LOS ANGELES — Cole Tucker, the spindly young man with the shortstop skills and all the hair, and Kyle Stark, the assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, nurse a running gag that has to do with Tucker’s chronic congeniality.
“He says that I see a room full of strangers as an opportunity for a room full of new friends,” Tucker said. “I mean, that’s excessive. But really it is.”
He sort of can’t help himself, he said, not that he would if he could. He likes people too much. Most of them anyway. He’s also having too good a time not to share, not to say hello, not to bring everyone along with him. It’s why a 22-year-old who grew up in Phoenix and, as of a week ago, plays his baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, gathered 20 tickets for Friday night’s game in Los Angeles, his seventh as a big leaguer.
It’d be no fun alone.
The song he’s learning on the guitar is called “Quixoticelixer,” which totally sounds like something he’d master, as it already seems to have mastered him. When a random kid in a marching band strayed near his dugout one day, Tucker borrowed his sticks and expertly rapped out a solo on the snare hanging from the kid’s neck.
The world is just a bigger room filled with people. To some, to him, that means opportunity. His favorite things away from the ballpark, he said, are music, movies and talking, all of which bring people together. When he neared school age and so the decision to send him to kindergarten or keep him home another year, the family opted for a few hours a day of quiet. They tell that story with a smile.
“I was a little too gregarious,” he said with a grin. “I’ve been that way forever. As soon as I learned words, I haven’t shut up since.”
A couple years back, he’d nodded and said hello to another minor-league infielder whenever their teams played. Tucker didn’t know Vladimir Guerrero Jr., just knew of him, like everyone else. He’d said hello, because he says hello to about everyone, and then at the end of last summer they’d become teammates in the Arizona Fall League. They were the left side of the infield for the Surprise Saguaros, a team that Tucker said, “Out-funned the rest of the league,” which was good, because otherwise it was 11-19.
So it was on Friday afternoon here that Cole Tucker wondered what time the Toronto Blue Jays game would be played, and whether it would be on TV, because his pal Vladimir was 2,500 miles away in a full room of his own, having the same sort of day Tucker had had last week, not counting the extra camera or two. The thing about baseball, you’ll always have more ex-teammates than current ones. It’s how the game and time works.
And when he thought of Guerrero standing out there, getting started on this thing, he thought too of the night he bought the UFC fight and opened his doors for all the Saguaros, and of course Guerrero attended, because he was one of them. And he thought of how they all goofed on Guerrero, told him how terrible he was when he was batting .351, how Guerrero laughed with them, how Guerrero wore his name and expectations with such ease and humility.
“It was a blast, man,” Tucker said. “He’s a really good teammate. Got along with everybody. Was just a great guy to have around.”
And the game, well …
“It’s like if you’re playing a video game and you turn the difficulty settings down to their easiest level, that looks like that’s how he’s playing the game,” Tucker said. “His bat to ball skills are insane. He hit the ball harder consistently more than anybody I’ve ever seen. He’d hit a chopper, it’d bounce in front of home plate and bounce all the way into the outfield. And then he’d hit a ball off the wall 300 miles an hour. It’s just a joke, like he’s playing a video game.”
They shared that life for a little while. Tucker actually out-hit him by 19 points and then, months later, when the Pirates experienced a rush of infielder injuries, homered in his first game as a major leaguer. The ball landed between the T and the E in center field, where the hedges spell out PIRATES, and the curtain call carried Tucker onto the warning track, his hand on his chest in thanks.
“Big personality,” Dodgers slugger Cody Bellinger said of Tucker. “He’s got a lot of energy. And he literally loves the game of baseball. I mean, everybody loves the game of baseball, but he really loves it.”
They’ve been buddies since either of them can remember. They played against each other in the Phoenix area. They were teammates some. Now their condominiums in Scottsdale share a wall. And on Friday night they cast sideways glances at each other in their first shared major league game.
“You just gotta have that faith and that thought you’re ready for it,” Tucker said. “Going through the minor leagues is a long, daunting process. It can suck at times. But you know that if you make it through, if you make it to the next level, you get that call, you know you’ve earned it.”
They earn the room, then the people in it.
“We literally dreamed of this moment,” Bellinger said. “I’m so excited for him.”
Yeah, it was going to be a day, another good one, in another big stadium. Cole Tucker would be there, eager to win it over or try again tomorrow. First, though, it was about someone else, getting that taken care of, sharing that. He smiled, held out his hand, said goodbye.
“I wanna see what Vladimir does,” he said.
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