Biertempfel: Pirates' top draft pick Tucker relishes 1st taste of major leagues
My favorite interview during spring training was the few minutes I spent with a guy who was chatty and giddy ... even though he's fully aware he has zero chance of playing in the majors this season.
A first-round draft pick in June, Cole Tucker still is at least three or four years from getting a crack at making the Pirates roster. Last Tuesday, though, the 18-year-old shortstop was a big leaguer for a day.
In the waning days of camp, after many of the players who were there when it opened have been shipped out, the Pirates often bring up minor leaguers to fill out their travel squad. The newbies are sprinkled in as the game goes on, usually playing an inning or two. Sometimes they'll make the long trip to Fort Myers, Kissimmee or Port Charlotte and never leave the dugout.
Just getting a seat on the bus bound for Lakeland was a thrill for Tucker.
“It was exciting, waking up at Pirate City and everyone saying, ‘Hey, you're going to big league camp today,' ” Tucker said, the words spilling out from behind his smile in a rush. “I was like, ‘Oh, I've got to put on a collared shirt and brush my teeth!' I was freaking out.”
For the record, Tucker clarified that he actually brushes his teeth every day. You get the idea. The kid was pretty jazzed.
Tucker watched from the bench for 6 1⁄2 innings while the Pirates knocked around Detroit Tigers left-hander David Price. It was 7-1 in the bottom of the seventh when manager Clint Hurdle told Tucker to take over for Jordy Mercer.
Tucker trotted onto the field with four other replacements: Andrew Lambo and Pedro Florimon, who were battling for the final spot on the Opening Day roster, and fellow minor leaguers Tito Polo and Justin Maffei. Tucker kicked the infield dirt, then paused to look around.
Then he paused another moment. And then another.
“Oh, my gosh, I took like 37 moments to soak it in,” Tucker said, laughing. “I was focused on the game, but I also was looking around thinking, ‘Oh, my God. I started playing baseball in my grandparents' living room and now I'm in a major league game.' It was unbelievable.”
Tucker played at Tigertown last summer in Gulf Coast League games. Rookie ball teams go at it on a bare, hardscrabble field — no fans, no lights, no blaring music during batting practice — stashed behind Joker Marchant Stadium's center field fence.
“I saw a (minor league) game going on there today during batting practice, and I thought, ‘Wow, I've been on that side of the fence, and now I'm on this side. This is definitely way cooler,' ” Tucker said. “This is where you want to be. I'm working my tail off to make sure this can be my office one day and not just chilling on the back fields.”
Tucker fielded one ground ball. He did not get to bat but was pumped after the game just the same.
“You work out, the days are long, and the season gets long in the minor leagues,” Tucker said. “But you know this is waiting for you if you work hard, play well and do all the right things. If you're a good person, good things will happen to you.”
The clubhouse was quickly emptying. Mercer, Andrew McCutchen and the other veterans had showered and left. Clubbies jostled past, hauling equipment to the bus. A few guys picked at a pile of chicken sandwiches on a table in the center of the small room.
Tucker was in no hurry to leave.
“This being my first time, it was pretty nuts. But it also was everything you ever imagine,” Tucker said. “I hear that it's way cooler at PNC Park, Tiger Stadium and in the big leagues. This little taste is something I'll take with me forever. I'll never forget it.”