Fuld wins Stenson Award
Cubs prospect overcame juvenile diabetes on way to Majors
It was just a brief encounter, a preteen boy meeting a Major League veteran. But it was a moment that Chicago Cubs outfield prospect Sam Fuld has never forgotten.
Fuld, just 12 at the time, had the chance to chat with Detroit Tigers right-hander Bill Gullickson, who was nearing the end of his 14-year career.
It might have seemed that the two had little in common. In fact, both have Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes.
"I got the chance to meet Bill Gullickson and even though I just talked to him for two minutes, it was enough to inspire me," recalled Fuld, who made his Major League debut in September. "So anytime I can talk to young diabetic kids, I look forward to that opportunity."
Since turning pro as the Cubs' 10th-round Draft pick out of Stanford in 2004, Fuld has participated in several baseball camps for diabetic children, hoping he can inspire the youngsters as he was inspired by Gullickson.
That kind of attitude and awareness of how his own brand of quiet leadership can have a positive impact on others is a big reason why Fuld was presented Wednesday with the Arizona Fall League's Dernell Stenson Award for Leadership.
Stenson was a Cincinnati Reds outfield prospect who was playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions when he was killed in a carjacking on Nov. 5, 2003.
Because Stenson was known among friends and teammates for his work ethic and character, the award was created in 2004 and is given to the player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership.
In 2004, the award went to current Kansas City Royals outfielder Mark Teahen. The 2005 award was given to current Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier. San Francisco Giants infielder Kevin Frandsen was last year's recipient.
The honor did not go unappreciated by Fuld.
"It's a huge honor, not only to be honored in the name of what a great person Dernell Stenson was but to be in the company of the guys who won it previously means a lot to me," Fuld said. "I think everyone is so concerned with numbers, but I think it's unappreciated sometimes, what it means to have a good work ethic."
The manager and coaching staffs of the six AFL teams select their nominees, with the winner being chosen by league executives. The other finalists were Peoria Javelinas outfielder Brett Gardner (Yankees), Peoria Saguaros left-hander Will Startup (Padres), Phoenix Desert Dogs first baseman Jason Delaney (Pirates), Scorpions first baseman/outfielder Dan Ortmeier (Giants) and Surprise Rafters second baseman Marc Maddox (Royals).
"This kid plays the game like it's supposed to be played," said Mesa Solar Sox manager Dave Clark, who nominated Fuld. "I had talked to his (Double-A Tennessee) manager, Pat Listach, before the season and he told me I'd fall in love with the kid. He just exemplifies what this award is all about."
Although the award is given specifically for character and work ethic, Fuld's statistics on the field this fall stack up against anyone in the league. With two games to go before the championship game, he was hitting a league-best .406 and leading the AFL in hits (41), doubles (10), on-base (.500) and slugging percentage (.624) and was riding a nine-game hitting streak.
Small wonder he is looking forward to returning to Mesa's HoHoKam Stadium in February for what will be his first big-league Spring Training.
"I don't think I ever even played in a game here prior to fall league, so it's nice to know that when I come back here in a few months it will be knowing that I've had success on the field," said Fuld, who turns 26 next week. "Obviously, the level of competition will be a little different, but at least I'll feel comfortable."
And while it will be his first Major League camp, it will not be his first look at Major League pitching.
After hitting .291 at Tennessee and .269 in a brief stint at Triple-A Iowa, Fuld was called up to the big leagues in early September.
His recollection of the call-up and ensuing line of "firsts" is a little hazy.
"I don't remember a whole lot of the first day, it was so surreal," Fuld said. "I went the whole year watching these guys on TV and the next day I'm in the clubhouse. So my memories of the first few days are vague."
Fuld quickly got into his first game as a defensive replacement in center field in the ninth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 5. Most of his big-league time was spent sitting on the bench and getting a feel for the Major League lifestyle, but he got into several games as a defensive replacement and went 0-for-6 in limited plate appearances.
Against Pittsburgh on Sept. 22, he came up with a four-star catch in right field, crashing into the ivy-covered wall before doubling a runner off first base. It made "Play of the Day" on ESPN.
It might have been a stretch to have imagined Fuld being featured on ESPN 20 years earlier.
He grew up in Durham, N.H., living just off the main campus of the state university where his dad, the chairman of the psychology department, has taught for more than 30 years.
A baseball fan since early childhood, Fuld began working up the organized ball food chain at age 5, overcoming what could have been an obstacle when he was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes a few years later.
So named because it is frequently diagnosed early in life, juvenile diabetes is a disorder of the immune system in which the cells in the pancreas are destroyed, making the body unable to produce insulin that provides energy. To survive, diabetics must inject themselves with insulin twice a day and carefully monitor their insulin levels through self-administered blood tests.
Fuld was diagnosed with the disease the summer he was 10, based purely on the unmistakable symptoms, though he had no family history.
"I was losing weight, I was thirsty all the time, just classic symptoms, so my parents knew something was wrong and the doctor diagnosed it right away," said Fuld, who learned quickly how to give himself the twice-daily injections and tests. "It was tough, but when I realized there is no other alternative, I just looked at it as a challenge."
It helped that the doctor realized Fuld was an avid athlete, so the first thing he told his young patient was that the illness would not detract from his ability to participate in sports.
"Obviously, that was huge to me," he recalled. "So all it meant was that you have to keep a closer watch and regulate your blood sugar when you're active."
Fuld continued to play soccer in the fall, run track in the winter and play baseball in the spring through his school years, including four years on the varsity at Phillips Exeter Academy, just a half-hour from his Durham home. There, he was his team's MVP all four years and was named New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior.
But accolades aside, there was never any question as to whether Fuld would test the draft waters or attend college.
"I had pretty much made up my mind, both from my perspective and my parents' perspective, that college would be the best option for me," said Fuld, who majored in economics at Stanford. "I really value education and I know if you sign out of high school there is always the opportunity to go back and get your degree, but it's tough to go back for four years when you're done playing ball. And I wanted to get my degree."
While Fuld initially was looking at some of the Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton, as well as Duke and North Carolina, he hadn't seriously considered Stanford at first.
"Honestly, to me, Stanford was kind of a dream school and I never thought I'd get a chance to play there," he said. "So once I got the opportunity to go there, it was a no-brainer."
Fuld was an impact player from the get-go for Stanford, earning All-Pac-10 honors as a freshman, setting a school record with 110 hits as a sophomore and leaving as the all-time record-holder with 268 runs scored when he graduated in 2004.
A team leader even then, Fuld had a big impact his junior year on a pair of talented freshman roommates, Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry Jr.
"He was looked at as one of the leaders on the team, a leader by example who goes about his business in a very professional way," said Lowrie, who was drafted by the Red Sox in the first round in 2005 and is again Fuld's teammate, this time with Mesa. "As soon as you stepped on campus, you realized how good a player he was."
Lowrie and Mayberry, an AFLer who was selected by Texas in the first round in 2005, got to enjoy Fuld's leadership for an additional year. Initially drafted in the 23rd round by the Cubs in 2003, he opted to stay in school and get his degree.
The Cubs got their man a year later, taking Fuld in the 10th round in 2004. They had to wait even longer to get him on the field, though. In his usual all-out style of play, he dived for a ball in the outfield in the next-to-last game of Stanford's 2004 season and tore his labrum, an injury that required surgery.
Fuld signed with Chicago but spent that summer in Mesa, rehabbing his shoulder.
In his pro debut in 2005, he headed to Class A Peoria and hit an even .300 with 18 steals. The following summer at Class A Advanced Daytona, he again reached the magic .300 plateau, adding 22 stolen bases and earning Florida State League All-Star honors.
With his long season finally coming to an end as the AFL draws to a close, Fuld's immediate plans are to head home to New England for some well-earned rest and relaxation with his family. Then he'll head back to the warm weather to prepare for Spring Training.
But that stint at home could include another unexpected trip, this one to Nashville, Tenn., the first week of December
While the Stenson Award is based strictly on off-field qualities, the AFL names a Most Valuable Player, an award that is presented at the Baseball Winter Meetings. This year's event is held at Opryland in Nashville.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.