His pact doesn't alter the grind he must endure to become a ballplayer
March 11, 2012 9:00 AM
Gerrit Cole, left, at work in the bullpen this week, part of the slow, daily grind toward becoming the ballplayer he wants to be and that the Pirates envisioned when they selected him No. 1 overall out of UCLA in the June draft.
Signing day in August for Gerrit Cole at PNC Park.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Gerrit Cole.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The days are slow here. They call it a grind, rising with the bright orange sun to the east and emerging each morning into the rhythms of the baseball life, where consistency is often the greatest virtue.
It will get easier for Gerrit Cole to adjust to the new pace, but now it feels foreign. The past six years have been a rush -- from radar-gun-breaking high school fireballer to Friday night starter at UCLA to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Pirates -- and Cole's talent has carried him the whole way. Quick, explosive bursts of energy have defined him, not the daily repetition that eventually earns a man the label of "ballplayer."
Cole's top priority during his first major-league camp has been simply to blend in -- "I've tried so hard," he said -- but Wednesday there would be no hiding in the shadows of the clubhouse at McKechnie Field.
At 10 a.m., scouts and fans gathered around Field 1 at Pirate City, where Cole's big right arm was unveiled for two innings during the team's intrasquad "B" game. His parents, Mark and Sharon, were watching, too, having made the trip from southern California.
As Cole matched wits with professional hitters, his father, donning a blue UCLA cap, moved from spot to spot, carrying a pen and a notepad, charting his son's pitches.
"He hasn't done that in awhile," Sharon Cole said.
She stood stationary to the left side of home plate, wearing sunglasses and a black visor and wincing with each ball or strike call. The Coles never have sought the attention that their son has brought them. His mother just loves watching him pitch. She thinks it's exciting.
Nothing was on the line as Cole stared in to throw the 11th pitch of an at-bat against Pirates utility player Jake Fox, yet the moment still seemed urgent. Cole already had broken two of Fox's bats, but Fox, who has played in 193 major-league games during the past five seasons, had presented a formidable foe by fouling off numerous offerings from the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander. No doubt, like most in the Pirates clubhouse, Fox wanted to show the young guy a thing or two about being a professional.
"No. 1 picks, those guys are always held to a different standard," Fox said. "Whether it's jealousy, people need to feel like they've learned their place. I don't know what it is."
Oh, it's pretty clear what it is.
"They call me 'Bonus Baby,' 'Money Bags,' '7.5,' even though that doesn't make sense because it's not 7.5," Cole said.
The actual amount of Cole's signing bonus was $8 million -- a record for the Pirates and a number that will stalk him for the rest of his career. The Pirates believe Cole, who is 21, will evolve into a frontline innings-eater, but, until that happens, the whispers will be there.
"This guy's the No. 1 pick," a fan pointed out Wednesday.
"Overall," another emphasized.
When Cole got his sign from catcher Ramon Cabrera to throw a 3-2 fastball to Fox, his mother understood the larger context of the count her son will face every time he takes the mound.
"You just have to tune it out," she said. "It's a lot of pressure, don't you think?"
Cole reared back and tried to pop the inside corner. He missed. Ball four.
"That was a great at-bat," Mark Cole said. "I'm sorry he lost him."
"That's the way it is in this game," Sharon Cole said. "There's a winner and a loser."
Gunning toward the limelight
The No. 1 overall pick has not been kind to pitchers over the years, and Pirates fans understand the pitfalls more than most.
In 2002, they drafted righthander Bryan Bullington of Ball State as the draft's top selection, and he briefly pitched in the majors for the Pirates. He won just one game in his career and is pitching for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan. The Pirates also took righthander Kris Benson No. 1 overall out of Clemson in 1996. He won 43 games for the Pirates, 70 total and would be known more for his buxom wife, Anna, than any pitch he ever threw.
During the past three decades, of the 11 pitchers selected No. 1 overall, only two -- Andy Benes (1988) and Tampa Bay's David Price (2007) -- have made an All-Star team.
When Cole got the call from Pirates general manager Neal Huntington June 6, he was in a restaurant surrounded by family and friends. Cole quietly slipped out to answer the phone without being noticed, and Huntington gave him the good news.
"I didn't know what to say," Cole said. "I think I said like four words maybe. Just repeated them over and over again."
In that moment, Cole wasn't thinking about the weighty expectations that had just been bestowed on him. And he wasn't afraid of having a target because he'd been living with one for what seemed like forever.
His coaches at Orange Lutheran High in Orange, Calif., had done a good job of keeping Cole off the grid as he threw 45 innings without giving up a run his sophomore year pitching for the junior varsity. But, in his junior season, it was impossible to protect him from the spotlight after he reached 94 mph in a varsity game. From there, Cole's was a steady progression from unknown to one of the most-coveted players in the country.
In the summer of 2007, Cole pitched in a showcase event for the game's best prep prospects. He had gotten into the habit of throwing for the radar guns, and it was only natural that his parents became interested in their readings as well. They'd started a tradition of making Cole's younger sister, Erin, plop herself down in the middle of the scouts behind home plate. She'd spend the game putting up fingers to show her parents how fast Gerrit had registered.
That day, her brother hit 96. All the scouts immediately picked up their cell phones and dialed their bosses. Apparently, 96 represented something important to major-league baseball teams.
"She heard one say, 'I don't know who this Cole is, but he just hit 96,' " Mark Cole said. "We just laughed."
The hysteria reached a new high for Cole's first start of his senior season. When he went to the bullpen to warm up before the game, about 50 scouts were waiting on him.
"It was awkward," Cole said. "That caught me way off guard. I was rattled. You just don't know what to think. You throw a pitch and people write stuff down and you're like, 'What could that possibly mean? I'm warming up.' "
Sharon Cole wondered how her son could concentrate, and the answer was, he couldn't. He was just winging it and hoping for the best. Later that season, Cole hit 101 on the gun, and, within a few minutes, word had circulated among those in attendance.
"In southern California, there's so much to do, you don't get crowds of any kind at a high school baseball game," said Ed Deese, Cole's pitching coach at Orange Lutheran. "We were getting hundreds of people to Gerrit's starts, way more than our stands could hold."
In June 2008, the New York Yankees took Cole with the 28th pick of the first round. But Cole had been raised by his parents to want a college education, so he stuck with his commitment to UCLA and turned down millions. It was now up to Cole and UCLA coach John Savage to make that decision pay off three years later.
Savage didn't waste any time testing Cole, giving him the role of Friday night starter as a freshman. In college baseball, three-game series are played most weekends, so winning Friday night is imperative.
"I kind of just blacked out before starts and just went out there and threw," Cole said. "I don't know what I was thinking. You just compete, man."
Cole led the Bruins to the College World Series in 2010, going 11-4 with a 3.37 ERA and striking out 152 batters in 123 innings. By the end of his junior year, he was projected as one of the top prospects in the country.
"It's not easy to go into college as a first-rounder and come out as the first pick," Savage said. "He is used to a lot of pressure, and I think he's handled it as well as a guy can possibly handle it."
On draft day, after hanging up with Huntington, Cole went back into the restaurant and didn't say a word about it. He wanted his family to see his name flash on the TV in real time, so he just sat back and watched the oncoming celebration unfold.
"I just smiled and was happy," Cole said. "So happy."
Moving to the minors
Cole wanted to just be one of the guys this spring, but the reality is that he wouldn't have been in major league camp if he wasn't special.
Cole is unlikely to pitch in the majors this year and very well might not the year after. The Pirates don't want to rush him, but they did want him to be around guys like A.J. Burnett, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton to see how they conducted their business. Certainly, there is much to learn for Cole, who was the only player in major-league camp with no experience.
"You stick out like a sore thumb," Cole said, "because you're so green."
Cole hasn't pitched in a regular spring training game, but he has been responsible for all the rookie duties, making sure that water is provided for the Pirates at all times during and after drills.
"He's been like a little church mouse," Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. "He's kept his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open."
Searage knows what he has in Cole, and he knows the history of pitchers who have been No. 1 overall picks. Searage has not addressed that label with Cole.
"No, because I didn't want to bring it to the forefront," Searage said. "He has enough on his plate as it is. If you bring it up, all of a sudden it starts to be an issue."
Thursday morning, Cole arrived at the McKechnie Field clubhouse expecting to spend the day working out while others took a bus to play the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater. But he was met by an invitation from Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and Searage to have a talk in Hurdle's office. Cole walked in, and the black door closed behind him.
About 10 minutes later, Cole exited, walked to his locker and began packing his Pirates duffel bag with equipment. He knew his time with the big leaguers eventually would end, and he handled the news he had been reassigned to minor-league camp at Pirate City with brevity.
"It's been real," he said, shaking hands with the players in the clubhouse. "I got fired. It's all right."
Two Pirates employees met Cole at his locker with a cart to escort his stuff out of McKechnie. A half-hour later, Cole pulled into the parking lot at Pirate City and carried a crate and a bag into his new clubhouse, where prospects sat watching TV before the day's work began.
"I'm fired, guys," Cole said.
They chuckled at Cole, who occupied a spot in a row of lockers near the back of the clubhouse. A few minutes later, Cole was alone, and his freckly, boyish face betrayed his earlier attempts at humor.
"That's the first time I've ever been cut from a team," he said.
Now Cole was just one of several hundred minor leaguers in the Pirates system.
In place of the No. 75 jersey that featured "COLE" on his back during major-league camp was a nameless No. 81.
His new teammates were out on Field 3, doing stretching exercises, and Cole jogged out to join them.
They ran in waves, a sea of yellow moving on green and, disappearing into the group, Gerrit Cole was finally blending in just fine.
Better than the rest?
Gerrit Cole is the 11th pitcher taken by the Pirates in the first round of the draft since their run of losing began in 1993. A look at the previous 10, with their major league numbers: