Fuld's legendary season not soon forgotten

Fuld's legendary season not soon forgotten

Fuld's legendary season not soon forgotten
ST. PETERSBURG -- On Jan. 8, the Rays and Cubs made a blockbuster deal in which eight players changed organizations.

Matt Garza was the marquee name of the trade. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay received several prospects and an outfielder named Sam Fuld, who had some Major League experience. But to most fans, he didn't register on their radar of Major Leaguers.

Alas, that day served as the precursor for a legend being born: The Legend of Sam Fuld.

At the start of the season, the Rays seemed to be spiraling when the team found itself headed to Chicago with an 0-5 record. After splitting the first two games of the series with the White Sox, Tampa Bay took its seventh loss of the season in the third game, on April 9. But something happened that afternoon when Fuld made what many called the defensive play of the year. And the play was so good that nobody managed to make a better play for the remainder of the season.

Fuld had been playing left field prior to that Saturday, but he made his first start of the season in right field that day, which allowed him to come up with the fielding gem.

The situation the Rays faced saw Juan Pierre hitting with two outs and the bases loaded in the fourth. Pierre connected on one of Wade Davis' offerings and drove the ball into the corner near the wall in right field. Fuld gave chase before leaving his feet at the last instant to make a diving backhanded catch on the warning track.

Center fielder B.J. Upton watched and marveled at what he saw.

"Oh my God, oh my," Upton said. "I thought he was going to dive into the [wall]. But he kind of straightened out. I was hoping he would get there. I mean, full extension, I couldn't really tell if he caught it or not. I just saw him roll over and throw his glove up.

"I knew he had a shot at it. I didn't know how far away he was from it. I was screaming from center field when he caught it. 'Great catch!'"

A.J. Pierzynski noted that somebody had told him that Fuld was "really good in the outfield."

"And he's made some nice plays against us these three games, but that catch he made off of Juan Pierre is one of the best catches I've ever seen," the White Sox catcher said. "Honestly, he ran like 50 yards to get to that ball. It was an incredible catch and I tip my hat to him. For one, he didn't kill himself on the fence, and, two, he got there and made the play. It was an amazing play."

The Rays lost, 4-2, and they followed with a loss the next day to move to 1-8 on the season, but the spirit of the club seemed to change after the Legend of Sam Fuld was born.

Tampa Bay then traveled from Chicago to Boston, and something magical began to happen the next night at Fenway Park. The offense snapped out of its funk with a 16-5 win, led in large part by Fuld, who had a homer, a triple and two doubles.

Fuld played well, the team swept the two-game series in Boston, and suddenly all the pressure derived from a terrible start seemed to be lifted. The Rays were on their way, winning eight of nine and 13 of 16. A month to the day after the big win at Fenway, Tampa Bay found itself in first place in the American League East.

Fuld led the AL in batting average as late as April 22, when he was tied at the top with New York's Alex Rodriguez with a .366 mark. Yes, it was quite a year for Fuld.

"I can look back at individual games -- there were a handful of specific games that I'll be able to look back on -- and I don't know if I've ever played in games my entire career that were that exciting and that were so adrenaline filled, both from an individual and team perspective," Fuld said. "It's going to be hard to top that last day of the regular season in terms of excitement."

Fuld was right in the middle of things when the Rays erased a seven-run deficit to beat the Yankees on the final day of the season and claim the AL Wild Card. Used as a pinch-hitter, he drew bases loaded walk to drive home Tampa Bay's first run.

Fuld led the AL with six pinch-hits and he hit .429 in 28 games when he did not start, compared to .226 in 77 starts. Going forward, he will likely serve as a spot starter and pinch-hitter. He'll be 30 when the 2012 season starts, and though he'd love to be a starter, having the above-mentioned role suits him well.

"Yeah, I am [comfortable in that role]," Fuld said. "I think it's not a role I'm unfamiliar with. A lot of my role with the Cubs was pretty similar to that. I'm familiar with it. I don't think anybody wants to be limited to that role, but if that is the case, I think I made strides this year as a pinch-hitter.

"I learned to feel more comfortable and have quality at-bats as a pinch-hitter. And I've always felt comfortable coming in pinch-running and playing defense. And if I go in-between starts, I feel like I was able to produce quality starts as well."

Fuld wants to be back with the team in 2012, and he's under contract, so given what he accomplished last season, it would be a surprise if he didn't return.

"I loved [playing for the Rays]," Fuld said. "It was quite a difference from Chicago to Tampa [Bay] -- not to say Chicago wasn't fun. The fun kind of comes from different sources in those two organizations. I mean, you play in a great ballpark in Chicago, and there's a lot of pressure and the clubhouse was a lot tighter there than it was in Tampa.

"It's amazing how much enjoyment we get from each other in the clubhouse, in the game, even off the field there's just a lot going on. Win or lose, it's a fun group to be with. No question, I would love to be back."

How does a legend spends his offseason? Fuld and his wife, Sarah, are kicking back waiting for the arrival of their second child, who is due around Thanksgiving.

"The legend is going to hibernate for two months and get ready for next season," Fuld said.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.