OMAHA, Neb. – Gerrit Cole held a sign proclaiming himself a "Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever," from the front row of Bank One Ballpark during the 2001 World Series. He was 11 years old, and the moment was captured in a newspaper photo. Seven years later the Yankees took note.
Cole threw 98 mph for a Southern California high school and on draft day 2008 the Yankees took him with their first pick, the 28th overall. Fairy-tale ending? Might be, but in a different way than anticipated.
UCLA will open the best-of-three College World Series finals against South Carolina on Monday with Gerrit Cole on the mound. Of course he still dreams of pitching in the big leagues, preferably for his beloved New York Yankees. But Cole took a detour, ignoring a signing bonus likely worth several million dollars to instead attend college. The decision shocked the baseball world – no first-round pitcher had failed to sign in seven years – but he has benefited.
From a quality of life standpoint, he is attending one of the nation's top institutions of higher learning instead of spending his days bouncing along backwaters in a bus en route to the next mind-numbing minor league game.
From a competitive standpoint, he is on the brink of helping secure UCLA's first NCAA baseball championship, taking the mound at Rosenblatt Stadium with an 11-3 record, 3.23 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 116 innings.
And from a financial standpoint, he is projected to go higher in the 2011 draft, possibly in the top three picks. A major league general manager estimated Cole could be in line for a signing bonus of at least $8 million, a significant hike from the $3 million the Yankees might have paid him.
Delaying gratification is a sign of maturity, ironic considering some observers felt Cole was immature and overly emotional at Orange Lutheran High School. A few scouts said he would rag opposing teams, throw a fit when he didn't like an umpire's call and even snap at teammates for mistakes. Other scouts, however, said Cole was misunderstood because of his emotional nature and actually was quite mature and the consummate team player.
"I wear my emotions on my sleeves and I still express my feelings throughout the game," he said. "But I've done a better job of fine-tuning that and reining it in to where I'm not feeding energy toward the team and not taking anything away from anybody."
Exhibiting class in defeat was never an issue. After Shane Boras, the son of agent Scott Boras, broke up Cole's no-hitter in the seventh and final inning of a high school game, Cole sought out Shane and shook his hand. Scott later became Cole's paid legal advisor – allowed under NCAA rules – and is likely to serve as his agent after next year's draft.
Concerns about Cole's makeup have dissolved during the two years spent in coach John Savage's team-first UCLA culture. He can't finish a sentence without lauding his Bruin brethren.
"This is the kind of environment I wanted to experience when I decided to come to UCLA," Cole said. "I wanted to take this in, get [to Omaha] with my teammates and compete for a national championship. This fraternity, this brotherhood, you gain an appreciation for it. The guys who don't get to play are every bit as important as the guys on the field. We are all pulling the rope in the same direction."
Cole hasn't exactly become stoic when pitching. He gets fired up. But the direction of his passion is purely positive.
"Gerrit wants to win, and that comes through," said teammate and former roommate Tyler Rahmatulla. "He knows how to channel it. He loves being part of this team."
Afterward, when the emotions recede, Cole becomes analytical. In a routine he developed in high school with his father, he rated his arm's soreness and stiffness every day on a scale of 1 to 10 and scrupulously logged it. When Cole arrived at UCLA, his father, Mark, handed Savage a bound folder with charts chronicling every pitch, every bullpen and every post-workout evaluation from the previous four years.
The Coles were similarly analytical when it came to deciding whether Gerrit would sign with the Yankees or attend UCLA. They used spreadsheets and graphs to determine the probabilities of high school right-handed pitchers vs. college right-handed pitchers making the big leagues and lasting long enough to reach free agency. They calculated injury risk.
"We took measurements and weighed variables," Mark Cole said, "all in a very unemotional way. We included the value of academics and did some financial planning."
The family verdict was unanimous: UCLA, here he comes.
The Coles went to the Yankees and asked that they not even make an offer. "We just wanted to be honest with them and not go through the motions," Mark said. "We said, ‘We appreciate the opportunity, but if we were to entertain a discussion of finances, it would give you the impression you had a shot.' "
Boras, in his role as advisor, backed the decision, which was in keeping with his counsel to many other top high school pitchers who went to college and elevated their draft position: Alex Fernandez, Jeff Weaver, Jered Weaver, Mike Pelfrey, Max Scherzer and, most recently, Matt Harvey, who was drafted seventh overall three weeks ago by the Mets after going 118th overall out of high school.
The Yankees were privately taken aback. They'd planned to offer Cole as much as three times the slot signing bonus for a 28th pick, figuring that as a lifelong fan (both of his parents grew up in New York), he would be enamored by the team's aura as well as the dollar signs. Furthermore, Cole had grown up worshiping pitcher Phil Hughes, a neighbor who was working his way up the Yankees' farm system.
None of it was a match for the spreadsheets.
"A player and his family made a life choice here about what's best for their son," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said at the time. "We never got to the negotiations. They made a decision, and it was different than we would have expected based on where we were when we [picked him]. Obviously, you wouldn't have selected him if you knew they were thinking this way."
The little boy holding the sign had grown up enough to defer instant riches and pursue a college education, college camaraderie and the chance to win a college championship. Any more questions about maturity?
"I was a Yankees fan as a kid, no doubt," Cole said. "I still am. But from the time I was maybe in junior high I also had a dream to play in the College World Series. Then being around this team, it's been about day-to-day enjoyment, celebrating baseball and our time with one another. I'm extremely happy with how it's turned out."