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March 01. 2012 11:44PM

Kevin Gray's On Baseball: 'Super Sam' learned a lot in 2011


Sam Fuld is interviewed Thursday at Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, Fla. (Kevin Littlefield/Photographer)

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- They call him “Super Sam” for his diving catches and heroics with Tampa Bay, but even the Legend of Sam Fuld has its limits.

Last year, the Durham, N.H., native finally played a full season in the big leagues and learned the true meaning of “the grind.” Fuld helped spark the Rays in April, briefly led the American League in batting, then slumped and eventually settled into a role as reserve outfielder.

“I learned a lot, but, above all, I learned this game is really, really hard,” said Fuld, before playing in an intrasquad scrimmage at Charlotte Sports Park on Thursday afternoon. “I always knew that, of course, but to play at the highest level over the course of 162 games takes a ton of mental strength. Each game, you're pitted against insanely gifted athletes, and that takes a toll on you after a while.”

A year ago, Manny Ramirez announced his “retirement” early in the season with the Rays, and Fuld stepped in to become such a fan favorite that he was honored in May with his own Superhero Cape Giveaway Day at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. But Fuld, who nearly hit for the cycle at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, batted .157 that month.

“The success I experienced in the beginning of the season was amazing, but it was also taxing. I was proud of how I endured a major slump in the early summer and bounced back to finish the late summer and early fall strong,” said Fuld, who batted .240 with 18 doubles last season.

Fuld admits to being worn out at times last season, but never turned down interviews, autograph sessions or public appearances. He may have suffered a concussion after foul-tipping a bunt off his eyebrow, but he kept playing. After spending five-plus years in the minors, you'd have to drag him off the field.

“Playing every day at the big-league level, especially when half of your games are on turf and you run around and crash into things as much as I do, can be physically exhausting. The pressure you naturally place on yourself is a big mental obstacle as well,” said the Phillips Exeter graduate.

Although Thursday was a slow day at the Rays complex, Fuld managed to stay quite busy. He played in a split-squad scrimmage — bunting twice as Tampa Bay practiced situational bunting — and later met with a TV crew from CNBC, which is filming a program about Fuld as a diabetic.

Fuld does whatever it takes and accommodates most every request for an interview or autograph — but sometimes he needs to slow down. There's another 162 games ahead. Pace yourself, Sammy, even when your job involves crashing into outfield walls.

The 30-year-old only wants to win. Ask him about personal goals and everything will be directed toward the 2012 World Series. The Rays are strong enough to get there, too.

“I just want to contribute positively to a championship team. There's so much unpredictability in baseball that it's hard to set concrete goals, especially when you're slated to begin the season in a reserve role like I am,” he said. “But no matter how big a role I have on the team, I want to make the most of it and help us win a World Series.”

What else can we expect from the Legend of Sam Fuld this season? “Hopefully a bunch of cool highlights and some champagne celebrations on TV,” he said.

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GRANITE STATERS: Kennett High of Conway graduate Jeff Locke, attempting to earn a spot in Pittsburgh's rotation, is scheduled to pitch the third and fourth inning of today's intra-squad scrimmage in Bradenton.

The Northeastern University baseball team, featuring brothers Sean and Connor Lyons of Bedford, arrives in Fort Myers Saturday for an exhibition game against the Red Sox. Keegan Taylor of Portsmouth High and Josh Treff of Salem High also play for the Huskies. The Northeastern squad is coming off an 8-1 win at Jacksonville. Sean Lyons pitched two innings of scoreless relief in the doubleheader against the Dolphins. Connor Lyons also knocked in a run. Northeastern plays the Red Sox at 2:35 p.m. on Saturday. The game will not be televised.

“It's an opportunity only a few college baseball players get in their careers,” Connor Lyons said. “It's almost surreal being a part of the Sox spring training and the new park. We all look forward to meeting and playing with the players we idolize and dream of becoming. It's a great tradition and game for Northeastern.”

Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is kgray@unionleader.com. Read his blog at graymatter11.com.


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