CORPUS CHRISTI - It's about 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon in the Corpus Christi clubhouse at Whataburger Field when I meet Hooks second baseman Nolan Fontana. Nearby, right fielder Preston Tucker intently watches Southeastern Conference baseball from Columbia, S.C., as the Gamecocks host Alabama.
Fontana and Tucker were teammates at Florida, where they led the Gators to three straight College World Series appearances from 2010-12. Tucker began the 2014 season as a Double-A veteran, posting a .262 average with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs over 60 Hooks games last summer. Fontana spent all of 2013 at High-A Lancaster of the California League, hitting .259/8/60 with 88 runs, 18 doubles, six triples and 16 stolen bases in 104 contests.
Fontana, who's started on a regular basis at the keystone since Enrique Hernandez was promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City April 16, has a rich baseball pedigree. Not only did MLB.com's No. 8 Astros prospect play on two SEC championship teams, but his maternal grandfather is Lew Burdette, who won 203 games over a 16-year major league career, primarily with the Milwaukee Braves (1953-63).
Family shapes us all. Just ask Nolan Fontana. Family and, in Fontana's case, familial competition in a loving, nurturing environment.
There's the positive type of hoo-rah: cheer and excitement. Then there's the good-humored fooling or horseplay. Always good-humored, right? Well… there are those not-so-friendly rivalries.
For Nolan, the youngest of three boys, there was older brother Danny, who played water polo at Florida State. And middle brother Lewis, three years older and an accomplished high school player in his own right at West Orange in Winter Garden, Fla.
"I definitely wouldn't be where I am today without those guys beating up on me when I was younger," Nolan admitted.
He was born into a Florida State clan: parents Elaina and Paul met at FSU.
"Almost my entire family - immediate and extended - went to FSU," Nolan said. "I do have one intelligent (ouch) cousin who wound up at Florida."
But he remembers how supportive his folks were when college decision time arrived.
"They were 100 percent in my corner. Now, my oldest brother and extended family would only wear grey shirts to my college games. No orange and blue for them."
Elaina and Paul's position was consistent with their parenting.
"My dad was always, 'do whatever makes you happy and do it to the best of your ability.'"
It was advice previously offered as Nolan faced decisions about continuing in football, tennis and soccer as a high school sophomore, when he ultimately transitioned to pure baseball athlete.
His induction, adoption and implementation of Paul's credo helped position him favorably to play at Florida and in the SEC, which has placed an average of five clubs in the Baseball America final Top 20 since 2010… including second- and third-place finishes by the Gators in 2011 and 2012.
Some sports fans outside the Deep South pick at the SEC for its provincialism, while many fans of the nation's top football conference revel in it. Fontana's respect for member schools on the baseball diamond is unquestioned.
"There's not much dip in talent. Any conference team you play, no matter where they are in the standings, has good arms, solid defense and guys that can hit. You've got to bring it every day or you'll get it handed to you. The pitching I faced in the SEC definitely helped me as a player."
And Fontana and Tucker keep the SEC close, whether watching a game in the clubhouse or catching up with former teammates and foes from other Texas League teams.
"We see guys from other schools and sometimes there's bitterness here and there," Fontana explained. "Of course, you develop relationships with different players."
What was it like to play with Tucker at Florida? Fontana has a simple answer.
"Not many pitchers wanted to throw to him. It was nice to have him and (All-America catcher Mike) Zunino behind me. My job was to get on base and have them slug me around."
Fontana, the first Florida shortstop to earn All-SEC honors three years running, was selected in the second round by Houston at the 2012 draft. The Astros took Tucker five rounds later.
When you're nine and playing with 12-year-olds, as Fontana did, you're gifted. No one would dispute that. When you're in Double-A baseball - one of the top 1,500 players in the world - you're gifted. But, it takes a commitment level and work ethic often overlooked.
Nolan is in Corpus Christi due in no small part to the fact that overlooking was not an option at the Fontanas.
"My dad told me, 'whatever you do on the field, do it the right way. Play the game hard and respect it. Don't strap up your cleats unless you're going to play it the right way.'"
Then there was his granddad, Burdette, a child of the Great Depression who came from a modest start in Nitro, W.V., and went on to become MVP of the 1957 World Series. A 65-year-old when Nolan was born, Burdette and his daughter's youngest boy were related by more than blood.
"He passed away in February of '07. When I was a little kid I soaked up all the information I could. We had dinner in his back kitchen all the time, just him and me. I don't think he told the same story twice.
"He bled baseball. He talked about it day-in and day-out."
What manager Keith Bodie and Hooks fans know they'll get night-in and night-out is fully committed Nolan Fontana playing the right way.
They're now family, too. And wear all the blue they want.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.