Sam Fuld Refuses Limits as a T1D Athlete

2014 Oakland Athletics Photo DayThere are many reasons for Sam Fuld, an Oakland A’s outfielder with Type 1 diabetes, not to go through with a telephone interview. For one, it’s his birthday, and he’s celebrating with his family at home in New Hampshire. For another, he’s on daddy duty, and you can hear one of his children excitedly piping up in the background. It’s also an uncertain time of year to be a baseball player, as Fuld is between contracts and won’t know for a few weeks whether he’ll be re-signed by the A’s.

But none of this seems to occur to him during our lengthy interview, just as it doesn’t seem to occur to him that he should be careful on the field since his pancreas doesn’t do its job. Fuld is legendary among fans for playing defense with the same joyful and reckless abandon of a golden retriever going after a stick. Highlight clips of his defensive prowess usually end with him leaping horizontally to catch a ball and crashing back to Earth. One coach famously referred to him as a “crash test dummy with a death wish.”

It is not at all the kind of play typically expected from someone who has to carefully manage a chronic condition, but in a sport that centers around instinctual play, Fuld’s choice to give his body up to catch a ball is a conscious one. He knows he’s undersized for professional baseball, standing at 5’9”; diabetes or no, he always knew he had to play hard every inning.

“Taking out the diabetes variable, I’ve always known that I had to go the extra mile to provide value for the team,” he says.

It is an attitude which has allowed Fuld to punch above his weight in his baseball career. He burst onto the scene as a YouTube sensation with the Chicago Cubs, crashing into the ivy of Wrigley Field for hard-hit balls. His reputation grew as he had a hot hitting streak to accompany his highlight reel catches with the Tampa Bay Rays. As chronicled in a New Yorker profile, teammates began to come up with silly catch-phrases to describe Fuld’s seemingly invincible nature, including, “I heard that the world is covered by 75 percent water and the other 25 percent is covered by Sam Fuld,” and “Superman wears Sam Fuld pajamas to bed.”

Since that time, Fuld has settled into a career path that may even be more difficult than that of a sensation, and that’s being a journeyman and platoon outfielder. He never knows when he might be called upon to pinch hit, be a defensive replacement, or play a full nine innings. He must always be ready, which means staying on top of his blood sugar levels. Because of his style of play, Fuld opts not to wear an insulin pump, and must manage his blood sugar levels with multiple daily injections. To be available to play, he keeps his diet consistent and stays on top of his blood sugars. He has insulin ready to take between innings, if needed. This diligence is just part of his job, he says, but it’s clear he takes pride in being ready to run out on the field.

“I’ve never had an instance where I’ve had to come out of a game,” Fuld says.

He also is careful not to overthink connections between his performance on the field and his diabetes. He knows he’s not a strong hitter, but he’s careful never to blame a bad night on blood sugar levels. Doing so would just get in the way of an activity that requires millisecond-decision-making and instinctual reactions, he says.

“You can use (blood sugar) as a crutch,” he says. “I don’t blame it for any failure, I don’t credit it for any success.”

Fuld swingFuld’s career path is a combination of fortuitous circumstances and hard work. If you listen to him talk about his upbringing, you can see he had many of the ingredients necessary to excel as an athlete with diabetes. From the age of 5, he developed a fascination with numbers, and carried around a book of baseball statistics as if it were a security blanket. That love of number crunching came in handy when he was later diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He quickly began figuring out the relationship between his blood sugar levels and his health, logging everything that happened to him in a day.

“If anything, I was prepared to be a good diabetic,” Fuld says.

The biggest hurdle for Fuld was being the only child he knew with diabetes. He felt awkward. Luckily, he says, his parents saw how important it was for him to live a life without limits, especially when it came to sports. His parents, a state senator and a university dean, took a deep breath and let him play baseball as hard as he wanted.

“They knew how important it was for me to be treated like anyone else,” he says.

When Fuld was 12 he was lucky enough to have a chance interaction with pitcher Bill Gullickson on a trip to the ballpark. The journeyman pitcher, who has Type 1 diabetes, had a long and successful 15-year pitching career in the U.S. and Japan, and even managed to win 20 games in one season.

Gullickson’s conversation with Fuld that day left an indelible impression on the young athlete. Once he found himself in the same position as Gullickson to inspire others, he jumped at the chance to start a sports camp for young athletes with Type 1 diabetes through the University of South Florida Diabetes Center. He didn’t just lend his name; Fuld became like a general manager, bringing together a dream team of collegiate and professional players with Type 1 diabetes from nine different sports.

“I went on the recruiting trail,” Fuld says. “Random cold calls, Linkedin messages, Facebook. People were very receptive to it.”

The camp was up and running in a matter of months, and it’s become an annual tradition since 2011. Last year, it attracted some 100 young athletes with Type 1 diabetes. Fuld says there is a real synergy to having so many serious athletes with diabetes in one place.

Talking with Fuld, you get the impression he is doing exactly what he wants to do. If he gets worn down by the game he loves (he was traded mid-season last year), he doesn’t show it. Nor does he show any sign of slowing down in his breakneck pace of play, even as he enters the middle part of his thirties.

“When it comes to my approach, I’m not scaling back and I don’t envision doing so,” he says.

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Craig Idlebrook is a past editor for Insulin Nation, Type 2 Nation, and Información Sobre Diabetes. He is now the community engagement and content manager for T1D Exchange.

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