The young boy was shy but attentive.
Bill Gullickson will never forget that part of a conversation that took place 20 years ago at Fenway Park.
“He didn’t say too much, but he listened real good,” says Gullickson, a former 20-game winner in the major leagues. “I remember that. He was real interested in what I was saying.”
Rich Gale, then the Boston Red Sox pitching coach, arranged the meeting as a favor to a family he knew back home in New Hampshire.
Gullickson was diabetic, having been diagnosed at age 20, a few years into his pro career. It didn’t stop him from winning 162 games and posting a 3.93 earned-run average over 14 seasons, plus two more in Japan.
The 12-year-old boy he spoke with that day in Boston had been diagnosed two years earlier with juvenile diabetes.
The boy loved sports.
The boy was smart, talented, fearless.
The boy was Sam Fuld, who would grow up to become a big-league outfielder.
As Gullickson emerged from the cramped visiting clubhouse and moved toward the corner of the dugout, he saw the boy standing with his parents. Gullickson gave the boy a Tigers cap, then spent a few minutes talking with him, letting him know everything was going to be OK.
“He was a little kid, real nervous,” says Gullickson, who retired after that season. “I think I asked him what position he played and if he liked sports. I told him some of the things I went through being diabetic. I never really thought about it after that.”
The boy went on to play high school ball, then earned his way to Stanford as an outfielder. The Chicago Cubs drafted him in the 10th round in 2004, and by 2007 he had his first brief stay in the majors.
Two years later, Fuld stuck in the majors for the first extended time. He got a chance to tell his story. He got to meet Cubs great Ron Santo, still broadcasting the team’s games on the radio. It was Santo, along with hockey star Bobby Clarke, who had inspired Gullickson in his younger days as an athlete with diabetes.
One of Gullickson’s five daughters was living in Chicago at the time and came across Fuld’s story. She mentioned Fuld’s connection to her father.
“She said, ‘Hey, there’s this guy who plays on the Cubs who’s diabetic and met you and says that’s really what gave him some confidence he could do it,’ “ Gullickson says. “I looked him up and said, ‘Holy cow, I remember that little kid!’ “
The two reconnected later that season at a Miami Marlins home game, Gullickson making the short drive down from Jupiter, Fla.
“It was a two-minute conversation, but it made such an impact on me,” Fuld says of his first meeting with Gullickson. “I’ll never forget that. It’s pretty cool to think you can have such a positive impact on a kid’s life just by taking a couple minutes out of your day.”
When Fuld started his USF Diabetes Sports Camps at the University of South Florida in Tampa, one of the first people he contacted was Gullickson, who now lives a few minutes away from Sam and Sarah Fuld and their three young children. He asked Gullickson to be a counselor.
In February, the two-day camp celebrated its third year. More than 120 kids from 13 states were in attendance. Two-thirds of attendees have Type 1 (or juvenile) diabetes, with the rest of the kids being their friends or siblings.
“It’s maybe the most enjoyable, definitely the most rewarding, weekend I get every year,” Fuld says. “You can’t duplicate that feeling when you walk away from the camp on that Sunday afternoon. It’s such an enriching experience.”
More than a dozen different sports are offered at the camp, with most of the counselors being athletes who have overcome Type 1 diabetes themselves.
Class A pitcher Kohl Stewart, the Twins’ No. 4 overall draft pick last summer, is potential counselor, having overcome Type 1 diabetes as well.
“I had the idea for a while,” Fuld says. “It’s such a cool experience for me and all the other coaches and the kids and the parents. Everybody gets a lot out of it.”
Fuld has squeezed the most out of his ability despite having to regularly monitor his blood sugar, even during games. Placed on the Twins’ seven-day concussion disabled list last Thursday, he’s is batting .250 (13 for 52) with six doubles and three runs scored in 13 games since being claimed off waivers from the Oakland A’s.
Former Tampa Bay Rays teammate David Price, the 2012 Cy Young Award winner, marvels at the way Fuld is able to focus despite dealing with his condition.
“He doesn’t view it as a crutch, and he doesn’t feel like he should get special treatment because of it,” Price says. “He wants to be treated just the same way as everybody else.”Fuld would challenge Rays teammates and staff to see if they could guess his blood sugar level. Pitching coach Jim Hickey usually was the closest.
There was a time or two, Price recalls, that Fuld grew weak at the ballpark, required an IV tube and gave everybody a scare. And there were plenty of times when Fuld would announce, “I need some sugar,” and run back to the clubhouse for a Kit-Kat to help restore the balance in his blood.
Yet it’s the shots of insulin Fuld must administer to himself that make Price shake his head in admiration.
“He’s more of a man than I am,” Price says. “There’s no chance I’d be able to give myself shots every day. Couldn’t do it. With Sam, he goes about his business just like we do. He’s just giving himself shots of insulin on the bench.”
Rays utility player Sean Rodriguez was a counselor at Fuld’s most recent camp in February. He came away amazed by the turnout and the impact Fuld was making as he worked his way through the group of campers and parents, patiently explaining what lies ahead in their sports journey.
“Awesome,” Rodriguez says. “He’s trying to be an example for kids that are going through what he went through. As difficult as it may be, you can still find a way to pursue your dreams. Sam is a great example, not only because of how good a baseball player he is but an even better person.”
It all started with a no-excuses attitude.
“He’d never want that extra attention,” Rodriguez says. “He didn’t want a sympathy card.”
Gullickson can hardly wait until next offseason, when he looks forward to attending Fuld’s fourth USF Diabetes Sports Camp and seeing once more just how far that shy 12-year-old in the dugout at Fenway Park has come.
“Most of the kids probably come from a small town, and there might not be another diabetic they know of,” says Gullickson, who was born in Marshall, Minn., and still has family in the Twin Cities. “A kid might be feeling like he’s all alone in the situation. Then he comes in to Sam’s camp and meets all these kids with the same thing as him. They learn how to monitor themselves when they’re playing and what it feels like.”
They also get to meet Fuld, who is forever accentuating the positive.
“So many diabetic kids used to think, ‘I can’t do this, can’t do that,’ “ Gullickson says. “Thanks to people like Sam, they know there’s not a stigma anymore. That’s what I tell these kids at the camps. Who would ever have thought when I met Sam that he’d make it in the big leagues?”