— Rich Herrera (@RBIrich) April 12, 2011
Those of us in the Fire Joe Morgan generation don't know what to do with a player like Sam Fuld. We've been raised on snark and conditioned to disdain the diminutive. We like our baseball players to be good at baseball. Sometimes, I think, we need a reminder that being good at baseball doesn't win ballgames. Playing baseball well wins ballgames.
When Fuld arrived in Tampa Bay, there was plenty of fanfare; just not for him. Hak-Ju Lee and Chris Archer were top prospects, and the heart of the return for Matt Garza. Brandon Guyer was an intriguing combination of power and speed. Some thought that Robinson Chirinos was the catcher of the future. Fuld was just the guy who was ready to sit on the bench right now.
I think Tommy Rancel had an inkling that we'd come to appreciate Fuld. Early on, he adopted the phrase "Sam Fuld doin' Sam Fuld things." The idea being that Fuld was a guy who "played the game the right way." He could lay down a perfect bunt, and he might even beat it out. On a chopper to third he definitely would. He might not hit for power, but he would always take the extra base. On defense, he would run and he would throw to the right base. Sam Fuld would do the little things because, you know, Sam Fuld was little.
But then the phrase stopped making sense. Sam Fuld did his Sam Fuld things, but he didn't quit there. In Chicago, with the bases loaded and two outs, he streaked a long way back toward the right-field pole and laid out completely horizontally (and still pointed diagonally back) to make one of the most amazing game-saving catches I've ever seen. Two days later in Boston, Sam Fuld snuck a home run around the Pesky Pole and followed it up with a triple and a double. In his last at bat of the game, with a only a single needed to hit for the cycle and mark his place in history, Fuld lined a fastball into the left-field corner. Then he did a Sam Fuld thing: he took the extra base.
Those are the plays, along with a few others, that made Fuld famous, but he was more than that in much of 2011. He was good. In March and April of 2011, he posted a 123 wRC+, meaning that he was 23% better than the average batter. His bat slumped in May, but he came back with a strong 134 wRC+ in June, all while providing superior defense and baserunning at a time when the struggling Rays needed it greatly (with Manny Ramirez suspended/retired).
Jim Murphy (@MurphInTampa) April 13, 2011
Of course, whenever a marginal player is glorified, there's bound to be a backlash. Perhaps Fuld knows how marginal he is (he was an intern at Stats Inc., don't you know), but that didn't stop him from appearing in The New Yorker and other publications not generally known for their baseball coverage (the nerve of him).
It was a heady time, and it was easy for the casual fan to become confused. They might think that Sam Fuld was good at baseball. We nerds couldn't let that happen. When he was used to pinch hit late in games against a righty, the cry always went up about how ridiculous it was to pinch hit with a terrible hitter. Whenever he slumped (and he did), there were calls to "DFA Fuld." As with any reaction to a hyperbole, the backlash was also hyperbole.
It sometimes makes me sad how obsessed we are with prediction. Of course Fuld was going to fall back to earth. It didn't take a genius to say that, and it didn't make you one if you did. When you're dealt a handful of Steak-n-Shake coupons, you should fold every time. Sometimes, though, Manny is Manny, and you don't have that option. Down one run, in the bottom of the ninth, with Joakim Soria pitching and a runner on first base, it would have been better to have Manny Ramirez at the plate. But instead we had Fuld, and a walk-off triple with a throwing error at third base wins the game just as surely as a walk-off home run does. Description doesn't care if it was unlikely. It only cares whether or not it happened, and accurate description should be important to all baseball fans, including the sabermetrician.
When you go airborne in Chicago, the warning track is coming for you eventually, and it's coming hard. That's a prediction. Sometimes, though, you manage to make the catch while you're still airborne. That's a description, and it's how we'll remember Sam Fuld.