By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – There is no doubt in Terry Fuller’s mind he could have been on the field as a starting defensive end or outside linebacker this Saturday when the college football season begins, most likely at either national powerhouse Alabama or Auburn.
Instead of preparing to play In front of 90,000 or so fans and a national television audience this weekend, however, Fuller will be on a back field at the Roger Dean Stadium complex on Tuesday, trying to help the Gulf Coast League Cardinals win a rookie-level championship. At the most, there might be a dozen people watching on one of two small sets of aluminum bleachers that sit behind a chain-link fence.
There is a very simple explanation, Fuller said, about why he decided to pursue a career in professional baseball instead of playing major college football, and one day probably have a chance to play in the NFL.
Fuller’s reason for the choice? In his mind, baseball presented a greater challenge.
“When Alabama won the national championship last year, everybody was like, ‘Bro, that could have been you, you could have had a ring. Why would you want to come here?’” Fuller said. “I don’t think people understand that I just want to prove everybody wrong who said I couldn’t play or that I wouldn’t be a baseball player.
“My opinion was it (football) was too easy for me. Anybody who is athletic can go step on the football field, but baseball is a different game. I love being challenged and I feel like this game was a big challenge for me because people always used to say, ‘Oh, you’re a football player.’ I didn’t want to be looked at like that so I decided just to give my all at this. Once it got to the point where i had a good feeling in this game, my mindset was just here. It wasn’t on the football field. It was, ‘Look I’m going to stick with this and go along with the journey.’”
The Cardinals used their 15th round pick in the 2017 draft to select Fuller, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds, after his senior season in high school in Griffin, Ga. What stood out most to the team’s scouts was his size and speed, not surprising considering his football background, and how that translated into “plus plus” raw power.
The key word is raw. Because of splitting time between football and baseball, Fuller’s repetitions on the baseball side were rather limited. Unlike many players, he skipped a lot of the summer showcase events throughout his high school career because they conflicted with football. Once he decided to stick with baseball, however, there really was no looking back – despite suggestions to the contrary.
He made a verbal commitment to Auburn but insists that had he decided to play football in college, a flip to Alabama was a possibility.
“I loved football,” he said. “If I would have taken that route I would have given Alabama a call. They were one of the first scholarship offers I received, face to face from Kirby Smart (now the head coach at Georgia). I might have ended up at Alabama but I love Auburn too.
“Other people’s opinions were that I was better at football. Once baseball season came along people would come out to see how I did. My football coach was like, ‘You need to stay on this field man.’ He came to the games to see what I was going to do. I had to prove my point. I said I was going to stick with this (baseball) and go all out for it and give my all and that’s what I did and I’m still doing it now.”
Fuller’s football coach at Griffin High School, Antonio Andrews, admits he is biased but he wishes Fuller had opted to play college football instead of accept a $200,000 signing bonus from the Cardinals.
“He was an exceptional football player, the best player on our team,” Andrews said. “He was very physical and had a high football IQ. He was a hard worker. He played baseball the entire summer before his senior year and didn’t come to one workout (in football) and played in our first game and straight out dominated. He had an awesome game.”
Andrews could tell all of that season, however, that Fuller had basically made up his mind to pursue a baseball career if that opportunity presented itself.
“I think it came down to the love of the game,” Andrews said. “He loved baseball more than football. He was a great football player but he loved baseball more. That’s the main reason he chose baseball, and for that reason I respect his decision. If a kid loves one sport more than something else, he has to go with it.
“Anything he plays he’s going to be good at because he’s just that kind of kid. I personally thought he was a better football player, with his size, his physicality and his speed. He’s just a freak athlete … He’s a competitor. He’s not afraid of anything. That can take you a long way.
“He’s where he wants to be right now. I have a picture of him in my office right now, playing baseball. My best player is in my office in a different uniform.”
Learning the game
The start of Fuller’s baseball career has not been easy. There might not be a harder place to play the game than in the Gulf Coast League, where games are played during the day in the summer Florida heat and humidity, on practice fields instead of in stadiums, where only a small scoreboard in center field keeps track of the game.
What few people who do come to the games are usually girlfriends or parents. Players who do not have a lot of self-motivation can struggle to survive and advance to higher levels in the organization, most hoping their stay in the league is brief.
Fuller has been at this level for two years now, although a significant injury contributed to his having to repeat the level this season. In his second game of the season, Fuller suffered a torn lat muscle and did not play from June 29 to Aug. 13. He has been limited to serving as a designated hitter since he returned, not getting clearance from the medical staff to play in the outfield.
In 11 games and 37 at-bats, however, he hit three homers and a double, one indication that the power potential is there. He also hit three homers last year, but those came in 37 games, when he put together just a .161 average. In his limited opportunities this year he hit .241.
What the left-handed hitting Fuller has learned over the last 15 months, however, can’t be completely measured by how many hits he gets or how many outs he makes. He is a textbook definition of a work in progress.
“I wanted to give it a shot and I don’t regret the decision that I made,” Fuller said. “This is more relaxed on my body. … I don’t have to worry about somebody putting me down or staying on my feet. Being here, it’s a blessing.
“I was always just known as an athlete on the baseball field; it wasn’t like, ‘This kid is good.’ It’s ‘He’s an athlete. He can play the part.’ Once I got here they started helping me perfect my game, motivating me and molding me into the player I know I can be. That helped a lot. I’m still working, still building, learning every day.”
Even while he was rehabbing his shoulder this summer, Fuller was learning, taking notes, watching others to see how what he observed could help him become a better player.
“I looked at mistakes players made, the mental mistakes,” Fuller said. “Once I got back I was ready. I already know way more than I did last year.
“Last year I started out good but then fell into a slump and it was hard for me to get out of it. I was swinging at breaking pitches and didn’t know how to make the adjustment. Now I know how pitchers are going to approach me.”
Fuller’s education even included talking to the pitchers on his team.
“I asked them how they would pitch to me if I was in the box and they were on the mound,”Fuller said. “I just try to gather information from everybody. I write a lot of notes down. ‘Today I did this or that.’ I go back to it and it helps me. They told me to do that last year, to get a notebook and write down what happened today. What did this pitcher throw me? What was my approach? Was I not aggressive enough? All those little things helped. It changed the whole game for me. It’s a big difference from last year.”
Fuller did not play on Monday as the Cardinals lost the opener of the best-of-three GCL championship series 1-0 to the Tigers in Lakeland when a wild pitch and a throwing error with two outs in the ninth inning allowed the only run of the game to score. The Cardinals must win on Tuesday and Wednesday to claim their second title in the last three years.
Winning the title would bring Fuller and his teammates a ring – maybe not the same one Alabama won for claiming thr national football title, but it might mean even more to Fuller. After all, he said he already has a ring from a football title – when Griffin High School won the Georgia Class 5A state championship when he was a freshman.
When his season ends, Fuller will head home to Georgia to begin preparing for next year, which could be a critical season for his future. He will turn 20 in December and will have to prove to the Cardinals in spring training that he is ready to advance to the next level, likely Johnson City.
“This was my first full year playing baseball year round,” Fuller said. “I knew it was going to be a process. I have no regrets. Maybe it’s another path to where I might end up as part of God’s plan.”
Fuller also believes that his patch includes being able to convince others that he made the right choice when he picked baseball over football, and also prove to himself that he met the challenge.
“Once you see the look on people’s faces when you prove them wrong, that’s the best feeling ever,” Fuller said. “It’s like, ‘I told you.’ Anything is possible when you put your mind to it. That’s the type of mindset and mentality that I have.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains