06/01/2004 8:21 AM ET
Stanford looks to Omaha, draft
Touted players balance team and individual goals
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
STANFORD, Calif. -- They're playing for the No. 2 collegiate team in the nation, gearing up to pursue a school-record sixth consecutive trip to the College World Series after coming home as the runner-up a year ago.
The goal is loud and clear for Sam Fuld, Danny Putnam and the rest of the Stanford Cardinal baseball team.
At the end of Stanford's recent victory over Southern California, a win that put the top-ranked Cardinal in the Pac-10 Conference driver's seat en route to claiming a second straight conference title, the players gathered in front of the home dugout at Sunken Diamond, put their hands together and repeated the mantra.
"One, two, three -- Omaha!"
Yes, Omaha is definitely -- and deafeningly -- the goal.
But the baseball careers of some Cardinal players already will have taken a big turn well before they would visit the Nebraska mecca of college ball. The June 7-8 draft takes place between the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals.
For senior center fielder Fuld, junior left fielder Putnam and other Cardinal players whose baseball futures hang in the balance, the First-Year Player Draft has to weigh on the same minds currently focused on Omaha.
"I'd be lying if I said I haven't been thinking about it," said Putnam, a 5-foot-11, 198-pound left-handed hitter projected to go in the early rounds, perhaps in the first. "It's a door to the rest of my life that could be opening up here, and I'm pretty excited about what's going to be happening.
"It's so nice being on a team that's so focused on winning that it's very easy to lose myself in the game."
It's still a challenge to multitask on such a high level, no doubt. But being on this particular team, which finished 44-12 and achieved the second-most victories in school history, has a way of keeping one's focus where it belongs -- on playing good, sound baseball.
Yet even an ironman collegian like Fuld, who has played the last 249 consecutive Stanford games and is the all-time school and Pac-10 leader in runs scored, has to admit that June can be quite the juggling act for an aspiring student-ballplayer.
"The draft comes at a funny time, because you're right in the mix of playoffs," said Fuld, who is also working towards graduating in June with a bachelor's degree in economics. "But when you're here, your ultimate goal is to get to Omaha. It does come at a tricky time. Obviously, the draft can weigh on your mind, but you really have to focus on separating the two distinct things.
"The way I look at it is if you take care of the team's goals, the individual goals will work out, and that includes the draft."
Fuld and Putnam are two of the key cogs in the Cardinal's offensive machine, as the team's leadoff hitter and cleanup man, respectively. Other probable draftees for Stanford include Donny Lucy, a junior semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award for the nation's top catcher, as well as infielder Jonny Ash, outfielders Chris Carter and Brian Hall and pitchers Mark Jecmen and David O'Hagen.
Fuld, who prepped at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, was drafted in the 24th round by the Cubs last year but chose to return for his senior year. Fuld's numbers for his senior season have skewed down from his previous years in most categories.
"Individually, it's been a pretty frustrating year," said Fuld, whose .280 average in '04 has his career mark at .335. "I have no regrets of coming back here. I knew what I was getting into, coming back as a senior, and I know how the draft works. There were just other things that I had to look forward to coming back here, beyond baseball. The most important thing for me has been the team's success."
An agile center fielder at 5-10, 180 pounds, Fuld remains a sparkplug for the one of the nation's top teams. And Fuld is definitely ready to take it to the next level into professional ball -- after putting his all into the quest for Omaha, of course.
"I want to try my hand," Fuld said. "It's been a lifelong dream, really, to play professional baseball. I just love it too much not to give it a shot."
Putnam shares that dream in a big way.
The San Diego County player of the year in 2001, Putnam starred at Rancho Bernardo High, two years behind current Rangers All-Star third baseman Hank Blalock and one year ahead of Blalock's younger brother, Jake, a fifth-round pick in 2002 by Philadelphia. Putnam burst on the national scene with a huge playoff run last year, which included powerful performances in the CWS.
His junior season was going to be big before it even began. He'd be back on the scouts' lists again this year, excelling not only for Stanford, but as a strong contributor to Team USA's runnerup finish in the Pan Am Games.
"I wanted to do really well, not just for the draft, but just because I wanted to do really well," Putnam said.
Mission accomplished. After putting together another strong season in 2004, batting .388 with 15 homers and 57 RBIs, Putnam makes his intentions once drafted quite clear.
"I'm very ready to play," Putnam said. "I want to get that part of my career going."
But in the meantime, he's focused on doing what he can to help the Cardinal get back to Omaha and return to the Bay Area with the school's third national championship trophy.
Putnam, who extended his hitting streak to a career-high 15 games last weekend and finished off the season hitting safely in 27 of 29 games, knows that one has everything to do with the other.
"The whole point is the draft isn't the end road," Putnam said. "The end road is playing baseball and playing well."
|Sam Fuld has played the last 249 consecutive Stanford games and is the all-time school and Pac-10 leader in runs scored. (David Gonzales)
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.