Ray Tucker was among the franchise record 8,707 fans who packed ONEOK Field on Friday evening as the hometown Tulsa Drillers took on the Springfield Cardinals. And by all appearances, that's just what he looked like: a typical fan.
Tucker -- casually dressed, silver-haired and sporting an easy smile -- sat in his regular spot on the second level behind home plate along with his wife and friends. As they laughed and cheered, enjoying the perfect weather, one would never have guessed that Tucker wielded a power that, in this context, was formidable indeed. The postgame fireworks, an attraction that surely had gone a long way toward filling the ballpark to capacity, weren't going to happen until he said so.
That's because Tucker is the special agent in charge.
Yes, that really is his job title, but to understand what that means and how it relates to Texas League pyrotechnics takes a little bit of explaining. Let's start with ONEOK Field's location, in Tulsa's historic Greenwood district. Railroad tracks lie just beyond the outfield, and these are no mere relics of an industrial past. Freight company BNSF Railways runs 40 or more trains a day past the stadium, as part of a sprawling route that originates in Los Angeles and stretches to Atlanta. Most of these are so-called merchandise trains, filled with myriad consumer goods that will soon fill the shelves of department stores nationwide.
The Drillers, meanwhile, shoot their fireworks from centerfield, just in front of the tracks. It would be very dangerous (not to mention illegal) to do this while a train is hurtling through the area, as coal-powered modes of transportation simply do not mix well with Class B explosives.
And here, finally, is where Tucker comes in. He is a BNSF railroad police officer, the "special agent in charge" of an area that he describes as "the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, parts of Kansas and southern Missouri." Since ONEOK Field opened in 2010, he has been attending Drillers' fireworks nights on a volunteer basis, serving as a point man between team staff and BNSF. He was recruited to do so by Drillers promotions manager Mike Taranto, and despite their disparate backgrounds and age (Tucker -- right below -- is old enough to be Taranto's father, and then some) the two have become friends.
"It's been great. Ray isn't a huge sports fan -- his wife is more into the games than he is," said Taranto. "But we've been able to build this relationship with the Drillers, and it's all on a volunteer basis. We just set them up with tickets and a wristband [for free food]. They get to come, hang out, eat and watch the game."
Not a bad exchange, really. The role Tucker performs is vital, but it doesn't require too much work.
"By law, the fireworks have to stop if a trains coming by. So I coordinate with the railroad, and they decide whether to slow the trains down or speed them up," said Tucker.
And Tucker, in turn, relays this information to Taranto. If the coast is clear, so to speak, the fireworks will soon light up the night sky. Sometimes Taranto and his promotions staff must find ways to stall until a train has safely passed by, however, and in the past this has led to delays of up to 20 minutes. So if you've ever been at a Drillers game, excited for fireworks, and instead had to endure a postgame launch-a-ball contest that was stretched to interminable lengths ... well, just blame it on the train.
It was a show worthy of the record-breaking occasion, highlighted by a short but high-impact finale in which the overlapping fireworks blanketed seemingly every inch above the stadium. With smoke in the air, the sellout crowd cheering, and the lights yet to be turned back on, Tucker leaped down from his dugout perch with a big smile across his face.
"And the trains are now running!" he said.