Diabetes Forecast

Baseball's Sam Fuld Scores Big-League Success

By Tracey Neithercott , , , ,
At my first game at Fenway, I had to battle my blood sugar because of all of that adrenaline.
Sam Fuld, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder

Five-year-old Sam Fuld was obsessed with baseball. He didn't just play the game—pint-sized Fuld feasted on baseball stats like most kids do candy. He'd bury his nose in a baseball-by-the-numbers book, begging his father to quiz him on the details. "Baseball is a sport based around statistics. I was into it from an almost scarily early age," says Fuld, now 31. "My parents probably got a kick out of it."

But as much of a math whiz as Fuld proved to be, his interest never veered to behind-the-scenes number crunching. He wanted to play pro baseball. "As I got older and more mature, I realized I had to overcome some really great odds," he says.

Here are some numbers for you: 2.7 million—the number of kids who play Little League worldwide. And 30: the number of Major League Baseball teams. How about 1,200? That's the number of players on big-league rosters. That alone makes for some pretty steep odds.

But for Fuld, his chances of making it as a major-league player were even slimmer. He grew up in New Hampshire, a state known more for its role in presidential elections than its ability to raise pro ballplayers. He's short for an outfielder—5-foot-10 on a good day. And he has type 1 diabetes.

Yet even knowing those odds, Fuld didn't give up. And next month he'll start his sixth season as a major leaguer.

Sam Fuld's Stats

Age Height Weight in Pounds Blood Glucose Checks per Game Last A1C (%) Carb Grams per Day
31 5'10" 175 3 7.3 300
Minor-League Debut Major-League Debut Batting Average On-Base Average Fielding Percentage Stolen Bases
'05 '07 .246 .328 .986 29

The Legend of Sam

Sam Fuld stood alone in the middle of Wrigley Field. It was hours before his first game as a Chicago Cub, and the stadium was silent. The air seemed imbued with anticipation, a feeling that evoked memories of Fuld's trips to Boston's Fenway Park, another vintage ballpark, as a kid. "Nine hours later, I went into the game and I couldn't feel my body," he says. "I was shaking and nervous. It was pretty overwhelming."

The game was the culmination of years of hard work. Fuld played ball for Stanford University, where he majored in economics and did a brief internship with sports statistics giant Stats before joining a minor-league team in 2005. He was called up to the majors in 2007 and played for the Cubs until he was traded in 2011 to the Tampa Bay Rays, which at the same time signed aging slugger Manny Ramirez. Chance brought Fuld off the bench: After failing a drug test, Ramirez left the Rays, opening a designated-hitter spot for outfielder Johnny Damon and an outfield slot for newbie Fuld.

Within a week—and after making a seemingly impossible catch—Fuld was a celebrity. Videos of his long dive and backhanded catch popped up on YouTube. Then, after a phenomenal batting performance two days later in his debut at Fenway, Fuld's story became legend. Websites chronicled the player's ever growing dive-and-catch feats, the Rays gave away Super Sam capes to kids, and Twitter was inundated with #LegendofSamFuld hashtags and quips such as "Superman wears Sam Fuld pajamas to bed."

"I found it really entertaining and flattering," Fuld says. "I had come so far, and it's fun to see the fans get a kick out of my playing." Those crazy plays—Fuld hurling himself face-forward toward a wall—are part of his charm. That, and the fact that he does it all with diabetes.

The Rays sold kid-sized capes for "Super Sam" Fuld fans.

Diabetes in the Dugout

By the time Sam Fuld was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 10, his mind was set on professional baseball. Even with doctors telling him the diagnosis would change his life, Fuld made a point of not letting his diabetes affect his dreams or his ability to play ball. "I had a ton of positive support from the beginning, from my doctors and my parents and my friends," he says.

Case in point: Fuld's best friend's father, a pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox, coordinated a meeting between major-league pitcher Bill Gullickson, who has type 1, and then 12-year-old Fuld. "I spoke with him for two minutes, and it was enough to inspire me," he says. "I was motivated before that, but it gave me an extra amount of hope that you can be diabetic and reach the highest level of playing."

Achieving that goal hasn't come without hard work on the health front. Teams play 162 games in a season that runs from April to the end of September—longer if a team makes the playoffs. That means almost every day is game day, though Fuld isn't always in the lineup. "Most of the time, you don't know if you're playing or not until that day, so you can't adjust your Lantus," he says.

Because he can't alter his long-acting insulin in preparation for a game, Fuld focuses on changing his mealtime insulin doses and eating carbs as needed to keep his blood glucose steady. Too high, and he's sluggish and off his game. In case his blood glucose spikes during a game, Fuld stores insulin pens (he rejected the idea of wearing a pump as incompatible with his trademark diving catches) in the clubhouse, which is connected to the dugout. In a pinch, Fuld can run up to the clubhouse and inject insulin.

But he's more likely to go low during a game because of his tendency to run full speed across the field or around the diamond to make a catch or score a run. "Some games I don't even need to give myself any NovoLog [rapid-acting insulin used with meals] because I'll go really low [if I do]," he says. "There are games where for a couple of hours after, I won't need any insulin no matter what I have for dinner."

In case his blood glucose drops, the dugout is stocked with Gatorade, energy bars, and granola. Fuld always carries sugary gum for times when his blood glucose dips in the outfield during a particularly long inning. And though his trainers carry glucagon at all times, Fuld has never needed it for a low during a game.

Maintaining a steady blood glucose level is especially difficult considering the unpredictable nature of pro baseball games. "You need to deal with different scenarios," he says. "No one day is the same as the rest." The team hops time zones constantly. Games start at various hours. There's no time limit on games, so the last out of the final inning could happen well past midnight.

Plus, a player can't know just how active he'll be until the game is in full swing. "You can have a game when [you're on base] four times and you're running around the outfield a lot," Fuld says. "Or you can [make] four outs and not have much action in the outfield."

And then there's adrenaline, which typically raises blood glucose. "You're in the dugout relaxing, and then you're thrown in there and there's that big adrenaline rush," Fuld says. "At my first game at Fenway, I had to battle my blood sugar because of all of that adrenaline."

Field of Dreams

There is a reason Rays fans love Fuld, and it's not just for his leap-before-you-look mentality. He has used his quick rise to fame to connect with his young fans with diabetes, most notably through his diabetes sports camp at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Now in its second year, the weekend camp is a product of Fuld's ambition and the help of staff at the university's Diabetes Center. It brings together hundreds of kids ages 8 to 18 eager to learn from "Super Sam." Along with a dozen other coaches with diabetes, Fuld shows the young athletes that diabetes doesn't have to hold them back. It's the same sentiment Fuld learned from Bill Gullickson as a wide-eyed Little Leaguer at Fenway. "Subconsciously, it's nice to know there's somebody out there who's like you," he says.

Though the Legend of Sam Fuld is still circulating (just ask Google—you'll get about 120,000 results), Fuld mania has died down since 2011. Fuld's not worried about living up to the hype as the 2013 season gets under way. He spent the off-season in Florida with his wife, Sarah, and their two children, 3-year-old Charlie and 1-year-old Jane. Besides, he knows the likelihood of having another legendary season isn't high.

Then again, the odds are ever in Sam Fuld's favor.



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