to take anything for granted, especially something like a roster spot. He can read the situation and how his skills and the team’s needs might be a match, but he’s just as happy to ignore that so it doesn’t interfere with his play on the field or his ability to get used to his new surroundings.
“It took a couple of days for it to sink in, I think. I’m still working on not calling the Cubs ‘we’ and calling the Rays ‘us,’ “ Fuld joked. “That’s hard. That might take a little while. No, after those couple of days of shock wore off, I was all in with Tampa.”
(Jonathan Mayo, the Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)