Tucker Taking Option to Indianapolis in Stride

Tribe shortstop eager to build on strong big-league finish

Shortstop Cole Tucker is back with the Indians after a 38-game stint in the big leagues with Pittsburgh. (Photo by Austin Friedline)

By Mike Lopresti / Indianapolis Indians | June 12, 2019 8:44 PM

Cole Tucker is smiling. That's not exactly news because Cole Tucker smiling was about as common a sight around Victory Field earlier this spring as rain in the forecast. But consider the subject matter.

He is discussing his recent road in baseball, which led him to his dream of a major league debut in Pittsburgh but boomeranged back to Indianapolis after seven weeks. Up, and then down. It happens. Triple-A baseball is a continuously operating Ferris wheel. A lot of guys don't smile about it on the way back, and let us be clear, Tucker would much rather still be in PNC Park. But he won't allow much to rain on his parade, as we shall soon see.

One reminder, first. Tucker is still only 22 years old. That needs mentioning, because he can sound older, not to mention wiser.

So, really, how hard is it to be sunny when the journey hits a curve?

"We're just playing baseball and talking about it," he begins. "The game is hard, but handling it, and just being me and talking to people, it's not that difficult. It's the best thing in the world.

"I've been brought up and been around a ton of really good people that have looked out for me and shaped my life and made me who I am. At the end of the day, I'm a baseball player, and that's the coolest thing ever. I have a unique perspective, I know that, but I'm having a blast every step of the way."

He opened the season with the Indians as one of the Pirates' most renowned prospects. His first 13 games in an Indy uniform did not disappoint - a .333 average, seven hits for extra bases, seven RBI, five stolen bases. Plus, there was the personality that could light up Victory Field if the power ever failed. Then came the night of April 19. Let him describe it.

"Crazy. You're here, in the lineup against Louisville, you play the game and go back to your hotel room, you get in bed, you think you're playing tomorrow against Louisville. I get a call from (manager Brian Esposito). `Hey man, you're going to Pittsburgh, you're hitting leadoff tomorrow against the Giants.'

"So it happens fast. `Hey mom and dad, get here, I'm going to Pittsburgh.' A dream come true. It's the coolest feeling ever, getting to go to the big leagues, especially that first time, because you work your whole life for that opportunity. You get it, you can feel it, you can hold onto it, it's unbelievable."

The call came after midnight. He had to be at the airport for the flight to Pittsburgh just after 5 a.m. He was awake all night thinking of his future, near and far, too wired to nod off. Yes, that means the man played the first major league game of his life on…

"No sleep. Just like you draw it up, right?"

But in his third at-bat that evening, he was awake enough to send a Derek Holland pitch 431 feet into the centerfield hedges at PNC Park. What a way to say hello to the bigs. "It was just the culmination of all the hard work, and all the practices and games and tournaments and workouts you had gone through to get to that point. It all really felt like it was worth it in that moment."

Mementos from the occasion? "The ball, the lineup card, everything."

Tucker thrived as a Pirate. For a while. But the game giveth and the game taketh away, and that goes double for rookies. May was a disaster at the plate. Tucker was still exemplary at shortstop - he would make one error in 116 chances as a Pirate - but the bat went mute, and his playing time decreased.

There was another golden moment, when he homered on his return home to Arizona, with 400 friends and family in the stands. "Every time I came up I got a standing ovation. I felt like the homecoming king. I wasn't hitting very well, and to do that in the stadium where I grew up watching games and falling in love with baseball, in front of everyone that I loved and cared about, it was really sweet."

But by the 28th of the month, he was hitting .097 for May. Nothing sweet about that.

"It's discouraging, it's terrible, it stinks to face adversity. You want to play really well all the time, but that's not how the game goes. I got punched in the mouth a little bit there. It is discouraging because you know you're this good player and you know you belong at that level and you know you can have success. It's just like anything else, you have to make adjustments. I've never faced adversity like that."

So he did make an adjustment, saying he got himself into a more athletic position to hit. The next six games, he went 7-for-14, but the Pirates had decided he needed some regular playing time in Indy and put this prospect back in the Triple-A oven for a little more baking.

Was he mad at the Pirates, at fate, at his bat, at himself? Nah. He did what his grounded attitude told him to do -- worked to get better, and asked for help.

"You'd be a fool to just sit there in misery and think, I hope this goes away. It'd be like getting sick and not going to the doctor. But I have full confidence in who I am as a baseball player. You see it as stretch and not an eternity. You don't get drafted and move through the minor leagues and have a ton of success and be a prospect the whole way through and get to the big leagues and suddenly think, I'm no good anymore. You fight through it, just like anything else."

Which is why the mini-hot streak before being sent down meant a lot. "It's cool to come back here with a good taste in your mouth. From what it sounds like, they've got a ton of confidence in me, and I have a ton in confidence in myself, that I'm going to go back and there'll be more of those 7-for-14's."

Besides, he has done a little studying of baseball history.

"It can happen to anybody. No one's immune. Mike Trout got sent down and you look at his numbers, he's maybe the best player to ever play the game. Adrian Beltre, the guy who just got his number retired by the Rangers, he was terrible his first year in the big leagues. Everybody faces some adversity. Everyone's journey is different, this one is mine."

So here he is, eager to play, eager to learn, eager to get back.

"The hunger is still there like it was before. But now it's different because you know what you're missing out on. You know how awesome it all is. You can sit here and sulk and think, `I'm not in the big leagues, I was there and now I'm a has-been.' That's not how it is.

"I think I'm still the same-ish guy. I've got a different viewpoint or outlook now, just based on being in the major leagues. But I still think I'm the same style of player. I think I'm still a good, exciting shortstop. I feel like the sky's the limit for me. I'm just excited to play tonight and see how things go the rest of the year, and the rest of my life."

This is where the Indians staff comes in.

"The first thing we do is get his thoughts and see where he's at," hitting coach Ryan Long said. "Reality-wise, just see what he's learned, see what the game taught him while he was up there…get him to re-commit, re-focus, re-lock in on his approach from a simplistic standpoint, because things speed up on you up there."

The adjustment Tucker made? "My first instincts in seeing it is he's definitely in a better position to hit," said Long, who is anxious to watch Tucker get some at-bats to find out more.

One thing Long is sure about: "There's no doubt in any of our minds that he'll handle himself and do the things he needs to do to get back there. He's that kind of kid, he's that kind of worker."

Long credits Tucker's upbringing by two parents who understand sports. Father Jackie was an infielder in the St. Louis farm system and played pro ball in Europe and Canada. Mother Erin played both volleyball and track at the University of Arizona. Surely, there must be something from each in their son.

"Besides just genetics?" he says. "My parents are unbelievable hard workers. The ability to love something and work at something every day was instilled in me at a young age.

"It just happened to be baseball."

So now he is in Indianapolis, and not Pittsburgh. But it's baseball, and that is why Cole Tucker smiles.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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